Gideon Mendel, Freedom or Death

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by GOST Books (here). Clothbound hardcover, 165×210 mm, 176 pages, with 87 color reproductions. Includes essays by Farieda Nazier and Denis Hirson. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When a photographer revisits earlier bodies of work, some of which may have been hiding away in storage boxes for decades, a process of re-evaluation inevitably takes place. While the passing of time typically doesn’t alter the images themselves, the way we perceive them may have changed radically during the intervening years. And especially when the resurfaced photographs depict historical events like political movements or national revolutions, the perspectives of all the participants involved – the photographer, the subjects in the pictures, and the viewers – have likely been impacted by a mix of changing emotions, fading memories, and evolving political realities. So the idea that a photographer might simply sift through the old prints and pick out the “best” ones to share once again feels more than a little oversimplified.

While Gideon Mendel is perhaps best known for his recent flooded images and videos exploring the traumatic impact of climate change, he got his start as a photographer back in the 1980s in his home of South Africa documenting the mounting unrest under the apartheid regime. In his new photobook Freedom or Death, he revisits some of his images from that volatile period, but instead of reconsidering them as frozen historical artifacts, he has used them as malleable raw material for a series of new interpretations and artistic explorations.

Freedom or Death is divided into three discrete sections, each employing a different approach to re-imagining the underlying photographs. The first group of images use chance degradation as their artistic modifier. Some thirty years ago, Mendel left a box of transparencies and negatives in storage in Johannesburg, and when he later retrieved them, it became clear that at some point the box had been rained on, the top layers damaged by moisture and mold. Re-scanned with sprocket holes and all, the images offer moments of urgency warped and decayed by time. Rallies, demonstrations, and protests dissolve into dappled fragments; a three-year-old girl killed by a rubber bullet is enveloped in spots of light; the flames of a burning squatter shack melt into colored ghosts; and a defiant raised fist is encased in a bubble. Seen as group, the degraded pictures feel like seared memories that are getting distorted by the years, the emotions still raw and expressive, even though the individual faces and moments are becoming less recognizable.

In the second section, Mendel has enlisted the help of the Argentinian artist Marcelo Brodsky, who has overpainted a selection of black and white images Mendel made in 1985 and 1986. (Brodsky’s previous project was a powerful series of overpainted images from the year 1968, using photographs from protests and rebellions from all over the world as source material.) These works have been organized into 4 triptychs, based on objects seen in the pictures: stone, tear gas, wooden gun, and sjambok (a flexible rubber whip). Brodsky adds painted color, text call outs, and extended hand written captions, transforming the underlying images – his additions both amplify and extend the narratives, by giving the viewer additional context and information, but also seem to simplify the imagery, the colors animating the moments and clarifying the intensity of the action. Brodsky’s visual interventions reduce the specificity of the photographs, giving some of the works an almost comic-book feel. But the clouds of smoke, the rocks ready to be thrown, and the cops armed with dangerous whips are in no way fun; instead, Brodsky has made these surreal moments in forgotten history even more poignantly exaggerated.

The last (and largest) group of images finds Mendel reconsidering the process that brought many of his photographs from this period into the press. In an approach similar to the one used by Thomas Ruff in his recent press++ series, Mendel has digitally collapsed the front and back of old press prints, mixing the original black and white images with the typed captions, grease pen markings, cropping and enlargement notes, and agency reproduction ink stamps from the back side. What this does is take an image of women mourning, a young white boy learning to shoot an automatic rifle, the burial of a child’s coffin, or a fist raised in salute by Winnie Mandela and merges it with a physical context of the distribution of news. In these works, the image itself is often interrupted by these markings, a Magnum Photos credit stamp or an AFP caption (always with Mendel’s name) intermingling with kids hanging from a broken billboard, broken glass in the gutter, or a white man attacking black protesters with his belt. These interruptions are a constant reminder that these images became more than documents of particular moments; they were circulated in the wider public, separated from Mendel’s control, accompanied only by these sometimes cryptic annotations. More abstractly, these new works show us a transition from imagery into news, or experience into anecdote and memory.

Based on the visual evidence in Freedom or Death, Mendel’s photojournalism from the 1980s was plenty strong enough to merit its own publication – he undeniably saw the frictions and conflicts of the apartheid era with consistently clear eyed attention and empathy. But the fact that he decided to experiment with new ways to re-imagine these images says he wasn’t contented with simply looking back; he was curious how the resonance of these works could change and evolve when given different context. It is this risk taking that gives Freedom or Death its artistic vitality – it reminds us that history is a living, breathing, interpretive activity, and that artists can re-shape our understanding of that history by encouraging us to see it with alternate sets of eyes.

Collector’s POV: Gideon Mendel is represented by Axis Gallery in New York (here) and ARTCO Gallery in Aachen (here). Mendel’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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