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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Karoo - Long Time Passing - a book review

Obie Oberholzer isn't as well known as some art photographers in South Africa, but is possibly one of the more influential with his work. This is especially the case having been the photography lecturer at Durban Tecnikon (now Durban University of Technology) and later at Rhodes University. As he points out, he has always been fairly apolitical, which has meant that he hasn't received some of the accolades as other prominent South African photographers who have. Cynically I also feel that to make a name in South Africa you have to photograph lions, politicians or naked women. Obie doesn't do any of those three, so he's relatively unknown internationally. This is shame as his work is unique and extraordinarily skilled.

Last week I attended the Durban launch of his latest book, 'Karoo - Long time passing' held at the DUT campus. Most people who meet Obie come away thinking that he is a little strange. I first met him when I was a student at Rhodes University and wanted to study photography. Long story short, my credits wouldn't allow it, but I came away with this sage advice from him: "the piece of paper that says you are a photographer isn't worth sh*t. The portfolio you have is everything". So I went on way then disheartened, and found myself becoming a friend of Monty Cooper who would end up mentoring me, and studied anthropology, happily. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity to see Obie talking about his latest work and was intrigued at what he'd being doing since leaving Rhodes University.

The work in 'Long Time Passing' has a definite melancholic feel to it. Looking at portions of Obie's work over the years , a certain darkness can be felt in a great deal of it. However 'Long Time Passing' is more melancholic as a whole than even 'Raconteur Road'. The tones in a large number of the images are very sombre, with dark foreboding clouds stretching across the harsh Karoo landscape. Possibly the nature of the images is representative of the nature of the land as Obie sees it, or as he describes it as being a, "cruel-brutal-country".The book covers 5 trips in the Karoo that Obie and his wife Lynn made into the Karoo between 2012 and 2013. The 150000km that they travelled was through enough periods of the year that the pages represent both the dry dusty heat and the impressive cloud bursts that characterize the rainy season. 

Being a landscape photographer I find myself particularly drawn to Obie's landscape compositions of the Karoo. In his lecture at the book launch he explained that there were times when he could do little more than take pictures, rather than make pictures, but the book argues against this. Oberholzer is a consummate photographer in the sense that there are very few, if any, images that are not crafted. Even those which he claims are merely 'taken' bear the imprint of his unique compositional style. This is a style that is often direct, sometimes harsh. His juxtapositions of elements are masterly and unique. Forget simple rules like that of thirds. The elements in the frame sometimes seem to be squeezed in, but never in a way that feels wrong. Another compositional trope that one comes across regularly is that on vanishing points. A number of hedge images give the impression of vast distance, even when they are shot over a relatively small area, like that of dried and dedicated garden beyond a rusted gate painted white. The centrality of a number of the compositions in the book is also typically Obie. He doesn't want your eyes to wander around the image. He wants you to stare straight into the middle and engage with the subject without any subterfuge.  

If I have one criticism towards 'Long Time Passing' and it is the almost overuse of the digital pulling of shadows. Obie has long had a masterly approach to working shadows with negative film, pulling detail where one would ordinarily find none. With his new digital equipment though, I get the impression he is still feeling his way into the the new medium. This is not to say that the digital processing of the files is unsightly. In some cases the lightening of shadows does work very well. However, as you turn the pages it suddenly dawns on the reader that a large amount of the images have the same lightening of shadows that starts to look a little unreal (it isn't all of the images, but enough for someone to say 'oh' when suddenly drawn to this). It's almost like it gets a little too much. It's particularly noticeable as the overall tone in the majority of the images is quite sombre and dark.
My criticism aside 'Karoo - Long Time Passing' is a superb photographic essay of this incredibly stark part of the country. The images, dark and melancholy as they feel, are a recognisable interpretation of this harsh territory. There's an empathy in the pages that is typically Obie, weird as he is as an individual. The weirdness and quirkiness that people experience when they meet him for the first time is no doubt part of what translates into his unique imaginings of what he photographs. If only we could all be so odd. But then his images wouldn't be special anymore, would they?
'Karoo- Long Time Passing' is now available at most book sellers. The launch was hosted by Adams  in Durban. Prices range from between R450 to R500. The book makes a fantastic Christmas gift to anyone who loves the Karoo, or to any photographer who wants be challenged compositionally by Obie's imaginative, often incredibly empathetic take on the world that he travels through. 
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