Figures & Fictions @V&A

I went to the V&A Museum today on the recommendation of a friend to see the “Figures & Fictions” exhibition of Contemporary South African Photography.

Just a quick escape from home as my wife had taken the kids to the gym and swimming, I had a couple of hours to myself.

Overall I was very impressed: A mix of old and new and different styles. David Goldblatt had some pictures of course, but with him it’s always about the content, never really the aesthetic. A documentary photographer not a fine artist. Representing the same thread; Jodi Bieber and Sabelo Mlangeni were good and fairly traditional in feeling.

In a more contemporary vein were Zanel Muholi, Jo Ractliffe, Berni Searle, Mikhael Subotzky and Roelof Petrus Van Wyk and Nontsikelele Veleko. All good and could have emerged from any contemporary European Photography department. Solid and interesting; mixing current portrait and social documentary styles. Amazingly I actually recognised Yo-landi Vi$$er of the South African band “Die Antwoord” in one of the Van Wyk portraits. (I didn’t have the faintest idea who she was until a few days ago.) All high-resolution digital images, printed very large, for no good reason but full of impact for all that.

But head and shoulders above the other fine photographers stood two:

You have probably seen Pieter Hugo’s photographs of the Hyena Men from Nigeria, and he had some other deeply affecting photographs on display. He is extremely accomplished, and undoubtedly brave beyond measure to got to the places he goes and make those images. This is post-apocalyptic photography without doubt. Africa is perhaps not years behind the rest of the world, perhaps they are instead a thousand years ahead and there lies our bleak future. Whoever imagined hell could be rendered so beautifully?

And finally Guy Tillim – with a series on a village in Malawi that was astonishingly good. Full colour images that yet seemed to represent every shade of brown, monochrome in full colour. Images containing astonishing movement and simultaneous stillness, and composition that takes a ball-peen hammer to that part of your brain where the aesthetic sensibility resides. Stunning images, reminiscent of Sebastiao Salgado; finding great classical form and beauty in the poverty of an African village. The subject matter not so stark as Salgado and less jarring for that. This goes beyond documentary photography this is very fine art indeed.

Guy Tillim is not just one of South Africa’s best photographers, he’s one of the very best photographers I have seen, surpassing in my view some of the acknowledged greats. Seek out his work, you will not be disappointed that you did.

And of course I took my X100 along. The young man who sold me the ticket to the exhibition asked if that was the “new hybrid camera”. I said it was and he asked how it was. I paused for a second and said: “It’s excellent, really amazing.” “Is it good at high ISO?” He wanted to know. “Yes,” I said, “though I don’t shoot it that way very much.”

Shooting today in RAW mode only, which certainly speeded up write times. Also with ALL power saving modes disabled, turning the camera off when I wasn’t using it for a while. This is surely the way to go, for startup times are now in the region of 0.5 seconds. Today for the first time it went beyond the merely acceptable to actually feeling pretty snappy in operation. And oh so silent. Just beautiful to use, no one takes any notice of you at all; this is the opposite of in-your-face photography – it seems calm and genteel.