Race and the lens
Photo: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin
To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, the title of an exhibition that just opened at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank points audiences to the sordid racist past of photographic science.
The show includes two related opuses by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin.
The two lensmen seek to interrogate the radical notion that prejudice might be inherent in the medium of photography itself, as the show’s statement text declares.
The collaborative project by the two London-based artists is premised on two nuggets of history.
In 1970, Caroline Hunter, a young chemist working for the Polaroid Corporation, accidentally discovered evidence that her multinational employers were indirectly supporting the South African apartheid regime.
Through the collusion of Frank & Hirsch, their local distributors, Polaroid was able to provide the ID-2 camera system to the South African state to efficiently produce images for the infamous dompas (passbooks).
The camera included a boost button designed to increase the flash when photographing dark-skinned subjects.
These here were the repressed black people in South Africa.
Along with her partner, Ken Williams, they formed the Polaroid Workers’ Revolutionary Movement and campaigned for a boycott.
The second contentious nugget is the fact that early colour film was known to be predicated on white skin.
The artists’ statement also note that in 1977, when Jean-Luc Godard, the French-Swiss film maker, was to go on an assignment in Mozambique, he famously refused to use Kodak film on the grounds that the film stock was inherently “racist’’.
Hence it was only in the 1980s that Kodak finally developed new film stock with the capabilities to accurately render dark skin.
The title of Broomberg and Chanarin’s exhibition – To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light – was originally the coded phrase used by Kodak to describe their new black skin-accommodating technology.
So much baggage will weigh on the minds of audiences as they contemplate these new works produced on salvaged Polaroid ID-2 systems.
The works on show includes montages, and portraits of figures of various races and ages.
Perhaps it’s the group set of Polaroid snaps titled Strip Test that capture the meaning of the show most aptly.
It was originally showed at London’s Paradise Row. These are frontal and profile pictures of anonymous people.
They are taken in the style of studio photography.
It’s in this row of images that the racial violence of pictures is discernible, in the display of image’s capacity as a tool to capture and define its subject.
Susan Sontag, the American writer, notes it accurately in her seminal book, On Photography.
“The camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves … It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”
Even with the exhibited montages of sculptures and plants, which abound here, Sontag’s observation rings true of this show’s points.
The show connects with the discourses of the old colonising gaze that went into exotic lands and captured images for whatever purpose.
The exotic fauna and flora, along with the “camera-captured” and dehumanised non-white other, were equalised by the lens.
»To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light runs at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg until February 16