Karoo: Long Time Passing
By Obie Oberholzer
Review: Justin Fox
Oberholzer’s latest book is a lavish celebration of the Karoo which showcases photographs from five recent journeys. It’s a travel memoir about wanderings and wonderings and gives a highly personal take on this parched land.
The book opens with an evocative image, crafted in words rather than photos. Oberholzer invites the reader to place a hand on a map of the Karoo and run the fingers over its scarred body, feeling the smooth dunes, rough dolerite outcrops and bristles of the scrubland. It’s an image he brings to pictorial life in the ensuing pages.
The very first photograph draws together typical Oberholzer themes. A drunk man stands before a Loeriesfontein graveyard, his arms outstretched in a farcical crucifix pose. There’s the beauty of the flower-strewn landscape, the melancholy of the graves, humour in the man’s bathetic pose and the uneasy sadness of a lonely Karoo sunset. It’s vintage Obie.
Over the last 40 years, Oberholzer has undertaken countless African journeys and produced almost a dozen coffee-table books recording his adventures with passion and humour. His style is a kind of photographic plainspeak. What you see is what you get. Oberholzer has no time for the obfuscation of the art world. ‘My photos are just an extension of me, nothing more,’ he says. ‘I photograph what I love: they are the core of me and I don’t worry about the art.’
This may be so, but the weight of his learning, and decades of teaching photography, is evidenced in his skill. He claims that his photos are instinctual, that he listens to what his eyes say to his mind via the camera. But there is also deep observation here. Indeed, many of the set ups and perspectives speak of careful reflection and years of experimentation.
In Karoo, we have plenty of trademark Oberholzer scenes: rusting cars in the veld, bullet-holed signs, windmills and colourful characters. So too, his tried and tested methods, such as the slow-exposure, ‘torch painted’ image shot at dusk or after dark.
But there’s more landscape photography than usual in this book. Each chapter begins with a terrain sequence, devoid of people. Often it’s a series of overlapping hills or a long straight road. These become refrains, the essential elements to his odyssey, and he repeats them as a sort of visual mantra. ‘Maybe I’m getting older and don’t want to have to talk people into letting me take their pictures anymore,’ he says. ‘I’m finding great satisfaction in the landscape and still life.’
Indeed, there’s far more emphasis on texture and abstraction – his ‘still lifes’. Details of fruit packing cases, the shadows of lanterns or a close-up of lines on 82-year-old Katrina Mentoor’s face, lit and rendered as though a Karoo landscape. There’s poignancy and beauty in these pared-down works.
As always with Oberholzer, we get plenty of humour, either in the image itself or the captioned anecdote. In Willowmore, Kosie Swarts’ donkey cart is the Willow Limo; at Eensaam siding, Oberholzer ties his wife to the railway tracks because ‘she talks too much’. However he doesn’t shy away from the Karoo’s poverty and destitution either. We see the bleakness of RDP township living and the effects of chronic unemployment.
One of the book’s most powerful images is of a dirty Karoo boy in scruffy clothes standing on a highway barrier pretending to fly, a dark cloud arcing over his head. It’s humorous, poignant and sad in the same instant.
This brings up the old question of the moral responsibility of the photographer. Is taking a picture of someone’s hardship exploitative? In Oberholzer, the dilemma is mediated by a joyful interaction with his subjects. They appear to relish the engagement, the mutual act of telling their story. There’s a strangely empowering agency here, brought about by Oberholzer’s implicit empathy. It’s as though all three participants – subject, photographer and viewer – are charmed by the act. Exploitation? Of course, but a happy one, it seems.
Oberholzer has enjoyed the transition from film to digital. He often seeks the same effects he did with film, such as heightened colour and the stylised illumination of dark subjects. Where in the past he’d use flash and hunting spotlights, he now employs Photoshop to lighten shadows in a way that was impossible with film. Indeed, the blending of his old techniques with modern technology is for the most part successful.
At times, the viewer might feel there is too much manipulation of hue, especially where some elements of a scene are bled of colour and others cranked. This can feel gimmicky. In terms of subject matter, where Oberholzer presents ‘pure’ landscapes he is on well-trodden territory and does not bring much to the genre. It’s when he introduces his humour and quirkiness, his empathy with the sitter, that his work is at its most assured … when it’s unmistakeably Obie.