Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Ponte City

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2014 by Steidl/The Walther Collection (here). Hardcover in custom cardboard box, 192 pages, with color photographs and reproductions of architectural drawings, newspaper clippings, found photographs, magazine covers, and other ephemera. The package includes 17 additional paper bound booklets with texts and imagery, as outlined below:

  • Booklet I – Newsreel: newspaper clippings
  • Booklet II – Ponte as Geological Agent: text by Lindsay Bremner, site plans, architectural drawings
  • Booklet III – Changing the Skyline: text by Melinda Silverman, construction images, retail area drawings/photographs
  • Booklet IV- Luminosity: text by Harry Kalmer, exterior images of building
  • Booklet V – Live Your Life: marketing images/materials, insurance company email, text by David Selvan
  • Booklet VI – The Leftover Chrysalis: text by Sean O’Toole, found photographs/ephemera
  • Booklet VII – Afterimages: interior photographs/found images
  • Booklet VIII – Flat 3607: text by Ivan Vladislvić, found images/ephemera
  • Booklet IX – Out the Windows: text by Ivan Vladislvić, outward looking photographs
  • Booklet X – House of Africa: interview with Bruna Levitan, text by Ivan Vladislvić, interview with Ntsiki and Patricia, marketing materials, newspaper clippings, found images
  • Booklet XI  – Zulu-Boy/Room 207: text by Kgebetli Moele, found images
  • Booklet XII – Hallelujah: images from Mbabazeni Madlala, text
  • Booklet XIII – Across the Chasm: text by Percy Zvomuya, window photographs, found images
  • Booklet XIV – Awake!/Réveillez-Vous!: magazine covers
  • Booklet XV – Flow: text by Ivan Vladislvić, highway overpass photographs
  • Booklet XVI – Europeans Only: interior photographs, ephemera
  • Booklet XVII – Perec/Ponte: text by Denis Hirson, interior photographs, ephemera

Ponte City was shortlisted for the 2014 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation Photobook of the Year award. The long-term project won the Discovery Award at the 2011 Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s tremendous new uberbook Ponte City sits at the confluence of three important trends in contemporary photography: the redefinition/reintegration of archival materials into photographic practice, the rethinking of linear narrative structures, and the explosion of innovation in the photobook form. Their “book” thumps down on your desk like a weighty treasure chest, and when carefully unpacked, reveals itself to be not just one book in a recognizably traditional form, but a proliferation of supporting materials bursting with mini-stories, sub-projects, and related tangents. It’s a verifiable beast of a project that defies a quick flip, but amply rewards a patient examination of the immersive world the two artists have so meticulously explored and documented.

Subotzky and Waterhouse have taken as their subject the controversial 54-story apartment building in Johannesburg known as Ponte City. A towering 1970s era Modernist tube that dominates the surrounding skyline, it was (and still is) the tallest residential structure in Africa, a kind of self-contained city built on the Berea ridge. Built to cater to sophisticated white residents during the apartheid years, after the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the subsequent upheaval in the South African real estate market, the structure became the home to predominantly black tenants, mostly younger people and recent immigrants from all over the continent. With the passing years, Ponte City slowly fell into creeping decay, ultimately becoming a notorious vertical slum of drugs, crime, and prostitution. Creative refurbishment plans came and went, running the gamut from a proposed transition into a prison to a fancy (but ill-fated) redevelopment in time for the 2010 World Cup. By 2008 when Subotzky and Waterhouse arrived to begin their investigations (documenting the remaining tenants who hadn’t been evicted in the latest round of new owners/plans), the layers of history in this place were indeed astonishingly thick, charting a roller coaster up-and-down historical ride of optimism and pessimism and providing a symbolic microcosm for the transformative changes going on in the larger society in the intervening decades.

Like the circular floor plan of the building itself, there is really no real beginning or end to Subotzky and Waterhouse’s story; their multivalent portrait is made up of overlapping and intervening layers that can be excavated like sediment. Structurally, the main book provides a sense of forward motion – a visual description that builds on itself piece by piece – and the supporting booklets offer opportunities to drill down and get further information; it’s almost like an analog-era version of a hyperlinking system, where “hotspots” in the main book link the reader to mini-sites with additional content. When followed serendipitously, this structure creates a completely nonlinear narrative, one that moves back and forth in time, up and down the floors of the building, and inside and outside the tower itself; depending on your choices, you may burrow into empty apartments, read old news clippings, meet various tenants, or paw through found photographs and letters left by long gone residents, each one a piece in the larger puzzle of what Ponte City really is or was.

Photographically, the images in this book have clearly been very carefully conceived. While the pictures jump around a bit in terms of their sequencing (further jumbling the narrative), when looked at in aggregate, they are remarkably systematic. There are exterior shots that situate the tower in the larger landscape, and closer in images of the tubular architectural details, including the cavernous interior core, the empty swimming pool, and the snail shell parking lot. There are interior views of abandoned apartments, occupied flats, and dated common areas covered in dust and rubble. Views out the windows look down on the surrounding buildings, peer more closely at the homeless people living under the highway overpass, and stare across the chasm at other tenants. And the main book begins and ends with a selection of relatively formal portraits, the various residents posed against the soulless stainless steel walls of the elevator.

Within this multi-perspective photographic plan, Subotzky and Waterhouse have created three comprehensive series that chop through the building like core samples. They’ve inventoried every front door (from carved wood to flat steel, many with bars), the view from every apartment, and the programs on every television set (a dispiriting parade of violence, sex, and advertising), creating gridded typologies of like images that capture both the diversity and the commonality of life in Ponte City. (As an aside, these series have been gathered into complete contact sheet sets and displayed on lightboxes, creating works that shimmer like stained glass windows – they were exhibited in New York in the most recent ICP Triennial here). In the book, the photographs are shown in varying scales, multiplying before our eyes into chaos and complexity.

Subotzky and Waterhouse’s photographs have then been swirled together with a dense collection of archival materials, further dislocating the narrative structure and reorienting our view of the tower and its history. Newspaper clippings take us back to good times and bad, and tiny personal vignettes (the caretaker, the repairman, the tenants in flat 3607, the penthouse dwellers, the refugees) bring the broad brush strokes down to the individual level. Via these documents, essays, and interviews, we see the wrangling over the servants quarters in the apartheid era, the details of the prison plan, the challenges of people throwing bottles and diapers out the windows, the grooviness of the décor, and the melting pot of diverse immigrants thrown together in close quarters. There’s even an enchanting fictional story about the massive Coca-Cola sign on the top of the building that weaves Italo Calvino and a neon engineer into a tale of mistaken identity. Subotzky and Waterhouse have entirely rethought how an archive of supporting materials can be integrated into a photographic essay, collaging disparate elements together to collapse time, allowing essays to wander and the reconnect elsewhere, and breaking up their finds into discrete fragments that decorate the central story of the tower like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Part of what makes this complicated portrait work so successfully is its open ended randomness; by definition, even in this exhaustive detail, the story is incomplete, and those gaps in the history leave us wondering. Who left behind the Jehovah’s Witness pamphlets with identical stagings of black and white models? Who were those young people dancing and drinking in the found photographs? Were they happy in Ponte City or living a horror story like J.G. Ballard’s High Rise? Who were the suicide jumpers, or the dreamers who saw something special in this place? And what happened to all the foreigners and idealistic immigrants who once lived here and moved on, passing through its doors like a South African version of Ellis Island? There is something elemental about the cyclicality of Ponte City, about the ebb and flow of its humanity and the constant reconstruction and redefinition of the building itself.

In the end, this is an engrossingly risky photobook, one that takes well-crafted photographs that can happily stand on their own and blends them into a formal experience that engages readers on a multitude of unexpected levels. Its masterful design encourages a kind of visual and intellectual grazing, a wandering of the proverbial hallways, poking our noses around corners and into rooms, discovering new perspectives and histories at each turn. It’s also taken the cinematic approach of interweaving of a handful of synchronized stories and amplified it to its limit – we now have literally thousands of discrete echoes and ghosts spanning four decades all rattling around and contributing to the larger arc of the narrative. In the process, the whole concept of the found archive has been reenergized and repurposed, expanding a single line of photo melody into a symphony of harmonizing visuals and ideas. Ponte City is undoubtedly one the best photobooks of the year, its overwhelming inventiveness making it feel like a disorienting evolutionary breakthrough, or perhaps the bold first steps of an entirely new species of photography in book form.

Collector’s POV: Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse are represented by Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg/Cape Town (here). Their joint works have yet to reach the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Mikhael Subotzky, Patrick Waterhouse, Steidl, The Walther Collection

One comment

  1. Peter Y /

    Sorry, have to disagree here. It’s trying too hard to be different in book form, the images are very mundane, the fad of adding in extraneous material is just that – a fad. Over designed, over complicated and over wrought.

    You also should mention the idea is borrowed from George Perec’s ‘Life – A Users Manual’, from 1978. It also tries to outdo Paul Grahams ‘a shimmer of possibility’ with its 12 volumes, which was the groundbreaker in multi volume photo publication, and had the bonus of truly great photography within it.

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