Beneath the Surface - Steve Bloom
01 June to 28 June 2012
Venue: Guardian Gallery (Kings Place)
Address: Guardian News & Media, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London, N1 9GU
Disabled Access: This event has wheelchair access
Opening Times: 10am-6pm, 7 days per week
Going Beneath the Surface
An interview with Steve Bloom
Lizzie Breiner from the London Festival of Photography interviews Steve Bloom about his methods, experiences in the field and body of images taken in 1970s apartheid South Africa, a selection of which are being exhibited as part of the festival (Beneath the Surface, Guardian Gallery, 1 to 28 June).
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Do you think the profound humanism characterising your early as well as more recent photographs of human subjects carries over into your photographs of animals (In Praise of Primates, for example, an unusually intimate work of animal portraiture)? Have you found that there is crossover in terms of photographic approach or method between shooting these two very different types of subjects?
The approach is fundamentally the same, despite the difference in subject matter. As a photographer, I believe it is important to be deeply interested in who or what is being photographed. Without a profound engagement, the photograph cannot be effective. So it’s the photographer’s approach, rather than the subject matter alone, that largely determines the power within the image.
Effective photographs blur the lines between the viewer and the subject, so the goal of the photograph is to attempt to engender a feeling of empathy in the viewer. It’s a constant battle to make pictures which I hope will somehow have a presence beyond the surface of the paper. I also remain conscious of the fact that the photograph can steal something from the subject, who ultimately relinquishes control of their image.
I look for the harmonizing aesthetic qualities in the wildlife, rather than show rawness. It’s a deliberate policy of trying to engender a sense of environmental responsibility by showing beauty.
Most of my pictures of people in apartheid South Africa are not of broken bodies or extreme physical violence. There was an institutionalized racist violence inflicted on the majority of the population, and in many of the pictures the abuse is underlying, beneath the surface.
What do you think is the key to an honest portrait?
Honesty is subjective. Photography is interpretive. The photographer conveys his or her perception of the subject and hopefully reveals something about the subject in the process. If the viewer responds emotionally and encounters a heightened awareness of the subject, then that is near as it is possible to an honest portrait. The image-making process is intuitive, combining composition, timing and print-making. I think that sincerity of intention, with compassion towards the subject, are both prerequisites for honesty in portraiture.
In general, do you find that you take on projects with a preliminary mind to the sort of impact you would like your photographs to have, or does that come later?
I take on projects that interest me, though not always with a specific goal of wider impact. With my wildlife work I also take photographs which I know will pay the bills, as my photography is self-funding and has to pay its way. The first wildlife pictures evolved into a mission to travel to all the world’s continents and make a statement about environmental change and its impact on the world’s wildlife. Initially driven purely by aesthetics, I soon realised that the staging of big exhibitions and the publication of books are powerful tools for raising awareness of these issues. More recently I have been publishing books for children. Three are being published this year, the most recent of which came out this April, called My Big Cats Journal.
Your outdoor Spirit of the Wild exhibitions have been credited with raising awareness of a variety of environmental issues, due in part to the highly public nature of the displays; how would you compare the circulation of your apartheid images, and do you feel they have been equally impactful in their time?
Both the Spirit of the Wild exhibitions and the pictures taken in apartheid South Africa have been impactful in their own ways. My environmental pictures have reached much wider audiences. The Spirit of the Wild outdoor exhibition in Copenhagen was seen by 1.4 million people, and we have had twelve similar city center exhibitions, the most recent being in Abbeville, France this year. I have had over a dozen photography books published internationally, and these have been effective at reaching a very wide audience.
The pictures taken in South Africa in the seventies were withdrawn for many years after the democratization of that country, and have only recently resurfaced and are now gaining some attention again.
What was your degree of involvement in the anti-apartheid movement’s adoption of your photographs?
I lent the pictures to The International Defence and Aid fund for Southern Africa, for the purpose of raising awareness of apartheid, and with the objective of ending enforced racism on the statute books of South Africa. I attended demonstrations and supported the Anti-apartheid Movement. But I was a very small player, and remain filled with admiration for the many people who made huge sacrifices and who were totally driven and committed to the eradication of apartheid.
Did you encounter opposition to your image-taking or find your motivations being questioned while you were still shooting in South Africa? How did people typically respond to your taking their photograph?
I encountered little opposition. People wanted their stories told. It is possible that a small number of people may have mistakenly thought I was a police spy when I was in the illegal squatter camps, where people lived in family units in defiance of the race laws. But I had little sense of that. I usually turned up alone in my VW Beetle, and had long hair, so I guess most people assumed I was not with the authorities. I would sometimes enter areas prohibited to white people. At that time long hair on men was not tolerated by South African society so I must have stuck out as a rebel.
What was it like to return to Africa after the prolonged period of exile?
It was very emotional. During the thirteen years that I did not go back I had a recurring memory of the image of Table Mountain disappearing from view as the plane turned away and headed north. On my return, the plane turned to approach Cape Town airport and the mountain once again came back into view, exactly as I had last seen it. For a moment it was as if no time had passed. When I was back once more and able to smell the local vegetation, known as ‘fynbos’, it transported me back to my childhood.
Do you think there are parallels between your street photographs of South Africa from the ‘70s and your more recent images of Nairobi?
I was thirty-six years younger when I did the South African pictures, and have since learned a lot more about seeing. I look at the South African pictures and ask myself how they could have been done better; but they relate to a particular time and place in my life, and I produced them that way because that was how I was responding then. But we all change and learn with time.
I am more conscious now of the way we see things, but even then I was interested in how pictures work when juxtaposed. For example, a picture of a crying black baby next to a picture of an elderly white woman makes a point about the generational and racial divides. By filling the frame with the faces, to the exclusion of backgrounds, the pair also shows the common threads of humanity between two people who could not have been further apart in the sphere of human experience. In my more recent book, Trading Places: The Merchants of Nairobi, I was seeking to show how the human spirit can triumph when faced with adversity, and how Nairobi’s residents use creativity in the way they decorate their shop fronts, in order to compete with each other in a harsh commercial world.
“When seeing we experience different viewpoints and the challenge of making a photograph is to get past the point of where you are looking at something for a split-second, and on to thinking how you can use long exposures, perhaps to give different aspects and different viewpoints.” (Bloom on shooting wildlife, from a 2011 interview with Sean Samuels in Photography Monthly)
This interest visibly manifests itself in your unique multiperspectival representations of reality in a number of your more recent photographs — for example, the spatially and temporally panoramic view of Kitengela Road in Nairobi, or the composite image of the block of flats in your book Trading Places. What sort of a perspective did you feel you lent to the South African apartheid situation through your photography? Do you think you were required to bridge multiple perspectives in your rendering of these images?
I have always accepted the single photograph as a mere part of a wider narrative, and been fascinated by the way that photographs can link to each other in sequence. A photography monograph is a sequence of photographs and the construction of the sequence is every bit as important as the individual images. We don’t see the world in single isolated images, and my more recent work borrows from the vision of Picasso and David Hockney. As a photographer, as soon as I understood cubism, there was no turning back. The picture of Kitengela Road and the composite of the block of flats in the book Trading Places are principally cubist images because they encompass multiple viewpoints and slices of time.
I had not fully and consciously understood such visual principles when I took the pictures in South Africa, and they lend themselves more to traditional documentary photography. But I had been interested on the idea of photographs showing change.
There is a sequence of two images from the South African pictures where in the first one, two white children walk passed a black couple on the pavement, and the man on the pavement is holding a sick woman. In the second image the children are walking in the opposite direction, eating ice creams as they again pass the same couple. The pair of images speaks louder about indifference across the racial divide, than one single picture on its own would.
There has been a resurge of interest in contact sheets recently, spurred by the publications of Looking In, which shows Robert Frank’s contact sheets from The Americans, as well as the recent publication of Magnum Contact Sheets.
Your photographs of 1970s apartheid South Africa have been described as capturing a pivotal “moment” in South African history – namely, the period marked by the first wave of resistance to apartheid segregation. You speak quite a bit about the concept of the moment: sometimes in a more traditional sense (for example, capturing a young boy’s momentary expression of fear during an African tribal circumcision ceremony) and sometimes presenting a more radical interpretation (as with your portrait of Tim Andrews which you describe as “challenging the ‘decisive moment’ school of photographic thinking”). Obviously it’s a multi-faceted term that’s always operating on many levels at once, but I’d be interested to know what sort of a moment or moments you see yourself capturing with these photographs from the ‘70s. How do you see the term operating in relation to this set of images?
Our individual lives pass briefly through a continually changing world. I happened to have been young in South Africa during the 1970’s and was interested in using photography as a means of expressing my own discontentment with the environment in which I was living. Everything is in a constant state of flux and photography is always open for re-invention. My early work was in black and white, because it was cheaper and easier to process than colour film. It conformed to the documentary norms of the day. The entire methodology has changed in today’s digital world, but the nature of seeing and the roots of creativity remain with the individual photographer’s experience.
If you had to choose a representative image from your collection of apartheid photographs, what would it be and why?
It’s a question I can’t answer. My own tastes about my work change, and photographers are often their own worst editors. I am unable to choose one to the exclusion of others so it is for the viewer to judge.
What role do you think your photographs of 1970s South Africa play in the contemporary world?
The past should never be forgotten. I am pleased that the photographs have been revived, reprinted and exhibited. Apartheid was a terrible period in the history of South Africa and the best insurance against a repetition of the past is to constantly maintain awareness of the consequences of racism. If my pictures make a tiny contribution to that objective, then they were worth the effort.
Beneath the Surface, featuring Steve Bloom's images of 1970s apartheid South Africa, will be on in the Guardian Gallery from 1 to 28 June. He will also be delivering a talk on 11 June about his early experiences in apartheid South Africa and how this body of work shaped his photographic career.
Man at home with can of Doom insecticide, Clanwilliam, South Africa, 1975 © Steve Bloom /SteveBloom.com
Grand Parade, Cape Town, South Africa, 1976 © Steve Bloom /SteveBloom.com
Policeman chasing man during street protest, Cape Town, South Africa, 1976 © Steve Bloom /SteveBloom.com
Bus stop, Cape Town, South Africa, 1976 © Steve Bloom /SteveBloom.com
British Journal of Photography. Cover - August 1977
The Guardian Gallery © Tom Bulley