What is Mikhael Subotzky actually up to...
In 2009, South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky won the Leica Oskar Barnack Award for his series Beaufort West. This body of work explores many facets of life in the small town of Beaufort West, population of 37,000, which is cut through by the main arterial road connecting Johannesburg and Cape Town. We spoke about his most important projects over the last ten years, and his tips for newcomer photographers.
Have you been back to Beaufort West since 2009? What has changed?
I’ve been back a few times to visit some of the people I photographed, as well as my assistant, Major, who has become a good friend. Not much has changed: it is still the vibrant but impoverished town that I got to know. Sadly they are in the midst of a terrible drought in the area so there are serious water shortages.
The Leica Oskar Barnack Award is granted to series. What role do series play for you compared to individual pictures?
For me the series and the individual picture are always equally important. I aim for the impossible - that each photograph can stand on its own and be a perfect part of the series puzzle. When you don’t succeed perfectly, it is then a tightrope walking between the needs of the individual image and the series, and hopefully after walking and walking and balancing and balancing you end up with something where both are strong enough, and the tension can be felt in a good way.
What have been your most important projects over the past ten years?
I did a project called Ponte City with Patrick Waterhouse, and next year we will be presenting it at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It deals with an iconic apartment block in Johannesburg. We photographed the building and the people living there over a period of six years. In addition, I have conceived a touring exhibition called Retinal Shift, that includes my first film work, Moses and Griffiths. My second film is titled WYE. (http://www.subotzkystudio.com/works/wye/)
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working towards an exhibition of new paintings and works on paper that will be at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg starting 18th May. For the past six years, I’ve been systematically pulling images apart in an attempt to “get inside” them and understand their representational function. Working with found images as well as my own photographs, they have been radically re-contextualised, smashed, split in half, and reconstituted into forms that I see as being a more honest reflection of these images than their original form. Over the past two years this practice has been extended to include paintings on canvas and other works on paper and canvas. These types of works will form the core of the solo exhibition.
What would you wish for future winners? Which stories would you like to see? What advice would you give young photographers?
I’m always very interested in seeing the work being made by new generations of photographers and I would like to see anything that surprises me. Shoot as much as you can. Read as much as you can. Give yourself distance and think as much as you can. There’s really not much more to it than that!
Mikhael Subotzky was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1981 and is currently based in Johannesburg. Subotzky’s film, video and photographic works are concerned with the structures of narrative and representation, as well as the relationship between social storytelling and the formal contingencies of image making.