The Vacant Heart, Photography Exhibition Opens In Johannesburg

By Novell Zwange – “Imagine a place filled with stories, eroded by history and time. Imagine everyone leaving, then trickling back.This place is johannesburg. It is a place too many of you know only peripherally. We look at her from afar, with disdain. But there is beauty in the cracks on the walls and triumph in the spirit of the people who are there, there despite the warts.”

These were the bold words inscribed at the Push & Pull of the Urban Giant, a photography exhibition by Dan Rosenthal which opened  at the Alliance Française in Johannesburg last night.

Dan’s exhibition of 3 series which features photographs of the Johannesburg metropolis area runs until the 16th of August.

The artist was born and grew up in Johannesburg and, as he puts it, has a “…it’s complicated” relationship with the city. This relationship, along with his love for photography as the perfect tool for capturing his perception, is the springboard that launched the following three series into fruition, all of which offer a profound observation of urban street life.

His earliest work, the first series entitled Cities, Streets & Lights, deals with street scenes taken from Joburg suburbia and a few ‘klein dorpies’ such as Uniondale. Many are striking in that they contradict expectations and stereotypes of the areas to which they belong. All have an underlying haunted, abandoned feeling, which is again contradictory to what one expects of the city. The surreal tones of light and colour create one image that is from all times of the day – every shadow, and non-shadow is included. This also lends to the overall feeling that although the image may appear to be a simple urban scene, something is missing ; something is not quite right. At first glance they are familiar images, taken of the city we know and live in, however the more they are studied, the more that familiarity fades, and the image begins to appear abstract and foreign. Perhaps this process is not even a linear one, but feelings of the familiar and the alien are perceived at the same time.

In his second series, The East London Can Series, Dan again abstracts the familiar. A crushed can, an object that is considered mundane, disgusting and filthy even, is the predominant subject. Blown up to unusually huge proportions these cans are alien to us, they are stripped of our preconceptions and of the identity that we place upon them. Printed in this way and the very fact that they are being given the attention of a photograph completely decontextualises them. The crushed cans develop into an element of the image’s overall shape, colour and form. It is startling to see how beautiful the photographs really are despite being made up of what we regard as ‘filthy’ and ‘mundane’.

Dan’s third and most recent series, The Vacant Heart, returns to street scenes, this time of Joburg’s CBD. This series also gives off a haunted and abandoned feel, highlighted by the use of black and white film. Johannesburg CBD is unique in that big business has migrated out of its core towards ‘safer’ more affluent areas, therefore leaving only remnants of what was once a sophisticated, wealthy, busy, business city centre. Dan’s title The Vacant Heart, more specifically refers to the feel of soullessness – our city is no longer vibrant, warm and welcoming, but rather it is a cold and dangerous place that many Joburgers avoid. Vacant also implies the inevitability of being reinhabited. They are classic, beautiful, and nostalgically ominous. Together these three series liberates photography collectors from usual perceptions of the familiar, and replace it with a refreshingly new perception of urban life in South Africa, particularly Johannesburg.