Lee Grant – Photography Blog

Pieter Hugo

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There has been a bit of buzz surrounding Pieter Hugo on the web. He has just collected the Discovery Award at the Rencontres d’Arles Festival in France (which runs from 8 July – 14 September). And I think for good reason, as you can see:

Londiwe Wendy Mkhize, Pietermaritzburg, 2005

The Honourable Justice Unity Dow

Mallam Galadima Ahmadu with Jamis, Nigeria 2005

Mallam Mantari Lamal with Mainasara,Nigeria 2005

Sheila Ward Smith, Sea Point, 2006

Jan, Martie, Kayala, Florence and Basil Meyer in their home

Pieter and Maryna Vermeulen with Timana Phosiwa

(All images courtesy Pieter Hugo)

South African art dealer Michael Stevenson writes succintly about Hugo’s work:

“Hugo has photographed people in diverse contexts across Africa who he feels have a distinct presence and bearing. Hugo, in his photography, is willing to take the risk of confronting the troubled and entwined history of Africa and photography, and take images that are forthright and direct. His work is characterised by an unapologetic desire to look; at the same time, he negotiates a direct dialogue with the subject in his photograph. He looks, but what is equally significant is that he is looked at. Perhaps it is the combined energy of the photographer and the photographed that gives these images, and their subject, their commanding presence.”

What I find personally interesting about his photographs is the subject matter, almost as much as how he frames it. Coming from Africa, there is little shortage of exotic, shocking and interesting visual material. And ultimately, what he chooses to look at and photograph, is.

Elizabeth Biondi of the New Yorker responds to Hugo’s work thus: “Some people have said to me that Pieter’s subject is so dramatic that it would be hard to take a bad picture, but you know, a photographer chooses his subjects, and that too, is an im[portant part of having a great eye. Photographers go where their instincts lead them and then try and work out their fascination for the subject through the photographs they take. That’s what Pieter’s doing but in an extreme kind of way. He has a vision and he pursues it relentlessly. He has what it takes.”

Good to know.

I wonder though about Gerry Badger’s idea of “the quiet photographer”. Badger suggests that it is more a question of voice. The quiet photographer “focuses upon modest rather than determinedly grand subjects, eschews quirky tricks of technique or vision, and (perhaps crucially) presents the work in a modest way”. (Excerpted from How you look at it: photographs of the 20th Century)

Also good to know. I’m not quite sure whether Hugo fits into this category though? Perhaps Africa has its own set of rules? Certainly as an admirer of his work who has never been to Africa, this might be the case. Even then, the images scream for attention for their sheer surreal subject-matter. Ultimately I think that Hugo is trying to locate a sense of his own belonging who “as a white South African doesn’t really fit into the social topography of his own country”. I know from my own experience that when you start to really look at your own surrounds, where you live and have grown up, things always appear stranger than before. Perhaps this is why some of us choose to photograph? To better understand who we are. In Africa, it seems, Hugo simply has a much bigger palette to draw from.

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