Review: Bronwyn Law-Viljoen on Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
This book was short-listed for a 2014 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award.
Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse
Göttingen, Germany, 2014
Designed by Ramon Pez
9 1/2 x 14 5/ 8 in. (24.1 x 37 cm)
365 four-color and black-and-white images
Clothbound hardcover in a box, including 17 accompanying booklets with written and visual essays
It is a testament to the purchase of the building known as Ponte City on the collective imagination of Johannesburgers that, within minutes of my opening Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s book of that name in a coffee shop hardly four miles from the place, several people stop to tell me something about the Ponte they know: a city councillor whose German father lived there in the early ’80s when he came to South Africa on a work assignment; a lyric soprano who sang a lullaby in the round building’s famous hollow core; an architect just returned from a Europe trip with a trove of city books, several of which mention Ponte; and an artist who conducted a “suicide project” in the tower—a video camera parachuted down into the core, recording as it went.
I have my own flickering recollection of a visit to a Ponte apartment in Johannesburg’s “bad” late ’80s. On such visits one saw quickly that it was, then, a space where more than one kind of transgression was possible: the apartment was shared by one black and one white tenant, defying multiple apartheid-era proscriptions, and, at some point in the visit, drugs of various description were consumed. Today, cleaned up, secure, and home to thousands of tenants, many from outside South Africa, its glamour and infamy are ameliorated by the everydayness of life in a residential skyscraper.
What this substantial book demonstrates, both in its visual scope and its bookish, boxy materiality, are the variegated ambitions, associations, and meanings of an apartheid-era residential building that rises fifty-four storeys above Johannesburg’s skyline—a city within a city, like the high-rise in José Saramago’s novel The Cave. Housed in a plain, stapled cardboard box, Ponte City is really eighteen books: a large photobook with a minimalist blue-and-black cloth cover, and, nesting beneath it in a rectangular cavity, seventeen saddle-stitched booklets. These form a kind of visual-textual puzzle: the cover of each is a section of one of the photographs in the bigger book, and each reflects on or interprets Ponte differently.
If you follow the editorial signposts, you’ll flip through the photobook, and as you get to the pages with the “missing pieces,” reach for the right booklet and read downward into the subterranean layers beneath Ponte, or upward through its hollow core. You’ll gaze voyeuristically into the apartments, or rifle through press clippings, tracing Ponte’s history from its construction in 1975, to its middle-class hipsterism, to its status as urban eyesore, to the post-apartheid ambitions developers had for it. Reading in this way is like tunneling into Ponte’s past and discovering that the first vision for the building, as a home for upwardly mobile young urbanites, lies buried under the various layers of its complex history. But you’ll also read “smaller” histories—gleaned from the ephemera gathered by the photographers from vacated apartments into a bitty, pop archive—about migration, bureaucracy, Johannesburg’s transformations, hope and failure and the banal texture of daily life. These are presented textually and visually as quasi-fictions, fictions, and documentary fragments, lying between the full-bleed images—some by the photographers, some found—in the photobook.
This book looks at a single and singular building from multiple perspectives, at once a filmic, literary, and photographic account of Ponte, fixated both on the individual lives lived here and the heady panoramas of the hectic city from which it ascends. Ephemera serve as counterpoint to the “big gaze” of Subotzky and Waterhouse’s meticulously composed images. But so do their collages of doors, windows, televisions. In these they zoom in and away—from kitchen counter to cityscape—in dizzying maneuvers that point to the relationship of metropole to individual life, of history to intimacy. Ponte City plays out partly as a postmodern archeological dig, recalling the work of other documentarians but also contemplating the inevitable fragmentation of lives and the concomitant inventiveness that are the photographer’s challenge and pleasure.
Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is a writer, senior lecturer, and head of creative writing at Wits University, Johannesburg; cofounder and editor of Fourthwall Books; and former editor of Art South Africa magazine. fourthwallbooks.com
The PhotoBook Review is a publication dedicated to the consideration of the photobook—focusing on the best photography books being published, from the coffee-table book to the handmade artist’s edition, and on creating a better understanding of the ecosystem of the photobook as a whole.