Thursday, June 05, 2014

Tales from the City of Gold by Jason Larkin

My review of Jason Larkin's Tales from the City of Gold (Kehrer, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

Built on the tailings and cavernous holes of a once rich gold reserve, Johannesburg has a complex relationship with the precious metal. Long since depleted, the tailings, waste and dust from decades of mining now surround the city — infiltrating every aspect of life. Although the landscape is now the site of a renewed effort to extract gold due to its increased value, the landscape has been irreparably transformed along with the lives of the people who live there. Jason Larkin’s Tales from the City of Gold looks at the lasting social, racial and environmental consequences the precious metal has wrought on the city and the lives of the people who live there.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

Shot entirely on 2 ¼ medium format color, the book combines landscapes and portraits. Often shot at a distance, Larkin takes a somewhat measured and restrained approach in documenting his subject. Figures are rarely brought to the foreground and are framed as part of the landscape. A man, identified as an environmentalist, overlooks a mining pit; two children play with toxic sand on a paved sidewalk; and in one of the book’s most iconic images, a lone man stands against a towering mound of tailings while dogs circle and roam throughout the space. Although not always the focus of individual images, the scarred landscape is an omnipresent focus — tailings loom in the background, rivers of chemical sludge snake through the sand and ambiguous trenches fragment the landscape. What at first appear to be mesas and banks of sedimentary deposits are quickly revealed to be the aftermath of the mines, which have left no part of the landscape untouched.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

As with any story about Johannesburg and South Africa, race plays a central role. Mining is a grueling and dangerous work anywhere you go, and in South African it is most often done by black South Africans either through forced labor or due to almost non-existent options for work and employment. Although freed from the evils of Apartheid, contemporary black workers and inhabitants of the toxic landscape still struggle with systemic and generational inequality. Forced to live amidst the ravaged landscape, many have resorted to sifting through the discarded tailings, scavenging in the city’s dumps or by taking jobs with the new mining companies that have returned to take over the old sites.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

Although the two essays give the work contextual grounding within South African history and contemporary photography, the images feel oddly removed. While the names of Larkin’s subjects are given, their voices are absent and we learn little about their lives. The particulars are sacrificed for the bigger picture, when the two are not mutually exclusive. Julian Rodriguez locates Larkin’s cool and distanced gaze within contemporary fine-art photography, but given the enormity of the environmental, social and racial injustice the images skirt, the book as a whole seem a bit timid. This is especially true when Rodriguez references the brilliant, brave and unapologetically political work of Ernest Cole, the black South African photographer who risked his life to expose the injustices of Apartheid in his book House of Bondage. Larkin seem reluctant to either embrace the more artistic aspects of the work by leaving more unsaid, or to tackle the larger social and political reality of the work by giving us more information.

All images © Jason Larkin / Kehrer, 2014

Larkin clearly cares about his subject and subjects, but I was left craving a more inventive design and a greater use of appropriated source materials. Given the subject’s long and complex history, there are no doubt vast visual and textual resources to drawn on that could have been incorporated into the book, as well as voices that demand to be heard. The inclusion of the book’s two appropriated graphics does more for the book than both essays. At least one of which could have been forgone with a different design and/or use of additional material. Larkin is a very talented photographer who’s tackled an ambitious and important subject that deserves attention. Sadly, it’s a great project that deserves a better book.

Please note: This review originally appeared on May 29th, 2014 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

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