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Faces Behind Fences

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House of Bondage

at Stephen Daiter, through December 12

The Photograph Transformed

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through January 24

By Fred Camper

Apartheid has legally ended in South Africa, but it comes alive with searing vividness in 39 mid-60s photographs by Ernest Cole, on view at Stephen Daiter (along with eight photographs of Africa by others). Documenting apartheid's multiple effects on blacks, Cole also brings these effects to life with his images' formal contrasts. One photo showing a group of unhappy-looking blacks in a jail cell might serve as a metaphor for Cole's approach: they wrap their arms and hands around the bars, and he captures the tension between their rectilinear prison and the organic, expressive shapes and positions of the prisoners' bodies.

These photographs were originally published in Cole's 1967 book, House of Bondage; there they had captions and a text, mostly written by Cole himself. (The book is out of print but can be purchased on the Internet, and the gallery has copies.) "Repression breeds a desperate hunger for identity and approval," Cole writes of the small South African black middle class, but the quest for identity under various forms of oppression is at the heart of all these photos. A boy surrounded by darkness works at a table lit by a single bulb, drawing mountains and a river and huts--a child's imagined paradise at the center of a darkened world. Four men sit on a bench, each seemingly positioned according to his whim--but then we see the men are handcuffed together.

Cole's images illuminate the collision between the quest for self-definition and a repressive structure that at best undercuts and at worst destroys the individual. I looked for some hint of self-expression in a shot of a man in tattered clothes being fingerprinted--and thought I found one in the stylishly ragged beard and askew tie clip of the older black man apparently booking him. Then I learned from the book that this wasn't an arrest at all: mine laborers are routinely fingerprinted before they're allowed to work, at long hours for little pay. A few pages later were images of a row of nude workers undergoing exams and of the tiny open cubicles in which the laborers sleep, placing the fingerprinting photo in its true context, as one of many assaults on the integrity of the workers' bodies.

Cole was born in 1940 near Pretoria to a self-employed tailor and a washerwoman; the family was poor but better off than many other black Africans. When Cole was in his teens, he writes, the laws were changed to deny blacks any education other than what would be needed for laboring; he dropped out and eventually studied photography through a correspondence school. A few years later his family's land and home were seized by the government and the family was exiled to a new, shoddier home, one of many resettlements forced on nonwhites. Using a subterfuge, Cole got himself reclassified as "colored," which gave him more mobility under South Africa's arcane laws; partly influenced by a Cartier-Bresson book he'd seen, he put together this volume of photographs--which he realized he would have to leave South Africa to get published.

Though he'd worked professionally for South African periodicals, it seems Cole was largely self-taught; his photos rarely aspire to the carefully composed look of art photography but gain strength from their offhand, slightly disordered views. By contrast George Rodger's Mau Mau in Dock, another picture in the show, is more elegant: we see a defendant flanked by two elaborately uniformed guards, a symmetrical composition that conveys the man's entrapment yet has its own formal balance. Cole's view of the interior of a commuter train, on the other hand, is as crowded and chaotic as a cattle car, men pressed together every which way, a few grasping for support against the low ceiling. (The commuter trains reserved for whites, we learn from the book, were spacious and uncrowded.)

Here one finds an authentic cri de coeur. In another chaotic shot, street boys at night stand amid refuse, black and white barrels just behind them adding contrast; the boys' blurred movements are full of an indecipherable energy. Their ragged encampment occupies a fenced-in overpass, cut off from the glittering city beyond. The boys' movements look aimless, but the overall composition gives them a context: apartheid created multiple traps that denied people their fundamental humanity. (Cole points out that an instructional booklet of the time about how to deal with black servants advised white masters to "try to remember that they are human.")

In one way exhibiting Cole's photos in a gallery deprives them of the context provided by his book--which for me established in every case that the reality behind the photos was worse than I'd imagined. A blurred image of commuters trying to crowd onto a jammed train gained a new, more awful meaning from the book's statistic about the number of Africans killed in falls from such trains. On the other hand, the prints' rich blacks and grays are much stronger on the gallery wall than in the book. Small touches, such as lighting that renders part of a face white and the rest black, are more vivid in the prints and undercut the defining quality of skin color. The prints were also often cropped for the book, in most cases isolating the subjects from their surroundings, turning the images into illustrations of the text rather than complex, dynamic pictures that can stand on their own.

Among the best are two of a nine-year-old street kid named Papa. In one of them he's crossing over a fence, his mouth open in a smile. He's achieved a measure of freedom, but Cole's composition still defines his body in terms of a fence. In the other, Papa's shown in profile holding a slingshot, his face a delicate mixture of mild anger and pride, his frayed shirt exposing a shoulder outlined by the sun. The boy's divided nature--both fragile and heroic--is expressed here with a raw directness that seems more accurate and profoundly human than a dozen studied portraits would have been.

Going from Cole's work to the 54 collaged and manipulated images by five Chicago women in "The Photograph Transformed" at the Chicago Cultural Center, I was reminded that, like much other documentary and street photography, his draws strength from the straight photograph's status as a direct imprint of the world. A painting showing an imprisoned figure will be read as an artist's conceit, but Cole's photos have an aura of objectivity--the street boys really were cut off from the city, the men reaching through the bars of their cell really were imprisoned. These photographs transport the viewer to their original sites, and Cole's skillful selection and framing are rightly perceived as revealing social truths. His photos' direct ties to cultural realities also meant that they might have been confiscated--he had to disguise the real nature of his project, persuading the police that he was doing a study of juvenile delinquency.

The attraction of manipulated photography, of course, is greater artistic freedom. But it seems that some manipulators don't fathom what they're losing. If a street photograph is located in the street, where is the manipulated photograph set? In cyberspace, perhaps, or on the collage table--or, in the most successful works, in the artist's mind. If a photograph is perceived as totally synthetic, however, it loses its unique power as an imprint of reality. Fortunately these five photographers seem to understand that, and preserve fragments of the original photographic imprint. Identity is a theme for all five, connecting their work with Cole's. But whereas for him identity is constantly under siege by the social realities he documents, these photographers' explorations of identity tend to be more private, often balancing feminist issues surrounding the body with dreamlike introspection.

The work of two photographers here is a little too private. Kelly McKaig writes of her inability to enter her family's early lives, and her Polaroid images taken from family home movies are suitably opaque. But I couldn't get beyond an enigmatic kid's face and man's back to discern her point. Kellie Murphy Klein's densely layered, collagelike images of figures, objects, and landscapes printed using 19th-century techniques are more seductive, presenting intriguing if not always clear meditations on identity and memory.

Susan Sensemann effectively balances the social and the personal in a series of montaged self-portraits in which her face is covered with patterns taken from photos she shot in India. In Strand her face is decorated with a dense pattern of flowers and other shapes, almost as if the design were projected on it; in Core her face is almost totally hidden behind yellow feathers and other colored forms, with dark areas standing in for her eyes and mouth, as if she'd been subsumed by culture. Other, similarly dense images show her red lipstick: women's makeup is another imposition of culture. In her statement Sensemann says she's more interested in the debate about gender "essentialism" than in a "conclusive wrap-up" of that issue, and these photographs pose questions without offering answers, reflecting on the constructed nature of women's identities.

Part of what makes Sensemann's photographs work is the fact that the patterns are actual artifacts from another culture. Similarly, Jane Calvin's carefully arranged scenes, juxtaposing improbable elements, are in a sense "straight" photographs and have the power of actual rather than constructed spaces. In There's No Place Like... a couple stands facing us within a picture frame, while to their right a cartoon cat appears on a video screen that, unlike the couple, is angled away from the viewer. Here, as in her other works, Calvin sets up multiple implied perspectives, suggesting multiple identities in an actual but still ambiguous space.

Katharine Schutta's digital prints of photo collages are perhaps the closest in this exhibit to traditional high art in that their meanings are the most obscure. But some do suggest a social dimension, if only through the metaphoric clash of cultures. Jump captures a group of boys in bathing trunks in midair as if leaping off a pier, while on a brick pavement in front of them two women in long, heavy coats stand with their backs to us. Schutta leaves the conflicts here--between airborne play and earthbound pavement, near nudity and heavy clothing, youth and age--unresolved. In Faith a businessman on an empty airplane has his head tilted toward a window whose shade is pulled, looking away from a Virgin borrowed from some northern Renaissance painting floating to his left. At his side is a newspaper with a blaring headline. The Virgin's presence is as ambiguous and finally inexplicable as the juxtapositions in Jump: she seems a possibility open to the lonely man, yet there's no hint that he even sees her.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): From "House of Bondage" by Ernest Cole; "Faith" by Katharine Schutta.

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