The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Ponte City

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Reviewed by Alan Ainsworth

Ponte City, a photographic project led by Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, demonstrated how architectural photography is capable of embracing social documentary. It also said much about the nature of the photograph as documentary evidence.

Planned at the height of apartheid regime confidence in the late 1960s, Ponte City is a 54-storey apartment building in Johannesburg which fell victim to a collapse in the property market and urban unrest. By the time it was completed in 1976, confidence among the affluent young whites for whom it had been designed had collapsed, and it became a refuge for displaced blacks from the countryside and the townships. As the building deteriorated, Ponte City increasingly turned into a magnet for criminals, prostitutes and drug dealers, an unavoidable symbol on the skyline of urban decay and the focus of a range of seething social tensions.

Undeterred, the squatters tried to clean up the building and make decent homes for themselves. Subotzky and Waterhouse began documenting the inhabitants, their apartments and lifestyles in 2007, when developers attempted to evict the illegal tenants in order (unsuccessfully) to refurbish the block. They photographed extensively in the building for over five years, making portraits of the residents, their doors, the views from their high-rise windows, their TVs. They also collected a vast quantity of documents and other artefacts from the building including historical papers, planning applications, building plans, documentation, notebooks and drawings, scribblings, marketing material, newspaper cuttings, notices to quit, handwritten notes, screen shots and camera snaps.

The exhibition is in effect a camera-based installation which integrates documentation with photography. In many cases, the documents are actually superimposed on the photographs. An accompanying book presents the photography, while 17 interlinked booklets, involving nine other writers, contain thematic essays and stories which complement the body of images. Taken together, documentary evidence and photography not only illustrate the lives of people and their environment but also provide graphic contrasts between the realities of everyday life and the architects’ and developers’ glossy visions which supported the marketing of the building. One powerful exhibit combines a photograph of the servants’ quarters in Ponte City with planning applications and responses which make clear the authorities demands for ‘screening the bantu servants from view’.

The exhibition poses two important questions. Can we consider Ponte City to be architectural photography? And can the documentary photographer avoid the bias which inevitably accompanies involvement in a socially-charged project of this nature? Architectural photography embraces a gamut of styles from client-driven representation of pristine buildings to images of materials and construction processes of the kind that Nigel Henderson created for Peter and Alison Smithson at Hunstanton School. This exhibition is an exploration of architectural photography through the life of a building – surely one of the most important consequences of the architect’s designs. As to the bias often found in documentary, the authors make sure that the photographs in Ponte City can only be understood in relation to other documents. By placing documents side by side and even superimposing them onto the photographs, the articulation of one into the other becomes clear. In linking the photography with a range of supporting documentary material, Subotzky and Waterhouse have provided a second opinion, as it were, to the veracity of the photography, and we are able to test the moral assumptions of the images against at least several other sources. This approach would also seem to have reduced the risk that the photography might at some point be detached and reinterpreted as art photography – the other fate of the documentary photograph.

A catalogue of this exhibition is available (Steidl, 192pp, £68).