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22 Jun, 2009

The dark genius of Guy Tillim

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Too much homage is paid to photographers – but this South African is both an outstanding journalist and a true artist

You won’t often hear me call a photographer a genius. I think there’s too much homage paid to an art that’s basically just holding up a piece of machinery and pushing a button.

There are great photographs and great photographers. But far too much fuss is made now of average photographs by average artists. It’s not so much a cult of the camera as of the run-of-the-mill. A real passion for the camera-made image ought, surely, to make us look for the rare and special photograph, the astonishing or moving or troubling photograph, rather than simply celebrating every banal picture.

I find the photographs of Guy Tillim truly fascinating and exceptional. Tillim is a South African photographer whose work is at once a report on contemporary Africa and an artistic image of it. His pictures deliver the shock of classic photojournalism as he traverses the continent, visiting crisis zones such as the Democratic Republic of Congo or, on his home ground, downtown Jo’burg. But they are at the same time chosen and composed images. Tillim photographs Africa in a way that communicates ambivalent and disturbing ideas and perceptions; every one of his pictures is at the same time a record of something seen and something he seems to have thought about for a long time.

Tillim is a provocative artist. At a time when art museums in the rich world often seem to want to create a fictionalised modern Africa – as if by celebrating something that does not exist it can be brought into being – he portrays a continent in chaos. His portraits of child soldiers are particularly scary. In his recent body of work, Avenue Patrice Lumumba, he documents buildings whose modernist idealism dates from the early years of African independence. Today these buildings are in various states of decay and transformation. It is not an optimistic series.

But I don’t think Tillim is a dubious gloater over misery and poverty. He is a truth-teller. And it’s in telling the truth – directly or indirectly, prosaically or poetically – that photography discovers its artistic power.

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