Worth a Look: Mikhael Subotzky’s Ponte City Project

Mikhael Subotzky’s work has always captivated me and pushed my thinking about documentary photography. First it was with his project photographing in prisons, DIE VIER HOEKE. Then he shook many peoples’ worlds with the publication of his book Beaufort West which in part followed prisoners out into the city and shows more of a complete South African community. Conscientious interviewed him two years ago and he described the moment when Beaufort West was coming together: “At this point the work became much more personal as I established and built up relationships with a group of disparate people who inhabited the same city as me, but very different worlds. I began to see the work as my own exploration of my surroundings – a part of my attempts to make myself as conscious as possible.”

I just came across his latest project “Ponte City” on his new website. He has thrown me around again, and I believe (and hope) it will for many others too. He has photographed every Door, Window and Television in an iconic and infamous 54-story apartment building in Johannesburg. From the text describing the project, which is in collaboration with Patrick Waterhouse, they explain:

Ponte’s iconic structure soon became a symbol of the downturn in central Johannesburg. The reality of the building and its many fictions have always integrated seamlessly into a patchwork of myths and projections that reveals as much about the psyche of the city as it does about the building itself. Tales of brazen crack and prostitution rings operating from its car parks, four storeys of trash accumulating in its open core, snakes, ghosts and frequent suicides have all added to the building’s legend. Some of these stories are actually true, and for quite some time most of the residents were indeed illegal immigrants. And yet, one is left with the feeling that even the building’s notoriety is somewhat exaggerated – that its decline is just as fictional as its initial utopian intentions were misplaced and unrealized.

Further, the primary media of this project is an installation: lightboxes of all the photographs taken of Windows, Doors and Televisions. (Links are to detailed shots of each category). Giant contact sheets, typology of three important aspects that are involved in every life and apartment in this building. Subotzky’s site also has images of the installation on walls in a few South African galleries.

Subotzky and Waterhouse also are showing a complete book dummy of Ponte City, which expands out these typologies with images of the transformation of the Ponte City building and the daily life inside. The editing is brilliant, and tells the story of how the project came together as well as the story itself beautifully. This is another item I cannot wait to see in person (like the Sochi Project’s new book). Even though I have all the material in front of me, I know that it will be better in person. Tactile and enveloping beyond a screen.

I was talking with my friend Donald Weber about this project, about how much it kicked me in the ass and made me stand up and think about things anew. He said it better than I could: “it’s some of the best/most interesting work I’ve seen in a long long time. I like it because it’s smart and is about ideas rather then fucking pretty pictures.” Amen, I think we could use some more of these ideas at work in our “photojournalism”.

“All the stories from Ponte’s past were there before us – the druglords and the gangsters, the shootouts and the prostitutes, the ghosts and the voodoo magic – not in the building itself, where young people and families went about their lives calmly, but on the hundreds of screens that were stacked above each other, flat by flat and floor by floor.”

5 Responses to “Worth a Look: Mikhael Subotzky’s Ponte City Project”

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