Click to read ‘Writing the City’, (statement) by David Lurie
In “Morning After Dark”, I considered structures and infrastructures in the formal and informal parts of Cape Town (as part of my ongoing work on urbanisation), and what they tell us about inclusion and exclusion of different communities in the life and prosperity of the city. In “Writing the City”, I turn my attention to ‘surfaces’, the plethora of placards, banners, billboards, posters, words and images, which inform and direct us, regulate our movements, mould our desires, and sometimes surprise and disturb us, to further explore these issues.
All cities have been, for a very long time, full of public texts: all the signs of capital and commerce (signage, advertisements), indications of private property, and elements of systems of public ordering and regulation (street names, numbering of buildings, signs with prohibitions and directions for circulation). The public space of cities is constituted in important ways by these public texts: reading and decoding them, much of which is so naturalised as to be completely unconscious, is part of what it means to inhabit a city.
However, in recent decades, new inscriptions in the form of graffiti and murals have become omnipresent and especially visible. As a result, the public space has changed, exposing in new ways the tensions that constitute deeply unequal, albeit democratic, societies. The production, distribution and consumption of these artistic interventions is what interests me.
Travel around the city becomes an adventure of discovery where the search reveals creativity in unexpected places. I have not simply photographed murals: my aim is to create urban landscapes in which artistic interventions are somewhere visible. This series is about the act of looking at interventions, about how we read and understand them, rather than the interventions themselves.
The whole city, its public spaces and surfaces constitute one giant canvas that captivates the imagination. Not so much because of the intrusiveness and visibility of these interventions, but also because they alter the rules of who does the ‘writing’, who the intended audience is and what the discourse is about. To understand this new mode of production of signs and murals is to understand significant transformations in Cape Town.
These are by no means always radical voices of dissent, alienation and provocation; they are often commissioned – even unwittingly co-opted – to ‘rebrand’, gentrify or beautify parts of the city, doing the bidding of property developers, money-makers and establishment, municipal interests. This is also highly revealing.
I hope these images reveal things viewers may have missed, forcing them to look…again, making the invisible visible and thereby transforming their ways of seeing the city. I probe the urban reality of ageing, disuse, destruction and renewal, of lingering historical fragments and evidence, of current disappointments and failures; of an evolving setting, where present and past are forced to coexist in discordant flux.
Clearly, Cape Town, like most South African cities, remains deeply divided; it fails the majority of its citizens. Who are these cities being built for? How will the excluded survive? What strategies will they choose? Cape Town, for all its beauty and energy, is a city in crisis: a failed city that somehow works.
Click to read ‘The City as a Discourse About Art’, by James Sey
Everyday life invents itself by poaching in countless ways on the property of others. (Michel de Certeau)
Since the origins of the organisation of cities as distinctively ‘modern’ phenomena – that is, as consciously planned and organised structures for the habitation and movement of millions of people between their places of work and dwelling – they have also mediated various kinds of cultural and social meanings. Not only do cities mediate so-called ‘interstitial’ space, dictating movement flow and lines of sight through their infrastructure, they also mediate psychological space. In common with other forms of spatial organisation, the structure of the city is ‘readable’ as such, as one would read a text. It is planned, laid out, and organised. This organisation has to do not so much with the physical infrastructure of the city – its buildings, roads, sewers, and so on, but with more discursive aspects of the city – the planning of systems of reticulation, distribution, timetabling of services, public transport and the like.
This is what Michel de Certeau (1984) calls its “strategic” organisation, or what Michel Foucault would point to as a set of discursive practices. This organisation gives rise to the conceptual possibility of a certain type of inhabitant of the city: a type of ‘average urban dweller’. This average dweller stands in for actual people in planning terms – for example, on average, more people will move around the city at certain times of the day.
They will congregate in certain typical places, and will have predictable habits, the knowledge of which aids in further urban planning. However in order for the city to operate as such a social regulatory mechanism, to produce such effects, thus obeying its own logic of mass capitalist production in the control and organisation of the urban population, time and space themselves must be regulated. Stephen Kern, in his book The Culture of Time and Space (1986), recounts how world standard time was only fully instituted on the morning of 1 July, 1913, when the Eiffel Tower sent the first time signal transmitted around the world. Thus, a global electronic network enabled the implementation of a system of standardisation that would in turn enable a certain type of social organisation. This happened around the city as a locus of economic and social activity, and would bring cities in a standardised relation to each other all over the world – now there could be London time, New York time, Johannesburg time …
Hand in hand with the standardisation of time came the regulation of space, in the division between the labouring space of the factory, and the leisure spaces of the city, the amusement arcades of the emergent techno-utopias or urban arcadias. It is in these spaces – cinemas, pedestrian boulevards, the alleyways between buildings, children’s parks – that
Charles Baudelaire first became a flâneur, and Walter Benjamin (1973) elaborated on the theoretical and aesthetic value of walking in the city.
On the other side of this regulatory coin, the city is not only about passive inhabitants upon whom planning and control is exerted. It is inhabited not by the ‘average’ urban dweller, but by thinking and feeling people who interact actively with their surroundings, and therefore change them, in both working and leisure modes. From the beginning of modernity, exploring the city, physically, conceptually and aesthetically, was associated with the idea of the contingent – the chance event, the ephemeral intervention. Mary Ann Doane
(2002:11) discusses the nature of this relation:
Modernity is … strongly associated with epistemologies that valorise the contingent, the ephemeral, chance … in modernity meaning is predetermined not in ideal forms but in a process of emergence and surprise. And new technologies of representation … are consistently allied with contingency and the ability to seize the ephemeral … and focus upon the particular, the singular, the unique, the contingent.
Doane argues that the valorisation of contingency by aesthetic forms such as photography and cinema is an attempt to reinstate a sense of aesthetic freedom outside of the structuration and regulation of urban labour, leisure space and time. It is a valorisation that is definitive of the avant-gardes, such as Surrealism and Dada. Surrealism’s vain attempts to productively release the contents of the unconscious, for example, were already prefigured by the ability of photography and film to mimic and replicate memory. However Doane also points out that the rationalisation of space and time necessitated by urban modernity on one hand, and the valorisation of contingency on the other, is a constitutive or productive ambivalence for modernity, rather than an exclusionary choice. As Benjamin discusses in his essay On Some Motifs in Baudelaire (1973), characteristically urban technologies of representation compensate for the lack of psychical depth and full engagement with experience that is the consequence of modernity’s fascination with contingency. In this way, as he outlines in his benchmark work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1973), while the products of ‘mechanical reproduction’, erode the aura of traditional artworks, they also assist us in dealing with the constant sensorial shock to which the contingency of modernity subjects us, in the forms of traffic, electricity, advertising, and so on. The ambivalent adherence of modernity to contingency or shock effect is emblematised for Benjamin in the rise of montage in the cinema. The cinema, of course, becomes perhaps the most important leisure representation of the expanding cityscapes.
The cinema captures perfectly the ambivalent oscillation between contingency and organisation, each frame captured as a photograph, yet each part of a coherent narrative sequence, the rationalised and resolved story. To the extent that photography and cinema seem to be able to capture the central ambivalence of the city, the oscillation between contingency or shock and rational, technical organisation, they are the quintessential urban representational technologies. This marks them out as a new form of art, one that also erases the auratic and ‘authored’ quality that had been definitive of the aesthetic before urbanised modernity. Yet, these urban aesthetic possibilities can only be realised when they are used – when the ‘users’ of the city – its inhabitants – begin to play with the ambivalence every city exhibits between its planned organisation and its contingent qualities.
Alongside the ‘readable’, discursive structure of the city, the mappable territory that organises and arranges, lies the other structure of contingency – the more tangential and aestheticised structure of the city produced by its users, its inhabitants. This one evokes, determines, and produces behaviours, styles, attitudes, values, pathologies. Each city therefore has at least a double character, and a double narrative, and its inhabitants play many roles within each.
The surfaces and depths of the city’s structure, its being – from the towering replications of its skyscrapers, to the hollow aortas of its undercover car parks, to the secret somatics of its circulatory systems of tar, wire, cable and pipe – all form a paradigmatic sign system, a primary cybernetic machine. Seen as such a sign system, the city should be the true locus of modern media – and aesthetic – philosophy.
The city’s users who play with this double structure to unlock different urban meanings are, in de Certeau’s (1984) term, “tacticians” of the city. Urban aesthetic tactics are exemplified in his famous essay Walking in the City, where the city’s inhabitants find their own routes, their own street plans, which have a multitude of meanings for them. This opening up of the city is ranged against the intentions of the urban planners and developers, whose purpose is to order and organise the city’s physical character, to impose restrictions on movements and behaviours.
Urban ‘tacticians’ work in a plethora of modes, using the city to produce discourse and refine practices in many different subcultures. Music has a role, with all of the languages, loyalties, spaces and fashion it provides. Beyond music, the city has its own soundscapes, white noise and birdcalls, traffic and sirens, an undifferentiated mass of machine noise. The city is also saturated with visual representation – from billboards and magazine covers to the endless graffiti which manifests as a signature urban aesthetic style – sprayed on the canvas which the city’s walls mutely provide.
What these urban discourses have in common is their quicksilver mutability, their existence as a set of subversions of the city’s planned and formal character – subversions with no sustained agenda. What brings them together, from being a vastly disparate set of activities and rituals, is the ways in which they are all aestheticised discourses and practices.
An example of this is the ways in which the city has, from early on in its contemporary mass industrial life, been associated with the concepts and methods of avant-garde art movements. The propensity of avant-gardism, as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal most famously demonstrated in 1917, has been to disturb formal relations between aesthetic judgement and the nature of art objects. It was possible, a century ago, to use the philosophical category of the aesthetic to interrogate and defamiliarise perception, representation, and the social provenance of art, in the relatively new environment of the city. While such a defamiliarisation has become steadily less possible as the production of meaning and media have proliferated, the response to the ubiquity of structure and organisation that the city requires in order to function has continued to take aesthetic and often conceptual forms.
Perhaps the key aesthetic manoeuvre of the city is the palimpsest, the writing or drawing over onto another set of images, texts or meanings. The city, we should remember, is a giant circulatory system. It recycles things, including water and air. Images and meanings are not exempt – new billboard images replace yesterday’s product, today’s headlines usurp yesterday’s. We might extend the meaning of the term ‘palimpsest’ in this context in the coinage ‘palimpsestuous’. This has the undertone of ‘incestuous’, to refer to the self-referential and interrelated – as well as libidinally charged – nature of urban aesthetic meaning.
All of the aesthetic interventions mentioned above participate in this palimpsestuous circulation of urban meaning – noises on top of each other, fashions colliding and stealing from each other, skateboarders turning banisters into grind rails – which become a part of their own urban geography. Indeed, recycling in the city has now even become an ethical dictum, with ‘green’ buildings and cars on the official agenda. As with so many other interventions, the legislators – the city’s ‘strategists’ – catch up with the street too late.
The idea that such a palimpsestuous set of strategies for creating urban aesthetic meaning has a psychosexual – that is, libidinally charged – character is important, since it provides a means of understanding the view of cities as having an ‘unconscious’ or hidden character, that can be uncovered and understood through certain aesthetic strategies. One such strategy is that of psychogeography and its attendant technique of the ‘drift’ or ‘dérive’.
The origins of psychogeography, as a set of strategies for exploring cities to uncover their effects on emotions and behaviours, was formalised by the Situationists. Since the 1950s, it has come to represent a means of accessing the ‘secret histories’ of places, particularly cities, and the ways in which these histories defy intention and planning and utilise contingency and expediency. Contemporary psychogeography focuses on the interactions, impositions, and palimpsests of modern urban planning upon older histories, narrative accounts and belief systems about the city. Through a matrix of myth, superstition, belief and story, which underpins the newer matrix of the planned urban grid, emerges, for contemporary psychogeographers, a more aesthetic and meaningful version of the being of the city, and being in the city. This essentially aesthetic psychogeography utilises the materials of signification the city itself provides – the myriad discourses and practices I have
referred to, overlaid with a template of mythic creation, or re-creation, of a city which of course, exists only in the imagination. Only small vignettes of such cities exist in the actual urban landscape. Those that do exist owe their presence to artists, to the new aesthetic psychonauts travelling through imagined cityscapes.
The chief technique of the psychogeographer, almost the ‘free association’ to the psychoanalysis of psychogeography, is the dérive, described by Debord thus:
In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there … But the dérive includes both this letting go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.
The technique is thus one of investigation but also free association, rationality and contingency, and is thus well-suited to the discovery of the hidden and ambivalent character of the palimpsestuous city.
South Africa’s oldest city, and the one tied most closely to its colonial history, Cape Town has deep layers of meaning and symbolism in its official architecture and structure. The origins of the city as a colonial outpost, and its subsequent history of slavery and apartheid, have become overlain with its reinvention as a glittering global tourist playground. In its post-apartheid incarnation, its breathtaking vistas and scenery have been given over – opened up – to the consumption and appropriation of global capital. The luxury beach apartments and villas, the marine parades and pristine nature reserves of its beloved mountains, its chi-chi boutique club and bar culture; all of this feeds into an identity which goes beyond South Africa. It places Cape Town squarely in the meticulously ordered and serviced realm of the hypercapitalist. Whether they live in the city or move through as temporary tourists rather than psychogeographers, Cape Town is there to serve in the most efficient, unobtrusive and anodyne way possible.
Lurie’s collection of pictures tells the very necessary other story – that of the visual palimpsests marking and giving meaning to the city’s liminal, marginal and contested spaces. While the messages creep through clearly from the underclass in this city – from demonumentalisation, to the redistribution of wealth and calls to conscientisation – Lurie’s seductively confrontational photographs also point the viewer to the contestations of physical space. None of the writing in the city he imagines through his lens is on a surface space designed to comfort or deceive the viewer. The images and graffitied texts, the true discourse of Cape Town, exist in blasted landscapes, in sepulchral and characteristically crepuscular hues. Their liminality – existing as they do as messages on all the forgotten, neglected surfaces of Cape Town’s urban ‘non-places’ – points to their place in the scheme of the city’s identity. A contingent and largely officially ignored set of messages, Lurie’s pictures make them grow in clarity and volume, and profundity. They take on the complex visual character of Cape Town’s Undercity, the dark mirror of the tourist brochures.
The psychogeography of this old, but still mutable city is one that Lurie uncovers as one with psychical and socio-architectural depths that are truly those of a roiling urban unconscious, striving to be unleashed and expressing itself through these tagged and coded dream-like – or nightmarish – public messages. Lurie’s work is not that of the disengaged flâneur, the artist under erasure. These public revelations of an Undercity speaking urgently to itself reconfigure the idea of the urban palimpsest. His photographs exemplify the tactic of refashioning the nature of the city, bringing its liminal agendas to aesthetic life in a way that distances it both from the confines of the art gallery’s rules of representation, and from the graffiti artist’s bombs in the street. In the refashioning of an aesthetic identity between these two extremes, Lurie’s images bring to Cape Town an always new imagining of its psychogeography, and with new paths across its surfaces and its disavowed depths.
Benjamin, W. 1973.On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, in Illuminations.Glasgow: Fontana: 152-196.
Benjamin, W. 1973. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations.
Glasgow: Fontana: 211-244.
Debord, G. 1958. Theory of the Dérive, edited by Ken Knabb, in Situationist International Anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995: 50.
De Certeau, M. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life.Berkeley: University of California Press.
Doane, MA. 2002. The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive.
Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Kern, S. 1986. The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918. Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Click to read ‘David Lurie’s Ethical Photography’, by Daniel Herwitz
I turn my attention to the…placards, banners, billboards, posters…which inform and direct us…All cities have been…full of public texts: all the signs of capital and commerce…indications of private property, and elements of systematic ordering and regulation…The public space of cities is constituted in important ways by these public texts…
However, in recent decades, new inscriptions in the forms of graffiti and murals have become omnipresent…As a result…public space has changed, exposing…tensions that constitute deeply unequal, albeit democratic, societies…these [tensions] are what interest me.
David Lurie, Preface to Writing the City1
One of the reasons we need photographs is because we should meditate on things we pass every day in the city but do not notice. We do not notice because we are in motion or because we pass them every day and are acclimatized, or perhaps because they are not “framed”, that is, highlighted. It is the stillness of a photo that solicits reflection on the shape of the everyday, its unique way of transposing visual intensities into questions of meaning. As if looking at a photograph, we see for the first time.
David Lurie’s capstone image in Writing the City is a photo of an abandoned lot in Woodstock (a mixed use, industrial area bordering what used to be District Six in Cape Town). The photo is mostly of the lot, with a bit of weed growing in the dirt, empty apart from a tire and piece of pipe that seem to have formed a “relationship” (the pipe “touches” the tire). At the back of the lot is Cassiem’s Shop, its signage painted on the first of this three-story building, along with a luscious pair of blue lips. Above the shop signage on this bare concrete side of the building is painted an enormous hand, plastered onto the upper two stories, its finger pointing to a flag of Palestine (a faded tricolor), plastered below. The flag has “Free Palestine” scribbled onto it. The hand is absurdly large relative to the size of the building, an odd building because of its top, which resembles a fairy tale version of the Arabian knights, with a latticed stone balustrade encircling the turrets, in the manner of a royal crown or enclosure for a princess. Along the back of a row of shacks to the right of the abandoned lot are painted childlike images of animals and people. The houses or shops across the street from Cassiem’s shop are in better repair, and painted an orange-red. The photo is a meditation on idiomatic city architecture in disrepair, but also on public protest–at least for those in the neighbourhood who might walk past this corner of Woodstock.
Lurie’s concern with architectural idiom and how meaning is locally broadcast in the city has a long tradition in film, photography and painting dating to the nineteenth century, to Baudelaire’s flaneur, that denizen of the arcades and public parks, of restaurants and the effervescent entertainment of Paris at night, a wanderer who tastes, samples and consumes the city in a kind of intoxication. Lovers of modernity include the Impressionists, who thrive on the frisson and energy of the city, tracking its crowds, boulevards, department stores, its women with parasols, summer fetes in the Luxembourg Gardens, the turning of leaves in the Tuilleries. Impressionism is dazzled by the speed of horses, the arrival and departure of trains, the steam glazing the sky as the train disappears towards a country destination, above all by a day in the country at the boathouses, on the banks of rivers and in the forests outside of Paris where the city dweller might go for the day, bringing home memories on the night train which might then become eternalized by the impressionist’s brush.
There was little urban darkness in the French artists’ lexicon. The art historian T.J. Clark pointed out long ago2 that the Impressionists removed the grit and poverty from their portrayals of the dank environs of Paris, from that Parisian Woodstock through which the Sunday devotees of the country would have passed on the train to reach their cheerful destination. The Impressionists (with the exception of Degas) seldom painted the working classes and their dwellings and workplaces. Abandoned lots never featured.
Darkness entered photography in the anguish of the America of the Civil War, whose wounded were photographed by Matthew Brady; later, in the New York of Jacob Riis and Alfred Stieglitz who photographed the city’s immigrant poor in their tenement houses, their rough and unrewarding labor, their faces full of strain but also aspiration. Stieglitz showed them arriving on the bows of ships, past the Statue of Liberty to a New York where they hoped to achieve lives unimaginable to their elders. They reveled in dreams which with luck their children might actually realize but which for these new immigrants would be challenged by disease, poverty, and brutality, the brutality of a city of skyscrapers Stieglitz so powerfully photographed like glorious, yet implacable, cathedrals of power.
South African modernity has had plenty of brutality, from the Boer War through the Apartheid State to the present, and there is a long tradition of documentary and journalistic photography, which aimed to capture a different kind of modern architecture to the soaring cathedrals of New York: the architecture of the Apartheid state, in both its urban and rural manifestations. This architecture included the pass laws, the Bantustans, and the forced removals; it was the subject of Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt, Paul Weinberg, Jurgen Schadeberg, Ernest Cole and other important photographers who gave documentary art a moral and political end: that of exposure, placing negatives in developing solution until images otherwise invisible or ignored became dislocating calls to acknowledgment.
David Lurie’s fascination, or duty, is to capture the raw, unyielding nature of Cape Town, a city set between two dazzling oceans against a mountain covered in floral abundance and pristine, azure light. Cape Town is as multi-layered as Paris was in the nineteenth century, a city of the spume of enjoyment but also with environs of poverty, leaking sewage and underfed children. Cape Town is a place of immaculately refurbished heritage buildings and company gardens, of high design elegance and world class cuisine, a city filled with advertising shoots and fashion models, a city of coffee, wine and the guided tour. But Cape Town is also a scrappy city, disheveled, unyielding, and melancholy. It has the melancholy of homeless people asleep in the Company Gardens, people whose leathery, angular faces are the haunting, ghostlike remnants of disappeared Khoi and San peoples. Its melancholy is the bulldozed, empty area that once was District Six from which a generation was forcibly removed, sometimes to shacks now decaying like leaking batteries. This is the Cape Town where the azure light does not reach or reaches in unbearable intensity: abandoned lots, underpasses, of raw and decrepit concrete whose very texture bespeaks roughness, brutality, implacability, cheap labor, the Cape Town of gloomy days and weeks when the Mediterranean light disappears and the city is blanketed in dank cloud and bone chilling rain. The mountain then becomes invisible, as if the city had lost a limb.
This is David Lurie’s world; he is a photographer of the melancholic city that the touristic Cape Town of the Waterfront, five star hotels, designer chefs and architects, of fashion shoots, models and the beautiful white houses graced with wrought iron brookie-lace, studiously avoids. Their cheerful inhabitants pass by degradation every day when they drive into town or Woodstock; we all do. The mountain helps; it is a narcotic, dulling the moral conscience in an intoxicated, mesmeric haze. Cape Town is a city of contrasts between the splendid and the decayed.
Shot mostly in cloud or after rain, with brown water seeping into mud, Lurie’s Cape Town is a place of empty, deserted spaces, of homeless people living in drainage pipes or underpasses. He will photograph a building, a sign, a highway from midrange, often leaving a space of disheveled pavement, empty lots overgrown with thin grass, dank water between the buildings or figures photographed and the viewer, as if separating the one from the other. It is in the way buildings and people are set off, or contained, by dead space at the front of the photo that matters. Sometimes the space is so empty that one feels he is photographing a city from which everyone has fled, his task being to bring to life the voices of those who circulate in them, are trapped, live lives, sometimes robustly within them.
Lurie’s study of signage is precisely a way of tracing the human voice, the public gesture, as it broadcasts itself across this divide, or towards it. As if to say: I too am part of the world, I too exist.
But to whom are these voices speaking when they paint on walls and write on flags? To whom are these public gestures of graffiti, poster and drawing addressed? And do they make it across the divide of empty or dead space? To live in a city is to be part of its cries for communication while also as far from them as the living are from the dead. The visual question is whether the speech, the signage, crosses these divides to reach a larger colloquy of listeners, or whether empty space atrophies the message, dampening it, turning the mighty phraseology of Free Palestine or, in another of his photos, “The People Shall Share in the Country’s Wealth” (a quote from the Freedom Charter of 1955) into a little gesture contained by its little neighborhood or bit of freeway where it’s been painted. Sometimes I feel that Lurie’s camera is a medium whose purpose is to be a spirit guide, getting us in touch with those voices “on the other side of the urban divide” as if in a photographic séance. South Africa was always a place where the comfort zones of cities were artificially separated from the centres of pain and dilapidation, even if, as Lurie shows us, stop at any underpass on Orange Street or downtown and you will find someone asleep, wrapped in an old blanket in the midday heat and searing sunlight.
And so the final photo in Lurie’s series Morning After Dark, also shot in Woodstock, shows us the back of a building plastered with a people’s mural of fists raised, a mural of a multitude struggling for freedom and prosperity. The mural is reflected in the dirty brown water in back of this building, as if the echo of this peoples’ tableaux, finds itself dampened or drowned in the brown muck. The image seems to say, the people speak, but this is as far as their voices seem to travel.
The photo’s formal arrangement is strange and unnerving because of the beautifully abstract and asymmetrical angles of the building reflected in the water. It is a transient relationship which, unless caught by his lens, might quickly disappear as the light changes or the water evaporates. In its own way this pas de deux between building and water is an impression for an impressionist painter (although not in the blithe spirit of the impressionists).
A photographer is always a denizen of chance. It is what makes his or her work arresting, and inviting of reflection. For we feel we are discovering a strange and momentary revelation of meaning when we study such photos and are lucky to do so. It is through this imaginative encounter with a chance moment eternalized in the photographic frame, rather than through some didactic statement, that Lurie’s moral questioning arises. His questions are about who speaks, how far their voices go in this city, about who bothers to look, and what they see when they do, about the omnipresent invisible.
To compel recognition is an artistic achievement, having to do with the strange stillness of the photo and its visual arrangement of parts. But a photo can also offset a face, a person, in a way that compels the study of them. Lurie’s homeless people are often photographed full frontal and close up, their faces unyielding, and not without dignity. It was Eduard Manet’s purpose when he wished to disturb the cheerful consumerism of the bourgeois art world, to bring us confounding figures about whom the more we study, the less we seem to know. His clochards (street people) are painted full frontal, as in a Lurie photo. Manet alternately called these figures “Ragpickers” and “Philosophers”, inviting ambiguity. Are they really “philosophers” he was asking, cynically in retreat from the world, choosing to live in caves like Diogenes because of some dark knowledge they possess of the world? Are they aggressive or sullen, bold or simply hung over and beaten down? Is their gaze a challenge? Or are they past caring? Manet’s point was that we do not know who these people are, across the divide. They live off remains and we treat them like remains. Lurie, I believe, is making a similar point about these motherless denizens of the mother city. To acknowledge that one doesn’t know these people is the first part of respecting them.
Lurie’s photos share one thing with the posters, graffiti and wall paintings that he includes in his urban landscapes: size. Size matters and Lurie’s photos are expansive, sometimes one and a half meters in length, enough to give a sense of panorama. His photos are anything but intimate wallet sized pictures of wife or child, friend or parent. Nor are they photos to be studied up close and personal, in the manner of certain abstract art photos. You study them horizontally as if reading a street sign or wall poster from across the street. They mirror the city and are part of it. A Lurie photo could be expanded and then placed on the side of a building in downtown Cape Town almost like an advert. But its point is the opposite, to turn panorama into an object of slow and quiet reflection, to interrupt the bustle of time with a kind of solitude, revealing a city that is empty or slow, abandoned or shut down for the night, or waking to early morning light, not yet strident. Lurie’s city sleeps, or exists in a state of late night insomnia, unable to drift into unconsciousness, awake in the dark.
In most of the photos there is no sun, but rather dull cloud, or dank water after rain. Morning After Dark captures the city before the intensity of daylight has had a chance to appear, at that moment when night gives way to the soft oranges and bluish-grays of the early morning. These pictures have an unusual color palette for the Cape, which is usually photographed (and likewise experienced) in the vivid reds, purples, yellows and pinks of the Bo-Kaap (the Cape Malay Quarter), in the kaleidoscopic colors of a mountain view, as the pure, vivid, and highly saturated light that Cape Town shares with San Francisco, Morocco and the Italian Amalfi coast. Here the light is subdued, uncertain, clouded. Here the palette is of dull concrete and subtle green and orange. Sometimes it is off-white sky against gray concrete. But in some of these photos there is recompense, a sense, when the city is seen panoramically from Tafelberg Road that runs along the highest point of the city like a mountain’s shoelace, that these soft colors in an incipient, early morning sunlight are grace for the weary, for the multitude of people who have not been blessed with the rewards of the South African democratic dream. Such images clear the mind, opening it to thought. Which is why it makes sense that Lurie, in a former life, taught philosophy at the University of Cape Town. His work is about the relationship between seeing and the moral imagination.
Daniel Herwitz is Fredric Huetwell Professor of Comparative Literature, Philosophy and History of Art at the University of Michigan where for a decade he directed the Institute for the Humanities. He is also Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town. From 1996-2002 Herwitz was Chair in Philosophy at the University of Natal, Durban, which led to his book of essays, Race and Reconciliation (2003) and a decade later, Heritage, Culture and Politics in the Postcolony (2012). His most recent book, Aesthetics, Music and Politics in a Global Age, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press in London.