Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Jo'burg and Petros Village by Guy Tillim

Two compelling books from the South Africa photographer Guy Tillim are about the dependence of a marginal group of people to the land that they live upon.

In his book Jo’burg released by Filigranes Editions and STE Publishers in 2005, his subject was blocks of high rise apartments in Johannesburg, South Africa and the struggle of the low income residents in their pursue of a better life. These buildings, mostly occupied by the flow of black residents after the 1990’s “white flight” from the inner city, had been abandoned by their owners and left in the hands of corrupt managing agents. The void of oversight allowed the corrupt agents to abscond with the tenant’s money that was intended for paying for rent and utilities, thus leaving all responsibility on the residents to manage the upkeep of the buildings and somehow pay the utilities on their own.

Tillim gives us an often intimate look into this community as their surroundings fall into disrepair and the residents are eventually evicted due to the perceived fire hazards and unpaid bills. His camera describes the condition of neglect evident in bedrooms and hallways and the despairing but not defeated faces of the residents. Eventually towards the end of the book’s sequence, the red jump-suited “Red Ants” city workers move in to evict the tenants and empty the buildings of all their belongings.

The overt message, compounded by the facts of South Africa’s history, is one of continued exclusion reminiscent of former apartheid laws. Investment capital and city lawyers always have the upper hand by invoking statutes (and swaying public opinion) to do accomplish their bidding.

Tillim had released a couple books prior to Jo’burg but this book drew much of my attention due to its accordion style construction and the perception that Tillim’s photography had matured far from his wide-angle photo-journalistic roots. In his first book Departures, Tillim seems to embrace the attention getting mannerisms of using a very wide angle lens; a tendency that has made most photojournalism for me, less interesting. With the work in Jo’burg, he is obviously still using the wide lens but he handles it in ways that limit’s those self consciousness mannerisms and allows the viewer to directly engage in the subject. The work and approach is vaguely familiar to Luc Delahaye’s Winterreisse.

One of Guy Tillim’s newer books, Petros Village released by Punctum Editions in 2006, follows in the footsteps of Jo’burg but it takes the thought of people’s attachment to land in a more metaphoric way.

Petros Village is a small rural community in Malawi just north of the capital Lilongwe. They are an agricultural community that survives on a staple crop of corn for existence and tobacco and beans for commerce. Subject to the weather and uncertain harvests, theirs is a marginal and unsure existence.

Tillim spent two visits in February of 2006, photographing the communal daily life of the residents as well as taking their formal portraits. The result is a small, accordion style book of 27 photographs.

Here Tillim seems fascinated with the literal contact these people have with the earth. All of the photographs have in their form vast expanses of the reddish-brown hued earth and most seek a vantage point that look downwards, so that the ground becomes both a backdrop and contact point for the activity described. In fact, I think the ground is much more of the subject than the daily life as most of the activities are rather vague for understanding what is taking place.

His portraits show the residents in interiors of the buildings and all are similar in approach, showing the head and shoulders of couples directly engaging with the camera. Here it is the light that adds a seductive quality as the subjects seem to be emerging from the darkness of their dwellings.

I like this book for its seeming simplicity and elegant construction. The Jo’burg book is similar but unfortunately with that title, due to the flimsy page material and gluing technique, the accordion construction begot a rather wonky appearance. Filigranes Editions is a great small publisher for books that have a handmade appearance and utilize odd binding techniques and materials. With Petros Village, Punctum Editions has perfected the technique and created a tight and solid little book.

Buy Petros Village at Dashwood Books

Buy Jo’burg online at Filigranes Editions

Book Available Here (Jo'burg)