This Week In Photography Books – Pieter Hugo

by Jonathan Blaustein

When I was a teen-ager, my family used to go to the Taos Pueblo each Christmas Eve. Some years, it was below zero, but so what. We braved the cold and wind, and marched along with countless other Taos gringos, to see the yearly celebration. Seriously dramatic, I assure you.

How so? The Pueblo is set at the base of Taos Mountain, and the event takes place just as the sun goes down, bathing the peak in deep shades of purple. As the sky darkens, they light bonfires, built as towers, that can reach 30 feet into the sky. The smoke begins to cloud your vision, which adds to the surreality.

Suddenly, you hear the chants of the Pueblo residents, who emerge, without notice, walking slowly in a chain. At the center sits an effigy of the Virgin Mary, stock still on one of those shoulder carriers that they must have used in Ancient Egypt. The chanting, the fires and the smoke are punctuated by rifle shots. Bang. Bang. Cracking across the evening sky. As a youngster, I’d always wonder what would happen if a bullet descended back into the crowd, but I’m sure it’s never happened.

Like I said, it’s dramatic. I went each year for a decade or so, then stopped cold. Suddenly, it seemed too cliché. Too Post-Colonial. Hey, look at the strange red people. Watch them dance. Like poking a monkey with a stick. Or so I thought.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder. On the heels of last week’s review of the Viviane Sassen book, I got to talking with my friend Melanie at photo-eye. I told her that my first impression was something like, “Are you kidding me?” Really, how many photographers need to point their camera at the poor brown people. We get it. Enough.

The essay eventually won me over, and of course the pictures are edgy and well done. But Melanie didn’t have the same disdain for the process, nor do many, so I began to wonder. Am I the only one with this bias? And furthermore, is the bias valid?

I ask, because, in Taos, you’re not from here unless you were born here. A lot of places are like that. So is Post-Modern theory, ironically. It was branded in any good student’s subconscious that what you have to say is inherently limited by your gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Rebutting the vision of many a wandering shutterbug, it imposed upon a generation of artists the notion that you ought to stick to what you know. (For example, if I ever met Chuck D, I probably wouldn’t smack his palm and exclaim, “Power to the people, my brother.” You dig?)

So now I’ve begun to wonder if it isn’t time to challenge that notion entirely. Maybe artists ought not to be limited to their continent, or class, or sexual orientation? Maybe photographers keep going to the Third World because of an insatiable human curiosity to learn about different things, and tell unfamiliar stories? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the pictures are distinctive, and, in some way, new?

And what of Africa? Maybe the fascination stems from the fact that it’s the homeland to all humans? And its wild creatures dominate our dreams and deep fears, despite the probable urbanity of our surroundings. (Yes, I did get scared by a tiger at the Denver zoo. The bullet-proof glass did little to quell the shivers creeping up my neck. Big, scary monster. Run, dammit, run.)

With that in mind, I thought it might be healthy to head back to Africa again this week. Now, Pieter Hugo was born in South Africa, so of course my argument is already weakened. He’s from there, so his opinion matters more, according to my original line of thinking. But let’s just judge the book and photos, and then see what we think. OK?

His new book, “This Must Be the Place,” also published by Prestel, is one of the best I’ve seen since I started this column. Given that I made you read all the above, I thought I’d cut to the chase. It’s amazing. If you like his work at all, this is one to buy. Why?

To begin with, unlike last week’s book, this volume needs no introduction. No backstory necessary. (If you’re looking for some on the “Parasomnia” book, photo-eye posted a more in-depth review.) In Hugo’s book, each set of pictures is titled by image, project, place and date. It’s not hard to piece things together, especially as all the images come in groups. It gives a nice bit of context, and allows the photographs to suck you in. (FYI, I continue to assert that if an artist does not include certain information, then they don’t care that we know it.)

The first set of portraits, from South Africa, establish straight away that Mr. Hugo, like the folks at the Taos Pueblo, has a flair for the dramatic. (Not news to anyone who saw that photo of a big Naked African guy wearing a Darth Vader mask.) They are shot close up against a neutral background, not unlike Thomas Ruff, but these reek of emotion. Intense stares, albino Africans, and a blind guy with silver eyes.

Then, a set of portraits of judges from Botswana, all decked out in the garb of the British realm. Next, we’re on to portraits of dead people, wrapped in burial shrouds. Also from South Africa. No, Mr. Hugo is not shying away from the legacy that brought lots of gun-toting white people to Africa’s shores.

On to boy scouts, shirtless taxi washers, and wild honey collectors from Ghana. All well-made, but they’re just place holders for what comes next. A chilling look at the “Vestiges of Genocide” from Rwanda. Lime-covered shrieking skeletons, and bones rotting in the dust. Brilliant.

The next photo, after that run, is of a pile of rotting tomatoes on the ground, from 2006. If you read last week, you know that I wondered what Ms. Sassen was on about with her version of rotting tomatoes on the ground. Now we know. It was a shout out. Pretty cool.

The book continues on longer than I can. So let’s condense. The “Nollywood” work, which drew so much praise and criticism a couple of years ago, shines in the context of this book. (And no, Vader is not included.) The guys hanging out with Baboons and Hyenas are fascinating. (From “The Hyena & Other Men”) For all the reasons I listed above. Primal fear and our insatiable thirst for visions of the “Other.” It doesn’t get more “Other” than people who pal around with Hyenas and Baboons, IMHO.

In the end, Mr. Hugo has the guts to expose his own world, along with the others. His relatives: naked and pregnant, topless after a breast reduction operation, and his little daughter, standing in the middle of the road, pushing a pink stroller, vulnerable to any car or bus that screams around the bend just behind her. (The last picture, of course.)

This book made me rethink my own experiences. It made me question bed-rock assumptions. It even made me re-write history a bit. (I saw a show of his last Fall at Yossi Milo, and thought the work boring. Perhaps I was impatient.) Unlike many of you, I was unaware that Mr. Hugo is a genuinely important artist, walking among us. There’s a lot we can learn from a great book. This is one of them.

Bottom Line: Fantastic. A keeper.

To purchase “This Must Be the Place” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 15 Comments On This Article.

  1. I’ve been consistently impressed and amazed with Hugo’s work ever since seeing the ‘Hyena and Other Men’ work. thanks for posting this, more people need to see the book, it is truly a thing of beauty.

  2. Sebastien Boncy

    For the record, I’m a fan of Sassen, and I’ve got no ill will towards Hugo. But is it really that difficult to appreciate soome work without seeing how problematic it is, especially in certain specific context? Pop enthusiast do it all of the time.
    Are you telling me that there is not a significant difference between experiencing something that comes from the people of the pueblo directly and a view of Nollywood that comes from Hugo and not from any one involved in that industry?
    Here try this:

      • Sebastien Boncy

        Mr Hugo,

        I think you misunderstand. I have never attacked your character, commitment or intentions. Some have accused me of doing just that after reading my response on Amy Stein’s blog, but I cannot be blamed for their lack of reading comprehension skills.
        The image of the Black Man in America and Europe has a very noxious history that cannot always be countered by good intentions or earnest work. No one is asking you to be Grace Jones or Fred Wilson. But it is fair to question and to point to the negative impact such work can have in a white and affluent milieu.
        Many critics want to sing praises to your work, I won’t stand in the way of photo love. But they often feel it necessary to evacuate all of the uncomfortable stuff and gladly ignore the fact that much of our very real concerns are not so much about the work itself but about the work in the context in which it exists (exhibited and sold). Your white audience (the article you linked to addresses very different issues) wants to enjoy your work without having to feel bad or look bad. Our concerns are never truly addressed, just dismissed. White privilege is a hell of a drug.

  3. “It doesn’t get more ‘Other’ than people who pal around with Hyenas and Baboons, IMHO.”

    And of course that’s precisely what makes Hugo’s work so problematic. This book actually magnifies this problem by contrasting the outlandish and “exotic” images of black Africans with the relatively “normal” domestic portrayal of his white family members (although that final image is a bit outlandish in its own way).

    “Unlike many of you, I was unaware that Mr. Hugo is [a] genuinely important artist, walking among us.”

    I honestly don’t know what to make of this statement. Are you saying that you were bored by the Yossi Milo show, but now that you’ve discovered that Hugo is popular, you’ve rethought your reaction?

    • Mew,

      I honestly don’t know what to make of your reactions to my book reviews. I do pay attention to the comments, even when I don’t reply. You’ve been one of the most skeptical, most critical commenters we’ve had. (Not to mention anonymous.)

      So while I’ll respond to your questions, I have no desire to get into a back-and-forth this afternoon. And thanks, of course, for slyly pointing out the typo above. It will get corrected.

      In this book, which seemingly spans his recent career output, we see that Hugo has not shied away from looking at Genocide. Should we discount that because of the color of his skin? He’s also made some smart choices in what type of people he represents, some that deal directly with the history of Colonialism. Like the Judges. And he has put his own family in front of the lens in very unflattering ways.

      In the context of the book, the “Nollywood” and Hyena images depict a subset of culture, one that is fascinating and surreal. Would you care to let a Hyena nuzzle up to your private parts? I doubt it.

      As to the second quote, I meant that in the context of a gallery tour, where I’m seeing 30 or more shows at a time, I walked into Yossi Milo and walked out. I didn’t give the show more than a minute. That’s my fault.

      A show also can only be judged by what’s on the walls. This book puts each project in the context of the other projects, which is a very different experience. One that makes me think I ought to have been more patient last Fall.

      You can choose to disagree with me, and you can also choose to stop reading my column. But the fact that you seem to find much of what I say objectionable does make me wonder why you bother.

      I have learned that many people like to make comments such as yours as a way of creating a spat or on-going argument. If that’s your goal today, it won’t happen. But if you happen to be genuinely curious as to exactly what I meant, I hope I’ve been helpful.

      Best wishes,

      jb

      • I think you’ve conflated my comments with Sebastien’s, as your defenses of Hugo’s work in your third and fourth paragraphs don’t seem to bear any relation to the issue that I mentioned in my comment.

        But nevermind, as I see there’s little point in continuing any discussion. Carry on.

  4. I’ve always liked images of character. The image of the man with the horn like hair is awesome.

    How does one get legal right to publish/sell/use pics like these? Is there really a model release? And, with what for ID if there is?

  5. I find Hugo’s photos very superficial and flashy! Get really bored of looking at them after a while….
    He is good at picking subjects that will sell in a gallery but not at going deep in the story.

  6. The fundamental challenge for me in viewing this work as meritorious is the near complete lack of empathy between the photographer and his subject. When I view the photographs, I see not an unsympathetic subject, but an unsympathetic photographer. The distance is imposed, since both subject and photographer, in most cases, are human beings. This is nearly the exact same problem I have with photographers [Avedon, Soth, et al] of essentially “using” their subjects and making their “art” at, what seems to me, at the expense of seeing another human being.

    • I disagree – the level of empathy seems to depend on what he intended with the shoot. The photos that are more traditional portraits of individuals and families are harsh but not unsympathetic. The pictures from the Nollywood shoot depict imagined characters (created, according to the article posted by Hugo above, by makeup artists within the Nigerian film industry), and are much more distanced and fantastical.

  7. As an artist it’s not my responsibility to provide a responsible rendition of how the rest of the world should perceive or not perceive Africa. -Pieter Hugo

    I can’t speak for all his critics, and certainly no artist anywhere is responsible for how everyone in the world perceives and interprets their work. I can state that an artist who regularly depicts certain groups of people in his art (from which he also makes his living), should at least make a proper effort to ensure that his work is not misconstrued or misrepresented- Shelby Lee Adams goes to particular lengths to explain the imagery and complex history of his Appalachian subjects to the outside world. He feels he owes at least that much to his subjects, if not his viewers. Of course, if you just don’t give a shit, or if your goal all along was to simply throw out a group of images with a certain amount of shock value…

    I don’t think the latter was the case with Pieter Hugo, nor do I think him a racist or uncaring fellow- but I can’t help but think he lacks a certain amount of cultural sensitivity. I can fully understand his point that Nollywood was a respectful celebration of the Nigerian film industry, and that he had its full blessing. And I do get “the fun” part- but he is also old enough to understand how individual images from that series can also play to ridicule and racist stereotypes. He could have used this work to purposely initiate and foster discussion and understanding on issues regarding: photography, colonialism, racist imagery and cultural constructs. Instead, he chose simply to deny any implied responsibility for what that double edged sword of an essay offers.

    This Must Be The Place contains a wide variety of truly excellent portraits from a wide variety of essays, many of which are laden with the geopolitical subtexts of historical colonization and present day globalization- Chrissakes, it is in great part what takes his work beyond mere prettiness. So why deny where it does, in fact, take us when it does?

  8. Sebastien Boncy

    Great points by Mew, Trinidad and Banos and then crickets. This is exactly the problem.