Dialogues, from Africa: Juan Orrantia and Vincent Bezuidenhout

ATKV Pretpark from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

Post by Juan Orrantia

"Dialogues, from Africa" is a series made in response to Alejandro Cartagena's running series in fototazo, that wants to extend the dialogue across the Atlantic, but further south. Having been based in Johannesburg for some time now, I have always felt the need to create a space of dialogue where photographers working in Africa and Latin America learn about each other's work, but that is not filtered through the galleries or mainstream media of the global north. The world we live in is not one where limits are traced easily, and within these spaces photographic traditions are increasingly varied, recognized, ignored and reconceptualized. Africa is as complex and varied as Latin America, and this series wants to recognize the current engagements of photographers from the continent with their own histories and the current environments of contemporary photography. In so doing we hope to open a space that enables a dialogue with their peers in Latin America.

The first post in the series was with Alexia Webster and the second with Musa Nxumalo.

Juan Orrantia (b. Bogota, Colombia, based in Johannesburg, South Africa) Relying on the evocative as a form of documentary his photographic works use banality and imagination as sites from where to explore experiences of the aftermath of violence; the lives and affects of postcolonial cities; memory and the cocaine trade; and the legacies of anticolonial thinker Amilcar Cabral. Awards include the Tierney Fellowship in Photography, solo exhibitions in Germany, Colombia and South Africa, as well as participation in various group shows including the New York Photo Festival, Le Cube (Paris), Cape Town Month of Photography, Bonani Africa Festival of Photography and Ethnographic Terminalia (New Orleans). His work has appeared in fototazo, Foto 8, Sensate, and other online media platforms and journals.

Vincent Bezuidenhout is a visual artist born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He holds a Masters Degree in Fine Art from the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town.

Bezuidenhout is a Tierney Fellow and was part of the 2013/14 Photoglobal Programme at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

He currently lives and works between Cape Town and New York City.

Green Point Common from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

Juan Orrantia: Where are you based? Why?

Vincent Bezuidenhout: I am based in Cape Town, South Africa but over the least year I have been part of a special residency program called Photoglobal at the School of Visual Arts in New York.
As a South African artist making work about South Africa it is important for me to spend time here, but it is also vital for artists to travel and expand on their experiences. I always feel invigorated and seem to understand South Africa even better after having left for periods of time and returning.

JO: How and why did you starting working in photography?

VB: I started making photographs by taking a photography course at my local University when I left high school. I knew I wanted to work in the arts, but was not sure how to go about it having grown up in a very conservative community in the death throes of Apartheid. Coming from this environment, where art was the furthest thing on people's minds, photography seemed like a more accessible medium, as something that anyone could engage with as opposed to the other mediums.

Strandfontein Pavilion from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

JO: What are your projects about, and major themes in your work?

VB: My process is research-intensive and investigates the relationships between identity and power and the authenticity of memory in both past and present histories in South Africa. At the same time I am also interested in the changes and perceived limitations of the medium of photography as it continues to shift away from its origins.

In 2010 I was awarded the Tierney Fellowship while reading for an MFA at the University of Cape Town. I had the privilege of receiving support and mentorship from artists such as Stephen Shore, David Goldblatt and Roger Ballen, which was a tremendous period of growth for me as an artist. The resulting body of photographs entitled "Separate Amenities" (2010-2012) deals with South Africa's segregated recreational spaces built during apartheid. In my research I dealt with both spatial and art historical notions of the landscape as a construct, but my concerns developed towards the intentions, both political and psychological, of those who built these spaces and how in turn the contemporary constructed landscape reflects the notions of those who had shaped it.

Wild Waters from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

While "Separate Amenities" was a starting point for expounding my political concerns regarding the nature of power through the investigation of history, I also became acutely aware of how censorship had shaped South African society. Similar to the social engineering resulting from the constructed segregated landscape of apartheid, control of information also meant psychological segregation, the mind construct of the "other." I examine censorship both historically and in regards to the current political climate in South Africa by using ideas of absence, omission and cover-ups to convey these ideas.

My practice has shifted towards a more conceptual framework of dealing with these issues in recent times. I am currently working with elements of photojournalism, image appropriation, landscape photography, video and intervention, but in a manner that reflects on the limitations of all these strategies in terms of their use in artistic practice.

I use strategies such as these in order to construct my own narrative that allows me to expand on and re-contextualize the various facts and theories surrounding history. The development from a formal enquiry through photography, into a more conceptual, multi disciplinary approach allows me to reflect on my own identity within the South African historiography.

Maiden's Cove from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

JO: What is your experience with other photographers and traditions from the (African) continent? How did you learn of them or their work?

VB: I was introduced to many photographers from South Africa through the Tierney Fellowship, but have also been able to meet other photographers from the continent through organizations and events such as the Bamako Biennial and on various artist residencies. African photographers are in a unique position today to create their own place within the medium and I strongly believe in photographers from the continent coming together to forge there own history instead of the more established international centers of photography doing it for us.

Oudekraal from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

JO: How do you feel your young approach speaks/rejects/debates or expands themes or works in South African photography of the previous generation?

VB: While South African photography is very much rooted in the documentary tradition I see more and more conceptual practices developing in South Africa. There is no question that the African diaspora and increased recognition of African artists abroad have greatly influenced the practices being implemented by emerging photographers. In my approach, greatly influenced by my background and the places I have lived in all over the world, I try to challenge traditional approaches in photography as I feel it is impossible not to considering the radical changes the medium has undergone in recent times.

Green Point Stadium from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

King's Beach from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout

JO: Are there themes or styles that your work shares with other African photographers?

VB: In terms of my early landscape work, it is impossible not to mention David Goldblatt who continues to be a great influence on all local photographers through his generosity and commitment to South African photography. Artists such as Monique Pelser and Chad Rossouw are challenging traditional concepts of photo-based art, which is an approach I am also following in my new work.

JO: Where do you see your work going otherwise, how is your practice evolving?

VB: As mentioned my practice is taking on an increasing conceptual, multi-disciplinary approach that will continue into the future. I am very interested in shifting my work into a more public space where it can comment on universal concerns in a direct fashion. I want to continue to challenge traditional ideas about photography and consider the shifting role of the medium in contemporary art practices.

Buffelsbay from the series "Separate Amenities" © Vincent Bezuidenhout


Editing with Jeff Rich

© Jeff Rich, from the series "The Watershed Project - The French Broad River"

We are talking to a range of photographers, photo editors, professors of photography, book designers and others about the physical process of editing images. Selecting, sequencing and laying out photographs - be it for a magazine, book, online site or gallery presentation - seems something of a mysterious process for many photographers and a process that seems perhaps hard to give words to. I haven't found much written about the process and that's exactly why I'm excited to see what comes up in this series.

We started the conversation with Rob Haggart and Ashley Kauschinger. Today we continue with responses from Jeff Rich.

Jeff Rich's work focuses on water issues ranging from recreation and sustainability to exploitation
and abuse. Jeff explores these subjects by using long-term photographic documentations of
very specific regions of the United States. He received his MFA in photography at the Savannah
College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. His project "Watershed: A Survey of The
French Broad River Basin" was awarded the 2010 Critical Mass Book Award, and was published
as a monograph in 2012. His work has been featured on Flak Photo, Prism Photography
Magazine, Daylight Magazine and has been exhibited internationally. In 2011 Jeff was named
one of the winners of the Magenta Flash Forward Emerging Photographers Competition. He is an Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa, in the Art and Art History Department. He
also curates the weekly series Eyes on the South for Oxford American Magazine.

© Jeff Rich, from the series "The Watershed Project - The Mississippi"

fototazo: Tell us a little about yourself and what area of photography you work in.

Jeff Rich: I currently live in Iowa City and work in the Art and Art History Department at The University of Iowa. I've worked with photography since 1997. I am currently working on a long-term series called "The Watershed Project" which documents three watersheds in the Southeast United States.

f: How do you select images to work with from a larger group? What criteria do you use?

JR: Since I shoot all of my work on Large Format cameras, primarily 8x10" and some 4x5", a lot of my editing takes place before I take the shot. I work with a digital camera to sketch out different possible shots when I first arrive at a location. The initial criteria I use are composition, lighting and how well the subject is described. In my current project I usually like to balance out these three things. For instance I don't want to make a formal photograph that just focuses on the way light falls across a scene, this would't do justice to my subject. I need all of these aspects to play a part in a successful photograph.

Once I have scanned everything in, I start with my subject matter, and make sure I covered that sufficiently enough to convey all the aspects of the project. Since many trips involve coming back with only 10-15 usable final shots, I often return to the same locations to reshoot or reframe my subject matter.

© Jeff Rich, from the series "The Watershed Project - The Tennessee"

f: Talk with us about how you begin to organize and sequence the images that you have selected in relationship to each other - as well as to text if there's text.

JR: In my work I usually start by sequencing geographically, since my work is documentary and typically follows a set path, this make the most sense as way to begin to organize the work. However this sequencing rarely works for a body of work,  because it inevitably brings up missing aspects of the story I want to tell. Or this way of sequencing can lead to several shots of the same location right next to each other.  So I start to sequence by similarity in subject matter, (Dams, Power Plants, Pollution, Portraits) and see how this works. Typically I find this becomes too repetitive. So in the end I use a combination of geographic and subject matter similarities to sequence the work. This is always a digital process, unless it is for an exhibition, then it is more about working with the space I have, and making the sequence fit that space. I am also considering tone in an exhibition, if a somber image is right next to a bright energetic image it becomes problematic.

f: How do you consider the balancing of formal qualities in the photographs with the content/narrative of the series as a whole as you select and sequence a series?

JR: I usually pick an image that is very strong formally and represents the content very well, and use this as my basic formal anchor for the series. Anything that is significantly weaker formally than this anchor doesn't make the cut. If one of these "cut" images is important to the narrative of the story, I reshoot.

© Jeff Rich, from the series "The Watershed Project - The Tennessee"

f: What are common issues, problems and questions that unfold for you during the process of laying things out?

JR: Sequencing can be very difficult. I find it is especially difficult with my own work. I have no problem sequencing other people's work though! The biggest questions I have are about tone and repetition. I need the sequencing to have a consistent tone, sometimes two images that should work next to each other just have a different tone and I have to re-sequence.

f: How do you know when a layout is done?

JR: When I can look at it without questioning it.

f: What are common mistakes you see in editing?

JR: I often see repetition of the same idea in a series that covers a complex and wide-ranging subject, leading to a very superficial study of the subject matter.

f: Finally, what is the best advice you've ever gotten about editing?

JR: Go with your gut choices first, then start making sure that they work on a technical level.  If you find a lot of images not working on a technical level you need to reshoot.

© Jeff Rich, from the series "The Watershed Project - The French Broad River"


Photographers on Photographers: Looking for the Ghost of William Gedney

© William Gedney

Post by Roger May

This is the first William Gedney photograph I remember seeing. He made this picture of Junior Cornett in 1972 in Leatherwood, Kentucky on his second, and last, trip there. I remember seeing this picture and being reminded of my grandfather, Cecil May (also from eastern Kentucky). Perhaps it was his hair and the way he held his cigarette. From that moment, I've been ineffably connected to Gedney's work. Visually, his photographs offer me what Wendell Berry's words do.

I've spent countless hours meticulously going through his work prints, contact sheets, journals, notes, and personal papers at Duke University's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses approximately 5,000 items of Gedney's. I've also handled his passport, read parts of his medical records and his meticulous notes as he tried to matter-of-factly make sense of the AIDS virus that was slowly taking him away.

Sitting at the broad table in the library with all of this material spread out before me, I close my eyes and try to picture myself in the room, at the table, at the studio in hopes of a glimpse of his ghost. I wrestle with a feeling of invading his privacy, but ultimately thinking it would be of less importance to him than making work. I've read that he was an intensely private person. But still, handwritten notes like, "Diane Arbus called and told me she has suggested me for a teaching job at Cooper Union that she is giving up. She is very nice, I like her very much and it was very kind of her" offer glimpses of who he was away from the camera.

© William Gedney

His work resonates with me on a number of different levels, but I suppose I'm most impacted by how he chose to look at, to see Appalachia. It wasn't a one-off way of seeing for him, for he brought that same quietness, stillness, and earnestness to other parts of the world: New York, India, San Francisco. The consistency is appreciated. The grace with which we made note of moments he wanted to remember, wanted to share, needed to share.

I'm fascinated by his eastern Kentucky photographs. Try as I may, I haven't been able to figure out why he chose Appalachia to make photographs, but I'm so very glad he did. Nowhere can I find the reason that led him to Perry County, Kentucky. In the early 1960's, Appalachia saw a flood of photographers, news crews and filmmakers (think Charles Kuralt's Christmas in Appalachia circa 1964) come into the hills and hollers as part of the War on Poverty campaign. By and large, they formed a disparaging visual narrative of the place I was born and raised. Yet somehow, he transcended that tendency and instead made photographs of grace, beauty, and simple existence all the while capturing the challenging environs of those he photographed. There must've been something about his spirit that caused him to see what others did not, would not, perhaps could not.

His journal writing (1964) reveals a keen insight into some of the region's problems: "The region is rugged and isolated, the people are trapped in a circle of poverty, bad schools, corrupt politics and unskilled labor etc. Though I do not consider myself a 'social-problem' photographer, I hope something of this part of America and its people is conveyed to you."

© William Gedney

Gedney was obsessive, meticulous, and incredibly focused. For extended periods of time, he made a record of everything he bought, keeping exact totals down to the penny. It's this thoroughness, this great care that is ever present in not just his photographs, but his working method.

"Either you feel that a thing must be perfect before you present it to the public, or you are willing to let it go out even knowing that it is not perfect, because you are striving for something even beyond what you have achieved, but in struggling too hard for perfection you know that you may lose the very glimmer of life, the very spirit of the thing that you also know exists at a particular point in what you have done; and that to interfere with it would be to destroy that very living quality."

Gedney's Appalachia work is refreshing to me because it feels so incredibly real. Margaret Sartor, a photographer, writer, and teacher at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, noted that, "We keep looking because it (Gedney's work) feels so genuine." I couldn't agree more. His unassuming presence allowed him to capture moments so obviously absent from most of the work I've seen from Appalachia, that one has to wonder why so few photographs like this exist. Certainly at the time he was photographing in Appalachia, there was a stream of imagery coming out of there that I feel shaped the way we look at Appalachia today. For me, Gedney chose to see and show the deeper humanity of my home. How he saw the world, my world, challenges me to be truer, to be more authentic when I work.

William Gedney died on June 23, 1989 at 56. In his lifetime, he was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for photography (1966-67), a Fulbright Fellowship for photography in India (1969-71), a National Endowment for the Arts grant in photography (1975-76), and several other grants and fellowships. He had a show at the New York Museum of Modern Art (1968-69) as well as more than a dozen other exhibitions. Four years after his death, in 1993, Duke University became the repository for 51.3 linear feet of Gedney's work. Margaret Sartor was approached by the Rubenstein Library and asked to put together an exhibit of Gedney's work. In 2000, she and Geoff Dyer coedited What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney.

Gedney's work always commands my attention. It isn't forceful, overbearing, or gimmicky. He presents grace, beauty and humanity in a people often marginalized and dismissed. These are things that are important to me, qualities he captured about the people and place that means so much to me. He didn't shy away from poverty or hard times, instead he chose not to make it the focus of his work. Because of that, we get to see something so few who make photographs in Appalachia can show us. By pressing in close enough, quietly enough, in the words of Thomas Roma, he captured the beauty of our sameness.

Roger May (b. 1975) is an Appalachian American photographer currently living in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was born in the Tug River Valley, located on the West Virginia and Kentucky state line, in the heart of what is commonly known as Hatfield and McCoy country. He served in the Army for seven years. His photographs and essays have been published in The Oxford American, The Guardian, THE WEEK, The Bitter Southerner, The American Guide, Appalachian Heritage, AARP, and others. In February 2014, he started the crowdsourced Looking at Appalachia | 50 Years After the War on Poverty project. May speaks about his work, about issues of Appalachian representation, and photographs on commission.

He writes the series Looking at Appalachia on his blog, Walk your camera.