by Juan Orrantia
Some critics have stated that a previous generation of South African photographers did not only have to defy the stereotypes of classic documentary, but were also engaged in the task of recovering a sense of citizenship that had been denied1. Mack Magagane is part of a new generation—many also trained at the Market Photo Workshop— that is now responding to the changing present, to its relationship with transnational imaginaries and realities and not just to the particularities of place. They are young photographers speaking about circumstances close to them, documenting but also expressing a fresh view of contemporary experiences reshaped by changing notions of the urban. Their perspectives, both local and global, reflect the character of their own locations. Without being blind to troubled pasts, we find in their works encounters with the now rather than with the weight of history.
In this way Magagane’s work is an engagement with, and from Johannesburg. Through a process that acts like a dialogue with his city, we are presented with a series that acts as a response, but is also open to encounter and discovery. His approach reveals an eye in search of ordinary, autonomous and individual moments that at times express alienation and solitude, as well as many others that point us to unrestrained and banal movements through the city. In these moments one can feel the presence of a gentle force that resides in the intimacy of the contemporary African metropolis.
In his pictures, however, the city is presented not from the vantage point of the mere passer-by, but rather through an oblique, sometimes obstructed perspective on spaces, corners and windows, from moving cars and from street level, from behind, from above, from below. These many angles reposition our gaze on individuals who, much like him, are working their way through the city, traversing the space, always on the move; people passing through places that are both familiar and unfamiliar, real and also imaginary, where the elements of the city are present but not overtly identifiable. In his pictures we can recognize traces of (in)security, maybe even crime, of loss, but also of people forging connections—like that lonely man making a call from a payphone amidst the darkness of the night. Thus the images faintly reveal the multiplicity of signs, placards, high rises, late night workers, vagabonds, security devices, cell phones, tuck shops, and even the silent presence of highways and ongoing construction that make the urban metropolis not just a rapid city, but rather an elusive metropolis.
Johannesburg is a city in constant transition, where capital and goods populate the landscape and come in contact with histories of displacement, violence and the possibilities that are always present in dreams. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe referred to it as an elusive metropolis, as a response to its own resistance of being fixed: “To assert the elusiveness of Johannesburg is to unfix rather than to fix the meanings of the African modern”2 . Consequently they point to the gaps between what things actually are and the way they appear. This, for an urban photographer like Magagane means that the city is there as it is, in its essential reality, but he chooses to approach this reality through obstruction, suggestion and flight, through the lines of possibility that the open-ended image contains. The result is a series that provides us a sort of momentary dwelling in instances of uncertainty, rather than the usual formal depiction or description.
These are thus images that speak about multiplicity. Yet, they are not over saturated frames where iconic referents to the so-called African urban leave no room for the expressive. Rather, Magagane decided to embrace the elusiveness of his city in order to create pictures that focus on simple, intimate, anonymous moments. In them the viewer is exposed to the intimacy of one self, of myself, of friends at a corner, of lovers, of a mother and a daughter, or just the solitude that the rumble of the day leaves behind. It is then not a surprise to find the work of Indian photographer Dayanita Singh mentioned in his artist statement. This horizontal dialogue so much needed for forging real contemporary south-south relationships shifts the northern axis to include other locations previously excluded from the circles of photographic reference. I guess this is also why I find a resonance, a similar energy press ing through a poetic element produced by the focus on those lights that at night illuminate the pettiness of urban survival. Because, in such places marked by history and now open to the changing circumstances of rapidly developing economies, the meanings of the night, of loneliness, of individuality amidst density contain multiple stories that can come out of a red door slightly ajar amidst a black frame, in the uncertainty of a moment of rest of a man lying (or is he hiding?) at a parking lot, or even through that late night gaze behind a curtain that is most probably an old sheet.
In the end, we are left to ponder through the city, able to contemplate a series of elusive moments that resist capture. Because, like Johannesburg, they are always in movement, eliding the imposition of history and the legacies of reference. Through them, the meanings that are open to the night or even to the solitude of play resist the stereotype, the iconic, and rather pursue the many possibilities of imagination.
1. Okwui Enwesor. “Photography after the end of documentary realism. (Zewelethu Mthethwa’s Colour Photographs). Aperture.
2. Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (eds). 2008. “Afropolis” in: Johannesburg. The Elusive Metropolis. Wits University Press.