At I.C.P., an outstanding chronicle of South Africa and a testament to the power of photographs

Peter Magubane, 'Sharpeville Funeral.' (Baileys African History Archive)
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Two videos open the International Center of Photography’s Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, the most difficult and best show currently on view in New York.

One is a compilation of clips from May 26, 1948, when D.F. Malan and the Apartheid government of the National Party were swept into power in South Africa. The other is perhaps more familiar; it shows F.W. de Klerk, also president of the country and head of the National Party announcing, on February 2, 1990, that Nelson Mandela is to be freed after 27 years in jail, and the most Apartheid-era policies are to be rescinded.

Watch both before you enter the exhibition; in fact, watch and read and look at everything you can, because this show rewards a concerted, rigorous viewing. It is not an easy show to see, with nearly 500 images, magazines, books, music videos, and other archival material on view, but it is hung with care and compassion and engagement, and is more rewarding, intellectually and emotionally, than anything I have seen a long time.

Part of the difficulty, and genius, of Rise and Fall, is how curators Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester have organized the I.C.P.’s space. Tall partitions divide the show into decades, starting in the 1940s, and ending, on the first floor, in the explosive 1970s. Each section begins with the requisite wall texts, detailing the important events of the decade, and their placement often impedes movement between each section. Normally, this would be a big strike against the exhibition; indeed, the recent Richter retrospective at the Pompidou in Paris did the very same thing, and the frustration on visitor’s faces was plain to see.

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But the effect here is surprising needed, and inspired. When viewers are turned back by a clutch of intent readers, they refocus their attention on the photos and ephemera, looking more closely. And, wonderfully, when those same viewers finally reach the wall panels, they stop—I’ve never seen so many museumgoers reading so intently—and they engage. The wealth of information available means that no single activity—looking or reading—can be maintained for too long. Once they’ve finished reading, viewers go back to absorbing what the images themselves tell. They tell a great deal.

The first floor could be termed the historical floor; the 1940s section sets the stage, with images from the inauguration of Malan, and the beginnings of both Apartheid policies and activism against them. Moving through the ‘50s and ‘60s, the show tracks the different strategies employed by both black and white South Africans to combat the evermore draconian and restrictive racial policies, including the requirement that blacks and “coloureds” (what South Africans of Indian descent were, and are, called there) carry passbooks with their photo and listing their race, and the Group Areas Act, which mandated segregation in residential areas. Viewers absorb this history via an incredible range of sources, from innumerable unknown photographers to the classic portraits Margaret Bourke-White took for LIFE magazine.

The importance of the related ephemera—much from Mr. Enwezor’s own collection—cannot be overstated. There are many copies of DRUM magazine laid out in vitrines directly below the hung photos, which were often first published in the magazine’s pages. DRUM was a catalyst and outlet for African photographers, showcasing a mix of pop-culture coverage—mainly contemporary fashion and music—and hard-hitting documentary and reportage. The curators seem to have been inspired by the magazine and its organizational rubric. Rise and Fall also flirts between photos that communicate the flavor of cultural and social life in South Africa during Apartheid—George Hallet’s photos of jazz dancers and South African musicians are particularly strong—and the emotionally shattering images of the struggle against Apartheid. (At left: DRUM Cover featuring anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko two months after he was beaten and tortured to death by police, November, 1977.)

These are heavy, hard images to see. A large print of Ernest Cole’s photo of mine workers stripped naked and lined up for inspection attracts and repulses. Photos from the Sharpeville Massacre, when demonstrations against restrictive pass laws ended with police killing 69 people, take your breath away, especially Peter Magubane’s photo of the funeral, with 5,000 stunned mourners surrounding a row of coffins stretching to the horizon.

One of the strongest photographs (I hesitate to say the strongest, since so many of these images are impossible to forget) was taken during the Soweto student uprising of June 16, 1976, which ends the exhibition’s first floor. The peaceful demonstrations in the township of Soweto, outside of Johannseburg, began in response the government’s mandate that school be taught mostly in the Afrikaans language.

Dogs were loosed on students, and in the chaos shots were fired. Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was one the first to be killed. Sam Nzima’s photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying the dead boy is in his arms, his face a mix of anguish, horror, and anger, was published worldwide. In Rise and Fall it is printed large, and dominates the wall on which it a hangs. It is a perfectly composed photograph, balanced in a rule of three, and it dominates your thoughts as you walk down the stairs into the second portion of the exhibition.

The show’s second floor, downstairs, shifts markedly from the historical accounts of the first. It is still separated into decades, but there are only two on view, the 1980s—which focuses on the rapidly increasing global pressure on the regime—and the 1990s—which starts with Mandela’s release, continues through the tribal violence of 1990–1994, and ends with the beginning of the Rainbow Nation with Mandela’s election in 1994.

But the rooms breathe more; the prints are larger, fewer to a wall, and tend to form more cohesive and determined projects. They also showcase the nuanced understanding the curators have of how photography, in all its myriad representational modes, was used in the struggle against Apartheid. The floor starts with Gavin Jantjes’s explicitly political A South African Colouring Book, a series of screen prints composed of news photos and clippings overlaid on graph paper. Gideon Mendel’s work on the far-right, white power AWB party is an illuminating window onto the origins and nature of Afrikaans culture, and a wonderful example of the kind of documentary photography that was practiced in the ‘80s. William Kentridge’s lyrical and heartbreaking animated videos, of mine-workers and guilt-racked businessmen, are a deeply affecting addition. Roger Ballen’s stark black-and-white landscapes, evacuated of any people, still tell the story of a country scarred by poverty, violence, and hatred. Also presented here are photographers like David Goldblatt, who flirt with several different modes at once. His The Transport of KwaNdebele simultaneously speaks the languages of Robert Frank, Daido Moriyama, and Walker Evans. Struggle photography was not just snapshots of township clashes.

The last wall in the last room, past the searing war photography of the Bang Bang Club (including Greg Marionvich’s famous photograph of an ANC supporter stabbing a member of a rival party), features Thabiso Sekgala’s still, empty, washed out portraits and landscapes. These photos, one appropriately titled “Inheritance, Sehoko,” embody the ambivalence many now feel about South Africa’s future. This tone is picked up again Sabeto Mlangeni’s adjacent images of abandoned ghost towns in the countryside. Importantly, these series are from 2009–2011, and show it, not just in their weary pessimism (brought on perhaps by former president Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denial and the continuing clashes over land reclamation), but in their visual style. They are products of a conceptual practice drawing from documentary and reportage, a style that fills the pages of today’s newspapers and glossy magazines.

When I first walked through Rise and Fall of Apartheid, I overheard someone complain that the show was badly hung, that there were too many news photographs on view, that he didn’t want to read all this text, that it needed more big prints. But what the exhibition shows us is that photography is not limited to the enormous looming C-prints of stock exchanges and cities at night (though it is also that, and better for it); it is a medium of newspapers, of photo books and glossy magazines, of nightlife documentary and underground provocation, and these are some of the most successful ways of presenting work, old and new.

It reminds us that, for better and for worse, photography is a layered, complex medium, one that accommodates a range of uses. Finally, it makes abundantly clear, through an overload of images and words, the political and aesthetic power that photos possess. Go see it.

Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life is on view through January 6, 2013 at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas.

All images © Baileys African History Archive.