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Abstract

My dissertation investigates photographic series by Santu Mofokeng (b. 1956), Gideon Mendel (b. 1959), David Goldblatt (b. 1930), and Guy Tillim (b. 1962) that deeply influenced the production, style, and display of color photography in South Africa after apartheid’s official end, 1994-2004. During this time of dramatic social and political transformation, these photographers expressed misgivings that the activist images of the prior era presented an incomplete view of life in South Africa—focusing on extreme moments of violence and clichéd scenes of protest at the expense of nuance, subtlety, and complexity. Well-known for politically progressive, black-and-white documentary-style photography, they increasingly experimented with color for personal projects in the 1990s-2000s. Their new explorations revealed a mix of anxiety, excitement, and ambivalence about color that informs ongoing discussions about the roles of photography inside and outside of South Africa. In this project, I position this experimentation with photographic form—in this case, color photography—as a way that photographers found a new direction with the medium, but I argue that in doing so, they muddied distinctions between art, reportage, and documentary practices. In this way, South Africa in the post-apartheid era provides a rich, complex example through which to explore the links between photographic practice and technologies, visual forms, and ideology. My dissertation’s introduction traces the development and popularization of color photography in South Africa. Premised on the notion of “fixing the rainbow,” it addresses 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 thus 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. The project’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 project Chasing Shadows, (1996-2006) Mofokeng 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 photography with truth and the limits of visually representing human experience. Aiming to convey the dignity of his photographic subjects, Mendel used black-and-white photographs 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 photography for his subsequent series addressing HIV/AIDS. With Intersections (2005), Goldblatt sought 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. Lastly, Tillim’s sojourn in Johannesburg’s inner city resulted in Jo’burg, (2004) as an exhibition and a book featuring muted color photographs of vulnerable black residents in substandard housing. The project served as an elegiac meditation on the urban environment after South Africa’s first decade of democracy. 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 in ways that shed light on emerging lens-based art in South Africa. 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.

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