THE SEVENTEEN PRISTINE photographic images by Michael Meyersfeld that comprise his current exhibition, Adaptation would have given French theorist Roland Barthes a run for his money in how they extrapolate on the rhetoric of the world in which we live today. Barthes wrote with a scalpel-like language through photographs, demonstrating how they illustrate the world and answer questions, how they encapsulate subtleties. In Barthes’s absence, however, and without too much wordage, these beautifully crafted black and white photographs are everything that the notion of fine art photography is all about.
They’re printed – on both backlit Duratrans film and fibre-based silver bromide – with a clarity that resonates boldly in your head. With utterly black blacks and completely white whites and all the greys in between focused with precision and delicacy, these photographs are brilliant technically even before you get to look properly at the images and the iconography – and the iconoclasm – they embody.
And then, you do look closer. And what do you see? For one thing, you see a microcosm of what it is to be a South African in a society replete with values that shift by the day. Some of these characters, such as the swimsuit-clad woman in what looks like the underside of the bridge in downtown Johannesburg, or the Pale Male Fading in an image of graffiti, are like the unexpected gods of a place, the guardians of secret gateways into parallel universes.
You might look at these works and think of the photographs taken by French photographer Frédéric Brenner, or that of fellow South African photograph Roger Ballen, in terms of how the works are choreographed and curated, how Meyersfeld places characters in situations that are wont to erupt into a million words.
You might see the complicated futures and layered narratives indicated by the compositions, such as that of Guarded Futures, a composition containing a brown boy, a white boy and an Alsatian puppy. Black and white, rich and poor, joyous and complicated, the characters in this body of work is a litany into the many faces of South Africa.
But it is not boring platitudes or nifty compositional decisions that skirt with the smarmily sensational or the itchily uncomfortable that you will encounter in Adaptations. Meyersfeld’s lens embraces the minutiae in the details of each work with a tender sense of earnestness, almost a sensuous understanding of the value of each tile in a mosaic, and each chair in a room.
The effect is something of magical realism caught unawares. When you look at the naked man in an assembly hall, or the abject beggar whose condition is reflected in the face of the woman from whom he begs; the priest, complete with leopard skins in what was once the Wolmarans Street Shul in Johannesburg and the blend of goats and Gaultier in an image that reeks of one of South Africa’s urban townships, you gain a rich diverse melee of realities, and you realise with a kind of suddenness, how Meyersfeld’s gesture in capturing these people and these scenarios, is one that is not without a smile – a wry smile, granted, but a smile of great fondness for the miasma of values chucked together, which we in South Africa call ours.
These are not documentary photographs in the formal sense of the notion; many seem to be posed. The characters are not named. Rather, this body of work offers a kind of a stage set periscope into how Meyersfeld reflects on and composes an understanding of the sham and drudgery, the broken dreams and precious moments that comprise South Africa’s dark and contorted and sometimes surprisingly witty or beautiful social underbellies.
Given Meyersfeld’s status in the photographic world, these are also immensely haveable works, not only for their intelligence and intensity, but also because of the rapidly shifting currents in our world. You won’t remember these mad contradictory days when they’ve passed.
- Adaptation by Michael Meyersfeld is at In Toto Gallery, in Birdhaven until July 3. Call 011 447 6543 or visit intotogallery.co.za