Click to Read ‘The Long Street Show’, by David Lurie

The Long Street Show.

The ‘show’ goes out live every day, late afternoon; the set, renowned for its Victorian buildings with wrought iron balconies, ethnic restaurants, bars, bookshops and assorted second-hand stores, is situated between Wale Street and the the Long Street Baths at the top of the street. “The Long Street Show”, as all locals know and visitors are informed, is an essential, not-to-be-missed part of our media-saturated Cape Town multi-culture.

Recently I got into the habit of dropping by after about 4.30pm to mingle with the large, diverse cast, the unknowing characters in this daily soap-opera as they prepare for the main show which I believe happens after dark. I arrive as a kind of party-crasher disguised as a photographer.

And while there, just to keep up appearances, I would take a few pictures, some ‘candid’, so called ‘documentary’ type pictures – with a little politics and social enquiry thrown in.

Others are deliberately staged, with the characters impersonating themselves being themselves. I’d even join them in conversation or stop to have a drink.

And then I’d go home.

I’d look at, and reflect on, the inchoate series of images that was emerging. The contradictory impulses and tension between the surreptitious, spontaneous – voyeuristic – nature of the documentary photographs driven by curiosity, involving the element of chance, carrying the suggestion of unmediated objectivity, and the contrived, staged nature of the street-portraiture, involving engagement and preparation – visual strategies, negotiating with each subject, one at a time – which undermines not just the idea of the ‘objectivity’ of the image but the medium of photography itself, highlighting photography’s fictional character.

Can we learn anything essential about a person through their photographic image, or are these images more probably just subtle signs of how people react to being photographed, about how the subjects address the camera and the photographer in front of them?

In other words, I am asking them to halt what they are doing and engage in conversation as preparation to be photographed. Their reaction to what is happening, – which may be resistance, ambivalence or, hopefully, a degree of collaboration, about this brief break in their routine – is what becomes the portrayed ‘fact’, the testimony to the photographic encounter.

Is there a dichotomy between the candid, documentary and the ‘staged’ portraits, or is this a distinction without any real difference? Are both possibly part of a larger, covert narrative of arranged appearances? Things are clearly not as simple and straightforward as they might at first appear.