In a world enthralled by style, obsessed with the defining image, a photographer who is unconvinced by such an orchestrated luminescence is rare. Margot Muir is uninterested in the artfulness of photography, and its accompanying deceit. In fact, I’d wager that Muir is profoundly concerned, if not mortified, by the absolutism of the photographic image in the 21st century – its new world order and its ubiquity. Does one truly struggle to create a singular image in this oversaturated era? Is it not, rather, the fact that the generic image is a fait accompli? One might think me cynical, however, my deeper point is that it is well-nigh impossible, at this historical moment, to isolate a distinctive image repertoire, this because pastiche – more insidious than parody – has cannibalised the ability to single out a unique point of view.
In South Africa – before this metastasized moment in global photography – photographic or documentary realism was celebrated. The purpose of the photographer was to record – in the 60s, 70s and 80s, when this genre peaked – the injustices of the apartheid regime. Photography was a political record. However, a shift occurred in the 1980s. As Simon Njami argues, photography was not motivated by politics alone, or rather, a new politics comes into being, in which photography is ‘no longer about denouncing, but about revealing’. The counterpoint is telling. To denounce is to react against, to reveal is to disclose a truth. For me, however, both assumptions are dubious. A political image is not a reaction against some oppressive reality, it is an enigmatic fragment of that inconclusive reality. As for the revelatory power of photography? That is a greater and more enduring deceit. How so? Because photographs lie. They edit and exclude far more than they include. In The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer puts it bluntly: ‘In photography there is no meantime. There is just that moment and now there’s this moment and in between there is nothing’.
We of course refuse to accept this, choosing instead to fill in the gaps. Photographs are traces, we assume, fragments of a deeply personal archaeology – they are divining rods. After Robert Frank we choose to believe that ‘There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment’. This is the greatest and most enduring conceit. It is this belief – rather like the globally ubiquitous love of Impressionist art, or God, or some other deity – which overrides and denies the corrosive fact, stated by Susan Sontag in On Photography, that ‘Whatever the moral claims on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation’.
It is against this misappropriation of the photographic image that Muir positions herself. That she should declare herself against the artfulness of photography underscores this antithetical position. The question, however, is whether artfulness can be avoided. In taking a photograph – an appropriative act – neutrality is impossible. The cannibalistic relationship to the image in the present moment, reveals our rapacious hunger. We devour an image-world unconsciously, shape our lives accordingly. For Muir, however, a photograph is neither trope nor index, it does not serve a consumerist ethos in which, disturbingly, an image is recognisable precisely because it is generic.
As Dyer eerily notes, the way in which photographs are shot changes the way we look and experience the reality it putatively records. More troublingly, ‘often it turns out that when things have been photographed, they look like other photographs, either ones that have already been taken or ones that are waiting to be taken’. Photographs future-proof the world, and, thereby, immunise us against it. This for many of the most profound thinkers on photography – amongst them Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag – is photography’s most nefarious and inescapable calling. The monstrosity of the image is built in the apparatus that records it, in the culture that applauds it, in the history it produces – all of which is manipulated and manipulable.
Given the inevitability of this outcome – the fatality factored into photography – Margot Muir’s counter-intuitive drive is remarkable. However, to suppose her an innocent in a corrupted historical moment is to miss the point. Muir believes in neither the reactive role of photography, nor its revelatory power. At best, all we have is the facticity of the thing – the photograph itself – unmoored, shiftless, yet utterly frozen in an unredeemable moment in time. To weigh it down, buttress it as it were, with a rationale – say, a record of the grandmothers of the black townships, or the record of privileged white occupants of an old age home – may be helpful as a framing device, but it has no further purchase. This is because the stories we attach to images are, perforce, belated. It is true that Muir visited a township and an old age home, true that she took photographs, based on a mutual agreement, which, for her, revealed two contrasting facts: the purpose-defined life of the grandmothers who care for an extended family in dire circumstances; the comparative misery of the white aged isolated in their rooms designed to mirror their tastes and cultural inheritance.
I’m not sure that this is necessarily the case. No utopia exists, no exemption for rich or poor from suffering. We, overtly and crassly disingenuous, romanticise the townships – the catastrophic symptom of governmental dereliction – and the austerity of the lives of the poor. Is this because one refuses to see suffering, absorb it? Because the pornography of pain is morally inexcusable? Or because the camera – the technology designed for seeing – suffers from glaucoma? Or, as T.S. Eliot concludes in Four Quartets, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality’? Was the shift from denunciation to revelation none other than the diminishment of a collective struggle in the name of an oracular individual artistry? And, in this shift from the imagined collective to the imagined singular – engineering to psychographics – have we become less human, less caring? Certainly, our inability to see and absorb the world suggests this. In an image-driven world we have become blind.
Since Jeremy Bentham’s surveillance system of the early 1800s – the panopticon – applied to asylums, schools, prisons, old age homes – brilliantly analysed by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish – we accept the view that normalcy is only sustainable because we have constructed the abnormal. This deception applies to all binary economies. A photograph might allude to them, but it cannot represent them. This because photographs, despite the pressure we put upon them, cannot explain the world. My point being that, in the case of Margot Muir’s images, one must address them singularly – as fragments of an irreconcilable and impossible whole. It is for this reason that she justly challenges my use of the collective noun – ‘we’ – and definitive article – ‘the’. For her it is perverse to romanticise poverty, even more perverse to fail to understand it. Lack need not be attrition, which is why Muir emphasises purpose in a life. To speak of the ‘majority’ of black grandmothers is to generalise what can only be understood singularly. In response to the ‘blanket’ usage – ‘the’ grandmothers, ‘the’ white aged – Muir prefers ‘the utterly productive “unknowing”, the nuances of “individuals”’.
Muir’s challenge is vital, precisely because we do generalise and simplify the world. And yet, I continue to wonder why Muir predominantly records the black grandmothers of the township as a medium shot? Because context is key? Because the individual life is inextricably linked to others? Because the home is a mirror of the being? Because this is the received aesthetic of documentary realism? Because individuality – in black life – is inextricably connected to indivisibility? Daniel ‘Kgomo’ Morolong’s photographs of black life in East London in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, suggests this, as does the Sub-Saharan lore – Ubuntu – which supposes that we are whom we are because of others – a cultural logic which directly counters a binary economy, of say, ‘Self’ and ‘Other’. Is Muir endorsing the lore of Ubuntu, or is she questioning it? Is her emphasis on individuality a counter-intuitive challenge?
As for the predominantly used medium shot, typically understood as a visual register for normalcy in photography and cinema? Does Muir support this view unthinkingly, or does she skew it? Or, then again, what are we to make of the in-mates of an old age home shot both in close-up and as a medium shot, as portraits and in a broader context? What is Muir seeking to access through her close attention to aged white faces? Mortality? Inexistence? The limits of an imperious white mythology? Or, freeing oneself from the dictates of race, are these close-ups not a summation – despite Muir’s distrust of generality – of what Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer defines as a ‘bare life’ – a life caught at the margins of state control, acknowledged yet barely relevant?
Pathos is an overused and exhausted descriptor. It is neither pity nor sadness that Muir’s photographs evoke, but neither are they consoling. Caught between austerity and sentiment, I think that Muir’s images ask us to suspend judgement – a lesson I’m learning – and allow ourselves to see without adopting an inherited cultural lens. If her photographs are naked rather than nude – or that they aspire to be so – has everything to do with a distrust of aesthetics – despite the fact that it is inescapable – and a desire to produce a raw-yet-immersive experience in the moment of looking. The question remains: are we ready for the naked, or do we prefer to hold onto the deceitful pleasures of the nude, a world prettified into oblivion?
It is true that Muir is interested in lives deemed superfluous and supplementary, which, for her, are anything but. True that her photographic eye is integrative, that she seeks to bring to our attention worlds which are not deemed essential to life – this according to the dictates of a culture and society which is systemically cruel, a culture and society which Sontag justly sees as cynically pragmatic, exclusive and exclusionary, which depreciates everything and everyone into ‘an article for consumption … an item for aesthetic appreciation’. Muir’s strategy – if she can be said to possess one – is to undo this absorptive and corrosive force and make us see the world in its most raw forms – undoctored by any cynical aesthetic. Is this possible? Is this truly what she has achieved – the impossible?
It is curious that Muir should turn to Foucault, a penetrating analyst of power and its abuses, to preface her reflections on photography, what she understands it to be, how, as a medium and tool, it helps her to see the world. ‘It is necessary to strain one’s ears,’ Foucault writes, ‘bending down toward the muttering of the world, trying to perceive the many images that have never turned into poetry, so many phantasms that have never reached the colours of wakefulness’. Why have we failed to do so? Because we are somnambulists, tin-eared, tone deaf. Because, in ceding our lives to a preordained image repertoire, we stop seeing, feeling, intuiting, reaching, loving. This is why, for Foucault and Muir, we must pitch our ears to an otherwise inaudible frequency, peer more deeply, heel and yield to the world, because only then will we hear its inscrutable mutterings, only then embrace its phantasmal wonder.
It is only when we accept the photograph as an estranging ghost, only once we see it as a muttering creature, not a mute, that we will begin to understand what it was meant to offer us. Neither document nor revelation, a photograph is a mystery that hides in plain sight. It is there in an aged face we refuse to, or cannot, see, in an embracing extended family tenuously and tenderly aligned. Foucault and Muir’s muttering world – more sonar and echolocation – requires that we become human, a difficult thing to achieve in this posthuman moment. But perhaps photographs, when they are finally understood differently, can help us to do so.