A Group Portrait
Sean O’Toole

Three years separate the opening of Mikhael Subotzky’s debut exhibition inside Pollsmoor Prison on the eleventh anniversary of South Africa’s democracy (27 April 2005) and the publication of his first book, Beaufort West. Whereas the ambition, form and content of this one-day exhibition, staged in a maximum security jail south of Cape Town, a short distance from where Subotzky grew up, now exist only as an impressionistic collage of press reports, descriptive photographs and remembered details, the photobook is something far more tangible. It is a portable object capable of travelling across time, unchanged. This is what distinguishes a book from an exhibition: the book arrives at every reader whole and intact, as its originator intended. Safer to start with this physical thing, with a book that not only confirmed a career already in the ascent, but also synthesized into a coherent singular statement a lengthy period of photographic enquiry into crime and punishment in South Africa.

In a book that employs a no-frills documentary grammar – single, rectangular-framed photos, mostly portraits, some candid, others posed – one photo in particular stands out. It is the final photograph in Subotzky’s book, a composite group portrait of the inmates and warders from Beaufort West Prison. The photo, which bleeds across the full width of two pages, shows its subjects posing against the swimming-pool blue walls of the open-air exercise yard. Its interior walls are decorated with a wraparound mural depicting a kind of etiolated South African sublime: there is a lone kudu, a fenced-off farmhouse, some fuzzily presented trees, a windmill on the far horizon, and lots of scrub desert. The bland mural, painted by an inmate and subsequently covered over during renovations, recalls a passage from the Russian émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov’s autobiographical novel, The Zone (1985). Commenting on the habitual orthodoxies of Soviet-era prison life, Dovlatov, a former labour camp guard, writes: ‘Take camp painting. If it’s a landscape, it will be done in incredible, tropical, Andalusian colours.’ (118) Modernism has no place in the prison imagination, he adds. ‘The closer the resemblance to a photograph, the better. Modigliani and Gauguin would have little success here.’ (119)

I count a total of 50 men wearing prison-issue uniforms in this panoramic photo, which together with an earlier portrait of the mural’s creator, Jaco, elegantly summarizes the book’s intention: to describe the blurred dichotomy between outside and inside. Scattered among the assembled prisoners, like blockages in an orange line of Morse code, are 12 guards in chocolate brown uniforms, one of them a heavy-set man nicknamed Big Show. While most of the inmates, including Frisco, Romeo and Tamatie, the latter a young man with dark eyes and the habit of tilting his head when photographed by Subotzky, are seated on benches, some prefer to stand, arms held behind their backs. One man, his name is Dan, squats on his haunches. His right hand cups his face. He looks bored.

Bracketed by an essay and a series of explanatory captions, this wide-angle montage reiterates Subotzky’s long-standing fascination with the panoptic view. This interest was announced in Die Vier Hoeke (2004), a university thesis project that earned Subotzky a perfect grade and elicited immediate press interest before it was exhibited inside Pollsmoor in 2005; and it continues to inform new works, such as CCTV (2012), an unstable composite portrait of criminality in inner-city Johannesburg made using police footage, and Moses and Griffiths (2012), an installation that includes voyeuristic Rodchenko-like top-down views of Grahamstown made using a nineteenth-century camera obscura. The formal presentation of these all-seeing views has become increasingly volatile, grainy and blurred since 2004, when Subotzky travelled to Dwarsrivier Prison to photograph inmates voting, after a landmark court ruling had made this possible.

For his Beaufort West portrait, Subotzky asked all 62 sitters to write their names on the photo. The outcome is a graffitied document containing birth names, nicknames, gang symbols and doodles. Its unvarnished appearance is not dissimilar to the tattooed bodies of the shirtless men appearing in Die Vier Hoeke and Umjiegwana (2006). Where Subotzky used a digital camera mounted on a specially designed tripod and capable of taking 18 consecutive frames on a rotating axis to photograph at Dwarsrivier and Pollsmoor, the Beaufort West panorama was made using a film camera. Once digitized, the individual shots were however similarly ‘stitched’ together using proprietary software capable of seamlessly joining photographs describing a continuous scene into a near faultless digital montage.

The result differs greatly from David Hockney’s wide-angle cubist photomontages from the 1970s and 80s, experiments that were almost entirely formal exercises aimed at pushing back ‘the edge’ of the photographic frame, both to challenge notions of perspective and draw attention to the limitations of western optics. Subotzky’s approach has more in common with Jo Ractliffe’s overlapping sequential montages from the late 1990s and early 2000s, shot in and around Johannesburg using a modified plastic-bodied box camera. His large panoramic portraits share an operating logic with Ractliffe’s Vlakplaas: 2 June 1999 (Drive-by Shooting), a panoramic montage of overlapping black and white photos describing the visual blandness of the landscape around a former apartheid death camp. Both photographers ally formal or aesthetic experimentation with an ethical purpose. Like the documentary photographer Gideon Mendel, who now routinely uses the panorama to compact multitudes into a single frame, Subotzky and Ractliffe use this aesthetic device to bear fuller witness, to show more reality, not map its boundaries or limits – although in Ractliffe’s work, the failure to access anything other than a kind of quotidian truth at the trauma site does gesture to a different limitation for photography. Mendel is Subotzky’s uncle and was an influential early mentor, teaching him the basics of working with the panoramic format.

Ractliffe and Mendel both came to prominence in the 1980s, a period of intensified social unrest and visual activism that shaped a particular tradition and mythology of documentary photography. In a 1988 issue of the left-leaning literary journal Staffrider, Joyce Ozynski, reviewing the struggle of documentary photography in the 1970s and 80s to establish itself ‘in a culture that gave no encouragement to the making of such images’, noted the ‘dilemma’ amongst Staffrider’s coterie of anti-apartheid photographers of ‘trying to meet the demands of a formalist aesthetic while giving expression to a consciousness of social issues’ (163). Subotzky’s ongoing struggle to establish parity between his need to engage South Africa politically and socially through photography, and his more self-reflexive interest in photographic representation and the psychology of seeing suggests that the ‘dilemma’ identified by Ozynski is inherent in the genre, not simply momentary and historical. The exhibition Retinal Shift (2012) foregrounds the complicated and often interconnected nature of this relationship between expression and description.

It is a point picked up by the curator and art historian Okwui Enwezor, an early supporter of Subotzky’s work. The documentary tradition, he wrote in a 2005 essay, ‘has the unique position of being caught in a tautological game, which is to both document and analyse, to show and define, and to do so with aesthetic means and also to be oblivious of aesthetic’ (28). This repetition of means and ends is not unique to the self-effacing tradition of documentary photography. Roland Barthes, in his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France in 1977, described the essay, a laissez-faire non-fiction literary form at which he excelled, as ‘an ambiguous genre in which analysis vies with writing’ (457). Without this tension, though, between showing and defining, essaying and analysing, there would be no resolution. Everything would be formless, unhinged, possibly even unreal.

Rather than sequester formal aesthetic concerns from his practice, Subotzky allows them a dynamic agency. Although it is more obvious now, whether in his tall light-boxes portraying the doorways, window views and television screens from every residential unit of Ponte tower, or in the granulated typology of faces recorded in Who’s Who (2012), Subotzky was already experimenting with form in his Die Vier Hoeke (2004) series. It is there in the panoramas showing the cramped living conditions of awaiting trial prisoners, and also in a remarkable portrait he made at the funeral of Loyanda Motomi, a Pollsmoor inmate who died in a fire and whose body Subotzky followed to a burial in the Eastern Cape. Drawing on post-production techniques available in the digital age, Subotzky composed scenarios way beyond the normal optic of the eye, scenes of abundance and multitude that verge on overstatement. His stretched scenes defamiliarize reality, which is different from making it appear unreal.

Semantics here is the entrée into a more nuanced argument, an argument that itself hinges on the subtlety of the written word in describing what photographs do, and cannot do. ‘Photographers,’ writes Robert Adams in Beauty in Photography (1996), ‘have generally been held to a different set of responsibilities than have painters and sculptors, chiefly because of the widespread supposition that photographers want to and can give us objective Truth; the word “documentary” has abetted the prejudice. But does a photographer really have less right to arrange life into a composition, into form, for instance, than a painter or sculptor?’ The point of art, ventures Adams, a self-taught photographer and former English professor, ‘has never been to make something synonymous with life, however, but to make something of reduced complexity that is nonetheless analogous to life and that can thereby clarify it’ (68).

Analogous not synonymous: photographs are not facsimiles of reality, merely representations, visual descriptions that can function as aids to looking and guide understanding. The French photographer Eugène Atget played down the usability of photographs to the extent of classifying them as artistic documents (documents pour artistes) on a sign outside his Paris studio. Subotzky’s interest in working with the camera obscura recalls the way photography has been subordinated to a role of pure description. Before the invention of modern photography, the camera obscura enabled painters to reproduce the shape of reality. In his essay, Adams offers the example of Goya’s arranging into a pattern of the figures in The Executions of May Third (1808). We accept this manipulation, he says, because it is the essence of art, ‘the revelation of shape’ (68).

The extent of that manipulation, its permissibility and its limits, is always at issue in documentary photography, an undeniably supple tradition that is nonetheless bounded by the journalistic imperatives of detachment, accuracy and, for all its fuzziness as a concept, morality. Walker Evans, whose clandestinely photographed portraits of Depression-era New York subway passengers have some vague affinity with Subotzky’s grainy CCTV portraits – perhaps it is their egalitarian scope rather than the methodology – encapsulated the contradiction of the documentary genre as follows: ‘Documentary photography has nothing whatsoever to do with art. But it is an art for all that.’ (Morris: 185) One of the reasons it has nothing to do with art stems from its factuality, its indexical qualities, the correspondence between a portrait photograph and the person it depicts. It is a point dramatized in the blanked-out face of a man who appears in a panoramic vista showing the Pollsmoor abattoir in Die Vier Hoeke. The man later withdrew his permission to be pictured. Rather than dispose of the photo, Subotzky kept it in his series and obscured the features. The visual interruption, he says, is a reminder to the viewer that the right to look is not guaranteed.

Subotzky’s willingness to venture a position is self-evident in his annotations to this new book. The photographer has, however, withdrawn from the ritual of bearing witness to his practice for an enquiring media. The decision is not hard to fathom. The press interview is a sort of occupational hazard that requires speaking unambiguously about equivocal things. Initially motivated by a somewhat stern, almost idealistic belief in the capabilities of documentary photography, Subotzky early on in his career began to qualify his ambitions. In 2007, shortly after he was accepted as a nominee member of Magnum Photos, a cooperative photography agency founded in 1947 and long at the vanguard of documentary practice, he told me: ‘I am beginning to communicate more subtly through my photographs. It isn’t about a photograph showing overcrowding in prison; it is showing a particular feeling I had when I was in Beaufort West.’

Feeling? I queried. ‘It is a certain atmosphere, what Barthes called the punctum, something which comes through that isn’t necessarily describable as the action in the photograph. I don’t want to sound mystical or anything but I think photographs can operate on that level, very effectively. I want my work to be subtler. I don’t want to rely on drama and subject matter to make good photographs.’ His words remind me of something David Goldblatt wrote in the introduction to South Africa: The Structure of Things Then (1998): ‘I felt no driving need to record those situations and moments of extremity that were the stuff of the media. It was to the quiet and commonplace where nothing “happened” and yet all was contained and immanent that I was most drawn.’ (7)

Goldblatt’s influence, as a photographer foremost, but also (in the tradition of Evans and Adams) as an astute and literate thinker on photography, is evident in Subotzky’s work. His Umjiegwana series includes a portrait of a man named Joseph, convicted for murder and released after eight years, having his eyes tested. The portrait quotes Goldblatt’s undated portrait, reprinted in In Boksburg (1982), of an elderly black woman having her eyesight tested by a Brylcreemed and moustached white man at the Vosloorus Eye Clinic. Goldblatt’s photographic approach to Boksburg, a nominally discrete but really just-like-everywhere-else East Rand town, at least in its apartheid-era logic, suggested the working idea for Subotzky’s Beaufort West project. Here too was somewhere quiet and commonplace, unspectacular yet forcefully emblematic – the prison is located on a traffic circle in the middle of town. Subotzky describes the town as radiating from the prison, a description that could also be applied to the landscape seemingly radiating from Ponte’s gauzy windows.

A few months after Subotzky’s essay on Beaufort West successfully premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in late 2008, on the museum’s annual New Photography showcase, the photographer once again spoke of the draw of making subtler, more nuanced work. ‘Initially I thought of the work in traditional documentary terms whereby I sought to make visible that which is hidden, an aspiration that I think is particularly relevant to state institutions such as prisons,’ he told Jörg Colberg, editor of the online photoblog Conscientious. Emboldened by his readings of South African penal history and Michel Foucault, however, he soon started experimenting visually.

‘I tried out different types of images, set up workshops with prisoners, and then expanded the project in the Umjiegwana (2006) series to look at the lives of ex-prisoners,’ Subotzky elaborated in this interview. ‘At this point the work became much more personal as I established and built up relationships with a group of disparate people who inhabited the same city as me, but very different worlds. I began to see the work as my own exploration of my surroundings, a part of my attempts to make myself as conscious as possible.’ The recurrent use of the possessive adjective ‘my’ in the final sentence is telling. The photographer was moving beyond the constraints of mannerism, in this instance a still rather conservatively applied South African documentary style; he was shrugging off the anxiety of influence, in essence becoming more himself.

The extent to which Subotzky’s work has become ‘more personal’ is plainly evident in the prominence he gives the high-resolution images of his left and right retinas in this book and exhibition, and in its titling too. As notionally abstract as these two photographs may appear, their factuality is incontrovertible, as is their profound subjectivity tendered as documents. This is how I see, this is why I see, they communicate. But, even here there is parity, an underlying consistency that links them to his earliest work on crime and punishment, and indeed his interest in social portraiture generally. ‘It was medical anthropology,’ writes art historian Christian Joschke, ‘that gave the representation of the human body a decisive function in what looked increasingly like a European political project to establish an anthropological standard for the human body.’ Photography became an important normative document, states Joschke, ‘a stimulus to anthropological knowledge’ and ‘an instrument for social management’. In this latter respect, photography was key to the French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon’s pioneering nineteenth-century identification system, which used ten standardized physical measurements to help police better identify criminals. It informed the system of identikits pictured in Subotzky’s Umjiegwana series, and finds a gentrified counterpoint in his granular Who’s Who photos, a sort of history through portraiture.

Photography makes history palpable and real, more so as a photo dates. But photos also transform what was once alive and tangible into history. Subotzky’s light-hearted group portrait made inside Beaufort West Prison now forms part of a historical archive of prison photographs. This substantial archive includes Bob Gosani’s enquiring long-range look over the wall of Johannesburg Central Prison in 1954, as well as photos by Peter Magubane and Ernest Cole, all of whom imaged naked prisoners, something Subotzky also does in Die Vier Hoeke. But I want to single out an older photograph. It was made 141 years ago, when photography was more closely linked to an anthropological and political project, as Joschke puts it, when representations of the body were in other words viewed as anthropologically true, as factual embodiments of culture and difference. Part of a series of four group portraits of prisoners made by David McKenzie Selkirk and his partner William Lawrence, one of which is on display at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, this particular photo shows ten San men huddled in two rows on the lunar-coloured gravel of a Cape Town jail, their shirtless backs turned to a wall made of quarried stone.

Originally published in an album of ethnological photographs – presented ‘with affectionate, grateful regards and best wishes’ by the German-born philologist W.H.I. Bleek to the ex-Governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey, in 1872 – Selkirk and Lawrence’s portrait was simply captioned ‘Bushmen’. When it was later republished in Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd’s Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911), the photograph featured a revised caption: ‘Photographed at the Breakwater convict station, Cape Town, about 1871.’ All of the men are identified. There is an unseen context to this photo. ‘In 1870–71,’ writes Karel Schoeman in The Face of the Country (1996), a study of 273 photographs in the collection of the South African Library, ‘a number of individuals from among the Bushmen prisoners working at the Breakwater convict station in Cape Town were allowed to live at Bleek’s Mowbray home in order that he might learn their language.’ (19)

This dubious arrangement, between Bleek, his sister-in-law Lloyd and a group of San men, enabled these scholars to record the stories, poems and myths of an endangered people. Language, as Bleek and Lloyd knew, is the repository of culture. This is true of prisons too, which, in their reflection and distortion of the larger world they mirror, have developed their own cultural systems, a coherent ‘language’ included. Subotzky’s early essays were guided by the nuances of the fantastical prison language used in South African penal complexes, a language that traces its origins back to two nineteenth-century bandits, Nongoloza and Kilikijan, who were eventually captured and imprisoned.

‘Being men of the caves and the hills, their prison language bore their fantasies of the outdoors,’ writes Jonny Steinberg in an unpublished text accompanying Subotzky’s Umjiegwana series. ‘Everything expanded. A day was called a year. An overcrowded cell became a vast highveld plain. But to prevent themselves from being carried away into madness, they reminded themselves every day that they were in fact binne die vier hoeke [inside the four corners], and not umjiegwana – outside. These two concepts became the touchstones of their language.’ Which endures to this day. Subotzky’s early work, from Die Vier Hoeke through to Beaufort West, meticulously describes the erosion of this time-honoured distinction between outside and inside. ‘The new Numbers are going into prison and robbing and stealing like on the outside,’ says Vallen, a sergeant in the 28s prison gang whom Subotzky photographed sleeping in a cramped family bed. The photo has a Weegee-like grace and affection. ‘They didn’t do that in my time. And on the outside they are speaking Sabela [prison language] on the streets. You are not allowed to do that. Die vier hoeke is becoming like umjiegwana. And umjiegwana is becoming like die vier hoeke.’ (Subotzky: personal communication) Dovlatov, in a moment of unflinching candour, puts it more bluntly: ‘One single soulless world extended on either side of the restricted areas.’ (46)

Returning to the group portrait with which I began: the men inside Beaufort West Prison do not smile. Perhaps they, like Vallen, have recognized what Dovlatov describes as the ‘striking similarity between the camp and the outside, between the prisoners and the guards …’ (46) This is mere speculation. A body purified of all expressivity prompts fabrications. This is as true of the passive inmates and guards depicted in Subotzky’s Beaufort West panorama as it is of the nameless, noteworthy and occasionally moustached white men in his Who’s Who series, men who only infrequently smiled after 1951, and apparently never before. My point, though, has nothing to do with expressivity in photography; rather, it aims to highlight Subotzky’s interest in the mass over the unit, in other words, man as a social being. Subotzky’s vast, impressionistic portrait of the occupants of the 54-storey Ponte building in central Johannesburg, which in the late 1990s was briefly mooted as a possible site for an urban prison, demonstrates his slow-burning and relational approach to showing how and why people live or are forced to live the way they do. Started in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse in 2008, not long after Subotzky returned to Beaufort West Prison with two three-metre-wide prints of the inmates, one for display in the prison, the other to return a modest agency to the prisoners by having them overlay their marks on the photo, the Ponte project is unfinished. Or rather, like the uncharacteristically voyeuristic work Don’t even think of it, a new work made from photographs shot in 2004, when Subotzky was still reconciling his roles as a documentary photographer and an artist, it awaits repurposing, to bring its discrete elements into a coherent finality.

The Ponte project, like the Beaufort West one, includes some complicated composite portraits. Drawing on the logic of the earlier panoramic montages, but now working within a more subdued frame, Subotzky and Waterhouse knocked on each door in the residential building to request a portrait; when it was refused, Subotzky photographed the closed door, or, as was often the case in this building during its awkward reinvention by developers in 2008, the interior of the vacant apartment. This simple and empirical strategy in turn prompted a further series of typological photos, first focused on the gossamer views from the windows of the circular tower block, and then, in acknowledgement that not every vista is a vertical or horizontal landscape, on the TV screens in the rooms and the images that distract, entertain and embalm the lives of Ponte’s occupants. Exhibited as three four-metre-high light-boxes, these vertical towers of differentiated light – which look like abstracted stained-glass windows, until you zoom in close – portray the multitude of Ponte in as complete a frame as possible, albeit less seamlessly than the earlier prison portraits. There is also a noticeable shift in orientation in this work – from looking at, to looking with. This is who lives here, we are often shown, but, and possibly more importantly, this is what they see. A Highveld expanse. The Carlton Centre. Mr Bones and Mobutu wearing a leopard-skin hat. Soap operas, commercials, biblical texts, wrestling, the etv weather lady. You are seeing through their eyes, as much as the photographer’s. This is the key retinal shift.

Robert Adams, 1996, Beauty in Photography, New York, Aperture.
Roland Barthes, 1993, Susan Sontag (ed.), A Roland Barthes Reader, London, Vintage.
Jörg Colberg, ‘A Conversation with Mikhael Subotzky’, in Conscientious, 18 February 2009. http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/
Sergei Dovlatov, 1985, The Zone, New York, Alfred A. Knopf.
Okwui Enwezor, ‘Documentary/ Vérité: bio-politics, human rights, and the figure of “truth” in contemporary art’, in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 4/5 (2003/04), pp. 11–42.
David Goldblatt, 1998, South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, Cape Town, Oxford University Press.
Christian Joschke, forthcoming, ‘The photographed body and the end of anthropometry’, in 20th Century Masters: The Human Figure, Johannesburg, Standard Bank.
Errol Morris, 2011, Seeing is Believing, New York, The Penguin Press.
Joyce Ozynski, 1988, ‘Staffrider and Documentary Photography’, in A.W. Oliphant and Ivan Vladislavi? (eds), Ten Years of Staffrider: 1978–1988, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, pp. 163–4.
Karel Schoeman, 1996, The Face of the Country, Cape Town, Human & Rousseau.
Jonny Steinberg, 2006, ‘Umjiegwana: The Outside’, unpublished MS.
Mikhael Subotzky, 2008, Beaufort West, London, Chris Boot Ltd.
John Tusa, Interview with David Hockney, BBC Radio 3, 30 July 2004.