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Members' Research Report Archive

Past Black and White: The Color of Photography in South Africa, 1994–2004

Leslie Wilson [University of Chicago]
Twenty-Four-Month Chester Dale Fellow, 2015–2017


David Goldblatt, Berg-en-Dal Monument. Dalmanutha, Mpumalanga. December 1983. Courtesy of the artist

Reviewing David Goldblatt’s exhibition Structures Here (1985), art critic and University of the Witwatersrand drama professor John Van Zyl homed in on the anomalous inclusion of a single color photograph amid black-and-white prints. Walking his readers through the exhibition, Van Zyl described compelling images of structures that evidenced what life was like in South Africa in the time of baaskap, or white domination. These included honorific monuments to apartheid-era leadership, Dutch Reformed churches, Ndebele houses of worship, and forced removals in District Six and Crossroads Township in Cape Town. “Then there is that coloured print,” Van Zyl declared. “Why? Quite simple, it shows that Fascist monuments look even worse in colour, especially when there is a purple and white artificial posy in the foreground.” For Van Zyl, instead of prettifying a monument implicated in white nationalism, Goldblatt’s exceptional color photograph aptly emphasized its garishness.

Fourteen years later, Goldblatt embarked on his first long-term photographic series entirely produced in color, Intersections. Not alone in exploring more possibilities for color, Goldblatt (b. 1930)—along with younger artists predominantly associated with socially concerned work in black and white, such as Santu Mofokeng (b. 1956), Gideon Mendel (b. 1959), and Guy Tillim (b. 1962)—experimented with making color photographs for personally directed projects in the 1990s and early 2000s. Somewhere between wholeheartedly embracing color and emphatically rejecting it, photographers produced work that demonstrated a more open field for photographic practice at the beginning of the twenty-first century, closely tied to South Africa’s democratic turn. In addition to incorporating different techniques—including digital photography—their work, and lens-based media more generally, were increasingly featured in exhibitions in national and international museums and galleries, coming to be viewed as the country’s preeminent contemporary art form.

With an interest in the changing conditions for photographic production, the status of black-and-white and color photography as art, and the politics of form in South Africa’s nascent democratic era, my dissertation examines projects by Mofokeng, Mendel, Goldblatt, and Tillim to consider the shifting terrain for photography after apartheid. Works by these photographers provide significant insight into how black and white and color function across photographic genres and how form relates to photographic meaning and political efficacy.  Demonstrating new possibilities for the medium in the post-apartheid era—with particular attention to nuance, subtlety, and complexity—their projects unsettled traditional categories of photographic practice inside and outside the museum. My project shows that these veteran photographers blurred traditional boundaries, from photojournalism to documentary to art, with implications reaching far beyond South Africa’s borders.

My dissertation’s case studies locate contemporary South Africa as a place of high-stakes debates over and approaches to visual representation that makes claims to art, activism, and social commentary. In the ongoing project Chasing Shadows (1996–2006), Mofokeng has explored the effects of black and white in low light to represent sites of spiritual practice and devotion. Through spectral blurs and dark shadows, the photographs interrogate the associations of black and white with truth and the limits of representing human experience. Aiming to convey the dignity of his photographic subjects, Mendel used black and white to represent aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the series titled A Broken Landscape: HIV and AIDS in Africa, exhibited at the South African National Gallery and published as a book in 2001. Mendel’s project debuted just after photographers such as Chris Ledochowski (b. 1956) and Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1960) made assertive claims for the dignifying potential of highly saturated color photography in South Africa’s townships; I consider these competing notions of the dignified image on the brink of Mendel’s subsequent turn to color. With Intersections, Goldblatt sought ways to photograph South Africa’s changed landscape as a post-apartheid nation, finding color technology much improved and expressing less anxiety than in his earlier work that color’s association with lyricism might override social commentary. Last, Tillim’s sojourn in Johannesburg’s inner city resulted in Jo’burg (2004), an exhibition and a book featuring muted color photographs of vulnerable black residents in substandard housing that present an opportunity to reflect on a subtle, elegiac treatment of the urban environment.

While at CASVA, I composed my dissertation’s introduction, tracing the development and popularization of color photography in South Africa. Premised on the notion of “fixing the rainbow,” the introduction reveals how apartheid society shaped individual access to photographic tools and techniques as well as approaches to representing subject matter. I discuss the technical challenges facing early enthusiasts trying to “fix,” or retain, lasting color prints in colonial South Africa. I also consider “fix” in its meaning as a corrective, to examine how photographers and viewers associated color with particular politically transformative potential. The project becomes a platform for exploring shifting attitudes to black-and-white and color photography, especially their affective and ethical associations, notions of their appropriateness for specific subject matter, and their roles in shaping public attitudes and in determining racial and social classifications.