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Book Review: Africa Junctions: Capturing the City


Book Review Africa Junctions: Capturing the City By Lard Buurman Reviewed by Blake Andrews Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. The title of Lard Buurman's recent monograph says it all. At its most basic level, the book is comprised of photographs of African cities, fifteen of them strung across the continent. Buurman is fascinated with daily urban life and quotidian physical structure —"The commonplace remains my point of departure," he says.

Hajte Cantz, 2014.
 
Africa Junctions: Capturing the City
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Africa Junctions: Capturing the City
By Lard Buurman
Hatje Cantz, 2014. 204 pp., 87 illustrations, 9¾x12x¾".


Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. The title of Lard Buurman's recent monograph says it all. At its most basic level, the book is comprised of photographs of African cities, fifteen of them strung across the continent. Buurman is fascinated with daily urban life and quotidian physical structure —"The commonplace remains my point of departure," he says. Thus his scenes lean toward the undramatic territory of Joe Deal, Stephen Shore, or Google Street View. Drab buildings, informal intersections, sprawling markets, anonymous inhabitants. In other words, it's the plain visual fabric of ordinary existence. Nothing is happening here, his photos seem to say, while begging the viewer to examine what's really happening.

Of course the issue is more complicated. In fact it's a potential minefield. Any white European seeking to document authentic Africa carries baggage from the outset. To show up on the doorstep and announce, "This is what you look like," is a problematic step for any photographer seeking to penetrate and understand an exotic culture. This is particularly true of Africa, which has been maligned and stereotyped by outsiders throughout history. Add the fact that the photographer's home country has deep colonial roots in Africa and that's yet another twist.

Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. By Lard BuurmanHajte Cantz, 2014.

Considering the difficulties, Buurman was likely aware that his project would face some headwind. The fact he proceeded means that he's either naive, stubborn, full of conviction in what he's doing, or perhaps some combination of the three. It's tough to untangle the various motivations from only the photos, but the book includes several written interludes that shed some light.

The most informative of these — a first person interview by Chris Keulemans — favors the naivety theory. Unfortunately that outlook aligns with traditional stereotypes, at least initially. Before visiting Africa in 2009 Buurman writes that he "was sure [he] was going to be robbed at least once." (It didn't happen.) Dar es Salaam "seemed like hell on earth to me," he writes later, wondering out loud how anyone could live there. Gradually he learns to overcome his fear. "When you consider everything outside your cocoon to be unsafe… the city will never belong to you," he states before coming around gradually to the realization that just because "people live on the margins doesn't necessarily mean that their life is pure hell." The reader can be excused for mistaking Buurman's account for Charles Marlow's. Overall it's a fearful, dismissive outlook, and one particularly responsive to Africa. It's hard to imagine similar comments generated by a photo trip to, say, Eastern Europe or South America.

Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. By Lard BuurmanHajte Cantz, 2014.

To be fair, these initial impressions evolve over time, and after several trips Buurman gains a comfort level in his new environment and is able to pursue his project. OK, great. Congrats on the progress. But the reader is left wondering if the photographs are more about Africa or Buurman. For better or for worse, what we're left with is yet another book by a white explorer documenting the Dark Continent and himself in the process.

Putting aside for a moment Buurman's personal growth, the photographs of Africa Junctions offer a nice raw sampling of African cities. Buurman generally uses the trawler strategy, casting a huge net to capture large visual swaths. The catch is surveyed and every item in the net is showcased, from the smallest hubcap to the largest 10-story building. He often positions himself on corners and other vantages where he can combine deep foreground and background, but beyond that the choice of particular location seems arbitrary.

Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. By Lard BuurmanHajte Cantz, 2014.

The scenes are all quite "normal," and that is part of their charm. By pulling from the commonplace, Buurman has leveraged photography's peculiar trick of democratizing the visual field. When nothing is important, everything becomes important. The bottle collection, the dirt road, and the electric wires all have equal significance, and taken together they give a good semblance of how African cities look. For the general reader who has never visited most of these cities (e.g, myself), the photos are a treasure trove of raw information, and I expect they will probably become even more interesting over time as pure recordings. This is the book's strongest point, and perhaps reason enough to acquire it.

Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. By Lard BuurmanHajte Cantz, 2014.

But I haven't yet addressed the most interesting twist. All of the photographs in the book are composite images. Buurman makes several exposures of a scene from a particular point. Leaving the background unaltered, he then adds pedestrians from the various exposures to create urban tableaus. As one might expect the resulting photographs show a relatively clean mix of pedestrian life. But the effect is not heavy-handed. Far from it. Whereas artists like Peter Funch and Pelle Cass have employed this technique to create fantastical scenes that draw attention to their surreal qualities, Buurman's compositing touch is almost invisible. Indeed one wonders why it was used here, since very similar scenes might've been captured in just one exposure.

Africa Junctions: Capturing the City. By Lard BuurmanHajte Cantz, 2014.

One possible explanation is that Buurman likes to defy taboos. This goes back to the "stubborn" theory mentioned above. Combining images into composites has been a no-no in traditional documentary photography. For Buurman, that might be reason enough to do it. He explains away the process with the claim that "each photograph is a manipulation of reality." True enough. But in that case, why not add a few flying saucers to these images? Is it because their connection to Africa would then be broken? Manipulation is a slippery slope, and his case might be better made with less of it.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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