Postcards from Home

During the initial weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown, the fear of the unknown sucked the creative energy out of me. This uncertainty limited my focus to meeting the very basic levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As the weeks of isolation stretched into months and a new routine set in, I became more aware of what I was missing. One of the constants in my life, pre-Covid, had been the freedom to set off on road trips when I had some time. I would direct my attention towards whatever photographic project I was working on. These expeditions also offered me an opportunity to escape from routine and, in a sense, re-boot. In 2019, I embarked on a month-long photographic road trip in the South Western part of the USA. It was an exhilarating adventure, but it also exposed an unexplored vista for my photographic exploration in the future. During the past few decades I have largely restricted my attention to the social, political and physical landscape of Southern Africa.

Similarly, I am sure, to almost everyone around the world, Covid-19 has compelled me to press the pause button on my life plans. One of my early-lockdown, self-assigned tasks was to research my next envisioned trip to the North Eastern region of the USA using Google Earth Pro. My fantasy trip began to acquire a new sense of form as I became familiar with the geography and the locations that interested me. The technology associated with the Street View tool has improved dramatically in recent years, so one can now download a fairly decently-sized image. When I looked through my reference images, I realized that they shared a distinct mood and feel and that they were not dissimilar to the images I would have sought had I actually been there.

My process of ‘looking’ while using this software was very similar to that which I often use on actual road trips. I would hold my project overview in mind as I drove about, relying on instinct to sniff out interesting areas. Every now and then, a visual gem that would propel me to pull over and set up my tripod. Although I was no longer physically choosing my camera position or clicking the shutter, I still had an array of choices within the 360°scenes that are stitched together by the Google Earth Software. My isolated frames, reflect my personal choices within the limits of the sequence of imagery available. My method is similar to choosing a single frame from a film sequence but with many more options and variations.

While cyber photographing, I was confronted by very similar obstructions and frustrations to those that I experienced during actual photographing. For example a telephone pole that blocks the most interesting view of a subject, or insufficient space to apply the optimal choice of lens. In addition the limitations of the Street View images are that they are electronically stitched together giving the illusion of continuity. This produces lines of pixel disruption and furthermore people’s faces are intentionally blurred, making some frames unsalvageable. Some of these blemishes, as well as spatial characteristics such as perspective, can be corrected using Photoshop.

This strange period of isolation and social distancing has made us aware of our fragility and well as a sense of loss. This seems to be a feeling broadly experienced; not only the immediate loss of freedom and the restriction of movement, but also the loss that is associated with change of any form or things that have faded into the past. My internet searches would often uncover old postcards from the towns that I was remotely visiting. Not long ago, even the most uninteresting towns in the United States seemed to have an attraction from which they created a postcard. The most mundane of these have now become collector’s items; rarefied because of their lack of sophistication as much as their scarcity. This format of presenting images, it seems to me, fits well with the vernacular imagery that I have chosen.

A road trip, by its very nature, involves an ambiguous goal; the traveled route becomes trivial in comparison to the procession of changing scenes that can be glimpsed but not held. The set of postcards in this essay are ambiguous in their authorship, provenance as well as the degree to which they can truly reveal a personal perspective. The Google Earth imagery is essentially impartial before I impose my choices and amendments upon them. I can therefore claim as my own, the sequence of images and their presentation, but not the images themselves.

GRAEME WILLIAMS

My work is housed in many permanent collections including: The Smithsonian (USA), The North Carolina Museum of Fine Art (USA) Duke University (USA).

I have staged solo exhibitions in Johannesburg, New York and Paris, Cape Town and London and have contributed to many combined exhibitions on contemporary South African photography; including the 2011 Figures and Fictions exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the 2014 Apartheid and After exhibition at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam. My series, As the grass grows, were included in the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s Being There, a collective exhibition showcasing contemporary South African art.

During 2013 I was awarded the POPCAP Prize for Contemporary African Photography as well as the Ernest Cole Book Award. In 2014 a selection of my images was included in the Aperture Summer Open exhibition.

Photographic assignments have taken me to fifty countries.

www.graemewilliams.co.za

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