Trevor Appleson

Pulling images out of the dark

By Ossian Ward

From the book Free Ground


The pioneering daguerrotypists of the 1830s often set up portrait studios outside – on rooftops or in the street – in order to make use of the maximum amount of daylight. Soon after the advent of portrait photography came the invention of basic lighting systems that would allow photographers to move indoors, which in turn necessitated the use of various coloured or painted backdrops, to create the illusion of naturalistic landscapes or exteriority. Certainly the studio allowed photographers to exercise greater control over their light and their images, but the growing demand for portraits meant that many early portrait photographers spent their time travelling from town to town to village, producing cheap photographs for those living outside the big cities.

The world of commercial photography – that of the studio photographer, the professional portraitist or the itinerant photographer with his bag of cameras, light stands and canvas backdrops – remains largely unsung in the history of the medium as an art form, much less even than the so-called ‘amateur’ photographer. However, the quirkily painted backdrops and portable photography booths of yesteryear have greatly influenced the practice of Trevor Appleson, who has carried his own modest studio around his native South Africa since 2000, setting up his temporary shoots in convenient spots where pedestrians can stop and be photographed. The sight of a compact metal frame being unfolded, erected and then covered in black cloth, whether it is on a beach, a busy dockside walkway or in a rundown suburb of Cape Town, is usually enough to attract the attention and curiosity of his potential subjects. Appleson invites passers-by to pose as they would for a formal portrait, except here there are no props, no trappings of status or standing and no idealising constructions of identity – they are just told to be themselves.

The ubiquitous high-street photography studio, with its shop window full of soft-focus babies cuddling soft toys or preened teenagers flashing toothy grins, fulfils a similar function to the eighteenth-century society portrait painter in that it provides the opportunity to commission an image of oneself for posterity. The traditional role of a private, indoor photography booth differs radically from the open-air, public scenario of Appleson’s peripatetic portraiture. In fact, the action of parting with money for a portrait is not only refused in the artist’s free-for-all approach, but the contract is often reversed when Appleson hands over a modest cash incentive to the less well-off volunteers or a donation to a local outreach programme to benefit the street kids. This system has more in common with the hiring of models for commercial photography, although obviously his portraits refute advertising’s standard notions of beauty and there is no corporate client to appease. Consequently, Appleson has no duty to represent the sitters in any prescribed way or to leave behind any physical evidence of his intervention. Almost as soon as he has arrived and set up his nomadic studio, he has packed up and has gone again – mirroring the fleeting action of the camera’s shutter and its ability to capture a discrete, finite aperture in time.

From the 1920s to the 1950s a grumpy, dour professional photographer – who mysteriously changed his name from Mike Meyer to Mike Disfarmer in the middle of this period – took thousands of portraits at his unprepossessing photographic studio, mainly of locals and visitors to the remote farming community of Heber Springs in Arkansas. “He wasn't friendly or talkative,” remembered one sitter. “Instead of telling you to smile, he just took the picture,” said another. “No ‘cheese’ or anything. You didn't even know when the picture was taken.” Although Disfarmer’s enclosed and intimidating studio space does not relate to Appleson’s outdoor arena for portrait-making, there is a close visual correlation between the centrally composed compositions and dark draperies visible in both, as well as in the disquieting intensity of the expressions of many of their sitters. Despite documenting so many birthdays, engagements, graduations and anniversaries, Disfarmer’s famously frosty nature perhaps explains his clients’ alternately stony-faced or petrified appearances; maybe his lack of engagement meant they were caught unawares and unprepared for the instantaneous act of self-presentation. Some of Appleson’s characters also glare, scowl or exude indifference. However, this is more a reflection of each individual’s personality than of the artist’s lack of rapport with his sitters, given that after his initial enthusiastic interaction with a new subject, Appleson quickly distances himself and gets down to the business of taking the picture, creating an ambiguous insider/outsider relationship with his subjects (as Disfarmer did also), to which we will return in due course.

Apart from the passing resemblance in composition and associated methodologies, what these two disconnected practitioners really share is the tacit objective of portraying ‘community’. The inhabitants of Disfarmer’s small-town backwater – categorised into men, women, children, military, families, and couples – would surely have receded into anonymity were it not for his act of mass portraiture, just as Appleson seeks to document loose groupings of his own devising that would not otherwise exist. Although the beach-goers, homeless people, students, fruit-packers, policemen, security guards and bank clerks in Appleson’s series of photographs do not confirm to a strict typological study of a tribe or a specific collection of people, his project recalls August Sander’s monumental undertaking began in the 1920s, People of the Twentieth Century, in which he grouped around 600 portraits of fellow Germans under seven archetypal categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. Sander’s aim, “to see things as they are and not as they should or could be”, also applies to Douglas Huebler’s conceptual project, Variable Piece 70, began in 1971 in which he intended to “photograph the existence of everyone alive”.

Any photographic inventory of human beings falsely presupposes that society can be envisaged as a comprehensible totality, but this did not stop Victorian anthropologists and ethnographers from attempting to photograph and ‘collect’ whole peoples in order to classify them by race, creed and colour. The typological classifications developed in physiognomy, criminology and ethnography that assisted colonial expansion in the nineteenth century would return a century later with the introduction of apartheid in South Africa in 1949. Under the Population Registration Act, all South Africans were classified as white, coloured or Bantu (the apartheid name for Africans) although the imprecise term ‘coloured’ led to eight new categories as defined by the Coloured Proclamation Act of 1959 and subsequently, to some notorious and ridiculous tests, including one in which a pencil was twirled in a person’s hair to see whether or not it sprang back into place and so determine their racial identity. Such attempts at ethnic categorisation were ultimately futile, as Appleson’s project confirms. In this monograph, for example, it is unclear whether some of the ten or so white faces among approximately 100 portraits might not actually be of mixed-race heritage and would thus have corresponded to one of the eight apartheid definitions of ‘coloureds’ that included: ‘Cape Coloured’, Muslim, Chinese, Indian and ‘Other Coloured’ (the actual demographics suggest that white people compose 20% of the South African population, double the percentage depicted in this book). However, rather than a means of assisting the colonization and enslavement of people, photography during apartheid instead became a weapon to challenge social and political oppression in South Africa, through the work of the so-called ‘Struggle’ photojournalists, such as Peter Magubane.

Since the beginning of the end of apartheid in 1990, contemporary South African photographers and artists have been seeking an antidote to representations of black South Africans as victims of apartheid or as political insurgents within their own country. Zwelethu Mthethwa’s portraits of shantytown residents taken throughout the 1990s were an attempt to redress the balance of harsh, desolate black-and-white documentary photography by presenting colourful, uplifting imagery of South Africans, or as he says of his own work; “Colour restores people’s dignity. I think these photographs preserve and show a humanness of the occupants in their private spaces. They restore their pride and affirm their ownership.” The subjects of Mthethwa’s portraits still appear poor because of their cramped living conditions and informal interiors constructed from advertising hoardings, yet his depictions are sympathetic to the sitters and perhaps in some way enact a redefinition and rehumanizing of the official terminology ‘coloured’. Much of this empathy in Mthethwa’s work can also be found in Appleson’s practice, because he too is bound to his subjects through a shared nationality – despite the fact that Appleson was categorised as white under the terms of apartheid.

Diane Arbus once noted the difficulties of ingratiating herself with her subjects, “If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, ‘I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life’. I mean people are going to say ‘You’re crazy.’ Plus they’re going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid.” As an insider, rather than an outsider as Arbus often found herself, Appleson uses his camera as a license to investigate South African identity and representation, irrespective of his racial difference. Despite the fact that Appleson has photographed perhaps 1,000 people who are grouped to some degree by their similarities – for example in their uniform, in their employment or lack thereof – in many ways his work celebrates their difference.

Within the first 20 images of this book there appears: a wild-eyed homeless man wearing a tweed dress and a paint-splattered blue jacket, a small blond boy carrying his dog, four female bathers, a beachcomber with a sorry-looking quarter of watermelon and a beefy boat skipper baring his chest. The bizarre cross-section of characters that makes up the various Beaches series partly arose because some images were shot on poor neighbourhood beaches and others were taken in more affluent locations such as Cape Town’s Clifton 4th Beach, but it is also a measure of the multiplicity and incongruity of the individuals that make up South African society. Similarly, among the many Uniforms are poignant details of individuality; from the varying blues, greens and greys of the shipbuilders’ overalls to the different school logos and crests emblazoned on tracksuits, blazers and gym outfits. The repetitive nature of Uniforms is a vehicle of intensification for dissimilarity; there is endless difference in this sameness.

Although the clothing, gestures, postures and expressions mark all of Appleson’s subjects out as individuals, they are still bound together by their relationship to the dark, ‘free ground’ of the portable studio.

Appleson’s title Free Ground is an English translation of an Afrikaans word ‘Vrygrond’, which is the name of one of the most memorable locations for his portable studio portraits. Vrygrond is the oldest unofficial conglomeration of settlements and homes in the Cape area and sits on the beach, facing False Bay on the east coast of the Peninsula. It was supposedly gifted to local fishermen and their families in the 1930s by an Italian aristocrat landowner, literally given as ‘free land’. Under apartheid, however, the area was declared public land, meaning that the inhabitants had no legal rights to dwell there. A hardcore of Vrygrond squatters avoided this persecution and continued to live in their makeshift tin and wood shacks on the beach, albeit with the more-or-less constant threat of eviction hanging over them. By 1996 the Cape Town City Council agreed to allow the 7,000 or so settlers constitutional rights to live on the land, but made no efforts to provide them with electricity, water or sewage facilities.

Given the origin of the title and the economic impossibility of truly ‘free’ land, Free Ground could be read as an ironic or absurd situation. However, it is better interpreted as an optimistic pronouncement on post-apartheid South Africa as well as a metaphorical musing on the specific nature of Appleson’s process of portraiture. In fact, the etymological origins of the word photography, literally meaning ‘light writing’ in Greek is especially apt for Free Ground, because for each shoot Appleson sets up his roving studio for just one hour at sunrise and one hour at sunset, to avoid the harsh light of the day.

In 1994 South Africa was reborn and could be said to have become free ground once more. Since only 12 years have passed since then, it is still an extraordinarily young democracy by Western standards. This miraculous revolution and the heroic leadership of its idol Nelson Mandela should not mask the many issues that have yet to be dealt with in this fledgling nation: poverty, housing, corruption, HIV/AIDS, employment discrimination and land reattribution are just a few. Also, the country is still emerging from the mire of apartheid in artistic terms. There are still very few artists of the stature of Mthethwa or William Kentridge visible on the international circuit, partly due to South Africa’s absence of almost twenty-seven years from the Venice Biennale (to which it was finally invited back in 1993), and the geographical inaccessibility of its own contemporary art platforms such as the Johannesburg Biennial.

Appleson’s work does display the occasional mark of overt Africanicity: one man proudly wears a lion’s head print on his shirt, another sports a green and yellow Cameroonian national football team shirt, a flash of traditional batik or ‘Dutch wax’ fabric is seen on the skirt of a woman holding a young brightly-dressed child, while one white woman’s bathing suit is emblazoned with orange and black tiger stripes. Yet, there are also confusions of national boundaries and signs of globalization in one man’s T-shirt of a Maori warrior from New Zealand complete with traditional face tattoos, and another’s print of Reggae superstar Bob Marley, who was a symbolic figure for African unification and development but spent most of his life in Jamaica and the UK. Unlike the work of the revered mid-century Malian studio photographer, Seydou Keita, who used various backdrops such as fringed bed spreads or heavily patterned textiles draped behind his subjects, which emphasized the specific condition of being African, Appleson’s backdrop is inscrutably pitch black, a tabula rasa, or even a conceptual free ground.

“There is as much difference between us and ourselves as between us and others”, said the Renaissance thinker, Michel de Montaigne, on our fraught relationships with ourselves, mankind and what would later be called the ‘Other’. As stated earlier, Appleson’s nationality, race and peripatetic process makes his relationship with his subjects a similarly ambiguous amalgam of both insider and outsider, but for most viewers his sitters really are strangers who are geographically, economically and socially removed from our everyday spheres of experience. Karl Jung believed we are all connected by the ‘two-million-year-old man’ within ourselves, and Freud argued, in the course of his 1919 explorations of the uncanny Das Unheimliche, that foreignness is within us and that we should embrace “the fascinated rejection that the foreigner arouses in us”. In his use of the black background to conceal a landscape or an exterior context for each portrait, Appleson invites us to consider each person individually, to welcome both the fascination and rejection that is produced by this ‘Other’ and take it as an opportunity to experience our own radical differences, our own strangeness.

Rineke Dijkstra, who also makes large-scale portraits of youngsters on beaches, as well as teenage soldiers, students and bullfighters, reveals something of her photographic ‘discovery’ of a person in this statement: “When I make portraits of these people, I look at them, observe them. But it’s really a question of choosing the right moment. It has to do with a kind of recognition which doesn’t happen consciously. It happens between them and me, and it lasts just a fraction of a second.” This revelatory moment, which also applies to the viewer’s experience of work by both Dijkstra and Appleson, is somehow monumentalized by the landscapes of the moody grey skylines or beaches that frame each of her subjects and seems, as she says, “As though they had been sitting there forever”. On the other hand, Appleson’s black background heightens the immediacy of our acquaintance with each portrait – whether it is someone flexing their muscles, blowing out smoke or running their hand through their hair – in effect the darkness starkly foregrounds their natural, unforced presence.

By drastically reducing perpectival space, the trademark black curtain adds to this intense frontality and closeness with the viewer. In Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography: a Middle Brow Art of 1965 he discusses how this claustrophobic foregrounding of the portrait photograph demands a certain posture: “It is certainly possible that the spontaneous desire for frontality is linked to the most deep-rooted cultural values. Honour demands that one pose for the photograph as one would stand before a man whom one respects and from whom one expects respect, face on, one’s forehead held high and one’s head straight.” The fixed stare of the sitter – “adopting the most conventional posture, seeking as far as possible to control the objectification of one’s own image” – is best seen in Appleson’s images of authority figures such as policemen and security guards. Far from signifying Bourdieu’s friendly deference or a reciprocal respect however, this stiff pose and insistent rebuttal of our gaze can actually provoke a certain unease or a contract of conflict as advocated by Jean Baudrillard: “The photographic act is a duel; that is to say, it is a challenge to the object and the object’s defiance of that challenge.”

Among the most defiant characters in Free Ground are the gangsters and homeless people whose scar-lined and substance-ravaged faces recall portraits by social documentarists such as Lewis Hine, Roman Vishniac and Jacob A. Riis, who described himself as a mediator between the horrors of the Manhattan slum and respectable society in his 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. While early documentary photography reveals how far apart we are from the ‘Other’, street photographers such as Garry Winogrand and Philip-Lorca diCorcia bring us into close contact with ordinary individuals, even more so in the way that Appleson presents all of his subjects in exactly the same way, on their Free Ground. The flattering combination of flash and sunlight highlights the features of each face equally; none are represented as victims. Free Ground’s almost utopian emphasis on equality and individuality (another metaphor for recent events in South African history) is all the more interesting when considered with regards to a recent court case in which Philip-Lorca diCorcia was sued for exhibiting strangers’ portraits in his 1999 series, Heads. Although unsuccessful, this lawsuit charts the way in which artistic expression and individual privacy rights might have an impact on future street photography, signifying a steady erosion of photographic freedom. Appleson, a sympathetic mediator, blurs the boundaries between street, documentary and studio photography through his portable, black cloth, the Free Ground.

The blackness of the backdrop could be interpreted in numerous ways. It could represent a veil, like the black hood that traditional Victorian plate photographers would retreat underneath, which has sinister associations with the hood of Death himself. Or it could relate to Malevich’s radical reduction of the act of painting to one simple black square, either “The embryo of all possibilities” as he called it, or the end point of art, as symbolized by the black squares that were draped over his hearse and used to mark his graveside. However, even though Roland Barthes was at great pains to highlight the photograph as a reminder of death – as the ultimate, modern memento mori – it is also an admission of the opposite; that we are alive.

In the same breath, Barthes described photography as a “kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant”, which has more relevance to the rudimentary stage set created by Appleson’s portable studio, in which each person acts, pretends, performs or in some cases, succumbs to stage fright and stands stock-still in front of the drape. The dark background also acts as a framing device (used by myriad photographers including Jeff Wall and Hiroshi Sugimoto) and as a partition, similar in function to a traditional Chinese screen which creates “a zone of emptiness in the apparent continuity of the visual world”, according to Darian Leader. In fact, psychoanalyst Leader’s 2002 book, Stealing the Mona Lisa, describes a similar phenomenon to the curiosity aroused by Appleson’s roving studio in his description of the spectators flocking to see the empty space left behind after Leonardo’s most famous picture was surreptitiously removed from the Louvre’s wall in 1911. This non-reflective, nowhere field with no history, no language, no race and no colour allows Appleson to effectively make something out of nothing. He is pulling images out of the darkness, and more importantly, out into the light.