South Africa from black and white to color

Exhibit poster, Frames of Change

In Paris, the end of the summer exhibits seems to coincide with la rentreé, the return, when schoolchildren go back to the classroom and adults face another work year. Graeme Williams’s extensive exhibit of South African photos, “Frames of Change,” has just ended at the Agence VU’ gallery in central Paris. I am getting pretty good at slipping into these monumental events at the last minute, and I will tuck away this discovery for future visits: come before the end of August, then stay past the first half of September for the new shows. (Oh well — too late for that this time.) 

Graeme Williams is a prolific photographer whose life was changed by a London concert in 1988 in support of imprisoned political leader Nelson Mandela, who people said was soon to be freed. Williams had been doing geology in Europe — now he decided he must return to his own country and see what was happening. He got a job with Reuters, having never done news photography, because they desperately needed someone in the Johannesburg office.  Thus began (well, for the sake of this narrative) an extraordinary artistic journey, in which Williams’s photography has morphed and expanded to reflect the South Africa he loves and fears for. 

“Frames of Change” was organized in five clusters, though not chronologically. In the first, above ground VU’ gallery, the viewer entered one of the more recent collections of Williams’s South African work, “Painting Over the Present.” The quilt used on the exhibit poster, taken in 2011, is part of that display. What Williams does brilliantly is take a grim and stark landscape and make it beautiful, not to “paint over” the missing amenities, the shocking human poverty, but to reflect the landscape — without people — as still a stage of hope as well as political failure. There is a large splotch of color in each photograph (I almost wrote “painting”), as in the quilt flapping on the line. Here is another from that series: 



Copyright Graeme Williams

 Though there are no humans in these photographs, they hover behind the walls or on the verge of return — their projects are not complete, the washing not taken down, the wall paint fresh.

Down the ramp into the lower galleries, the viewer first encountered humans in “The Edge of Town,” a set of photos taken between 2004 and 2007. This was my own favorite group. Each photo is a collage, composed cleverly and with much love, it seems. Sometimes the collage elements are given in the landscape, because the subjects have painted or decorated their surroundings with color and fabric. Sometimes they are brilliantly found collages, as with this one:

Copyright Graeme Williams

This treatment of his subjects typifies Williams. The juxtaposition of the mannikin and the woman does not dehumanize the woman, but makes her cloud hair even more miraculous and, well, lovely. These are photos taken VERY close to their subjects, and the people are often shown in fragments, not suggesting dismemberment, but suggesting how very proximate is the photographer. 

The next gallery, “Marking Time,” takes us back out to the spare South African land, made barren not by its own qualities but by the abandoned fragments of human built structures scattered about.

Copyright Graeme Williams

 Williams finds that these remnants of human projects speak of the future as well as the past (and that in fact becomes even more evident in parts of his oeuvrenot represented in this show, but searchable on the web). 

The last two galleries, “The Inner City” and “In da City,” though sharing part of a name and thus maybe a theme, are very different. “The Inner City,” consisting of photos taken between 1989 and 1998, shows Williams’s black and white work in Johannesburg in the years just after he returned to South Africa. There are influences here that I’m guessing at: Diane Arbus, Weegee, Robert Frank. I don’t find the photos derivative at all, I hasten to add. I mention these names because Williams has created a world in transition, a dark world in some ways (the black and white style does that), but with subjects not really in conflict, at least in the camera’s viewfinders, but rather wandering toward some kind of modus vivendi. There are blacks and whites, sitting in uneasy closeness to one another. There are some odd people pictured here (in this photo you can see the Arbus/Weegee combo, I think):

Copyright Graeme Williams

This is not a high quality reproduction, by the way. Here is one that represents a different part of this set — uneasy, confrontational, yet with one black subject smiling even as another blocks the camera — one is not sure if these men are being playful or firm.

Copyright Graeme Williams

The white policeman looks bemused rather than hostile. 

The final segment of the exhibit, “In da City,” is the most troubling, to me the least rewarding, but it does sound a jarring note of warning. Photos taken in Johannesburg in 2012 depict a city center that has been abandoned not just by white people but by all people. The notes for the exhibit explain that it is now a very dangerous place and that Williams needed a bodyguard for security while he took his photos. There are only two (as I recall) photos with people in them, and this time the fragments do not suggest nearness but rather alienation. The photos are mostly, deliberately, blurred and abstract: architectural studies far more forlorn and empty than the human-less landscape photos of “Painting over the Present.” Here is one with people that he chose for this exhibit:

Copyright Graeme Williams

Williams’s generous presence on the web (in this interview, for example, and through his Facebook page), and the accessibility of his portfolio there, make it obvious that there are photos in “In da City” of guns and faces and humans in conflict — they are just not represented in this exhibit.

Here is the man himself. Oh — look up his frolicking dog pictures on the web. They too are terrific.

Graeme Williams


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