18 February 2021
With the reading of its last will and testament in the exhibition The Late Estate Broomberg & Chanarin at Fabra i Coats in Barcelona on 20 February, the artist duo Broomberg & Chanarin will announce itself economically, creatively and conceptually dead. Having both been brought up for periods in South Africa, Adam Broomberg (b. South Africa, 1970) and Oliver Chanarin (b. Britain, 1971) started their collaboration when editing COLORS, the magazine published by Bennetton. “We weren’t photographers and we weren’t editors,” said Broomberg. But suddenly they found themselves at the core of the magazine. The series they produced in the early 2000s – stories of closed communities like refugee camps, mental hospitals, prisons or old people’s homes – established their reputation as photographers capable of making investigative portraits of people on the margins of society. It paved the way for a blossoming art practice in which they deliberately started to deconstruct the role of photography and of the photographer.
For their solo exhibition To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light at Foam in 2015, Broomberg and Chanarin led visitors through a meandering and disturbing history lesson about photography and its relationship to race. In response to a commission to 'document' Gabon, Broomberg & Chanarin made several trips to the West African country to photograph a series of rare initiation rituals, using only Kodak film stock that had expired in the 1960s. In the late 1970s the French-Swiss film director Jean Luc Godard famously claimed that this early colour film was inherently 'racist', because it was better at depicting white skin than black skin. Using outdated chemical processes, Broomberg & Chanarin salvaged a single frame from the many rolls of expired film they exposed during these trips. Their film stock had deteriorated over the years, leaving the green pigment intact and causing the image to appear unnaturally pink. By using this outdated process, Broomberg & Chanarin avoided stereotypical and exoticizing images of the other as we know them from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ethnographers.
A key work in the exhibition was a billboard-sized photograph of Shirley, a 1950s model for the Kodak Eastman Company, placed in a radically empty room in Foam. In 1950s and 1960s, Shirley’s portrait was distributed to photography labs all over the world as a visual reference for correct exposure. Shirley became a benchmark for 'normal' Caucasian skin. Kodak’s early colour film was designed for a narrow range of light skin tones; it was notoriously difficult to include black and white faces in the same frame. In the 1980s Kodak was approached by two of its biggest clients, the confectionary and furniture industries, which needed a film that could more accurately render the brown tones of chocolate and wood. Kodak developed new film stock, which was promoted as being able 'to photograph the details of a dark horse in low light’. This coded phrase became the title of a series of works by Broomberg & Chanarin that examined the relationship between photography and race. To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light was an exceptional exhibition of historical deconstruction, and it suggested that the technology of image-making is as politically fraught as the images it produces.
The exhibition To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light was typical of Broomberg & Chanarin’s artistic practice, in which they posed important questions about the way the medium of photography represents a subject. About how the technology contained in the medium consciously or unconsciously determines how we observe the world, thereby providing a fruitful layer of humus on which our beliefs take shape. The work of Broomberg & Chanarin circled around important questions and invited reflection, without going on to provide ready-made answers. The way in which the duo depicted their subjects was direct and no-nonsense yet never relinquished a feeling for form. This aesthetic aspect helped them to convey the layered content in a stimulating way for their audiences.
Broomberg & Chanarin have published fifteen monographs and had numerous international solo exhibitions, at venues including Eye Filmmuseum (Amsterdam) Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), Hasselblad Center (Stockholm), C/O Berlin, Jumex (Mexico), FoMu (Antwerp), Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam) and their galleries Goodman Gallery and Lisson Gallery. They have won the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and the ICP Infinity Award.
Dying, suddenly no longer being there, disappearing, isn’t that simple of course. There is an astonishingly valuable material legacy in the form of artworks and books, but there is also an immaterial legacy, something that is harder to grasp but perhaps of even more essential importance: a critical attitude towards the role that photography has played in facilitating power hierarchies in, for example, racism and colonialism, and the violation of our privacy. This stance, based on research and translated into visually interesting and long-term projects, will very probably live on in the future work of a generation of young image-makers. After the death of the duo, the two artists will continue separate art practices and will continue teaching individually in the afterlife: a shared professorship of photography at the Hochschule für bildende Künste (HFBK) in Hamburg and teaching positions on the MA Photography & Society programme at The Royal Academy of Art (KABK), The Hague.
Kim Knoppers collaborated as a Foam curator with Broomberg & Chanarin for the exhibition To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light at Foam in 2015.