Ivan Vladislavic’s pre-eminently urban voice, liberally laced with his well-developed sense of irony, is heard with new clarity in his latest work, Double Negative, as he continues to track the political and social neuroses of our society, whether they lie in the intimacies of the family or the unexamined assumptions of communal South African life. However, this time his text is accompanied by a volume of images titled TJ and produced by the well-known photographer, David Goldblatt. The photographs have been arranged into sections, offering images which depict different eras and deal with different aspects of South African society, providing subtle markers of the shifts and changes in South African life from the 1950s right up to the 2000s.
Double Negative draws on TJ in parasitic, rather than symbiotic ways: firstly, the time-shifts reflected in Goldblatt’s photographs are seen to be represented in the settings of Vladislavic’s text and, secondly, Double Negative contains a photographer-figure called Auerbach who takes photographs of subjects similar to those of Goldblatt. The novel’s narrator, Neville, is a young man whose father apprentices him to Auerbach in order to instil some discipline in him, although Neville has no interest in photography, and insists that he does not want to become a photographer. However, the estranging effect of this unlikely arrangement does ensure that Neville has the detachment Vladislavic usually cultivates in his narrators, and the interchanges between Auerbach and Neville around ways of representing the subject lie at the heart of this co-operative effort between the two real-life artists. Vladislavic’s text deconstructs the interactions between photographer and subject, and repeatedly draws the reader into the Derridean site of thoughtful playfulness on which the art of photography ultimately converges. It is within such sites that Vladislavic’s particular brand of whimsical magic realism is often most pronounced, unsettling the reader by dissolving the boundaries of photographic situations into non sequiturs which turn out to be major sources of meaning – rather of provocation – within the text as a whole.
The housing of the two volumes – Double Negative and TJ – in a single folder sets up an implicit conversation, or even confrontation, between writer and photographer. The camera, on the one hand, and language on the other, employ such different discourses that elements of contestation become inevitable. Neville’s regular unannounced (verbal) interventions on the subject of photography are sources of both enlightenment and bewilderment, as this example shows: “Sometimes photographs annihilate memory; they swallow the available light and cast everything around them into shadow. Two of Saul Auerbach’s images were like shutters on my mind: Veronica in the yard in Emerald Street, Mrs Dutton in her lounge in Fourth Avenue. Dense with my own experience, but held there in suspension, in chemically altered form. If I could seize them for myself, my time and place would spurt like juice between my fingers. But how to reach through the frame?” (87). Like some of his other meditations on the subject, the strength of Neville’s words lies in their ability to suggest experiences which transcend the photographic frame, and his first sentence pits the significance of photographs against that of human memory. As he plays with different possible ways of perceiving and retaining images, he sees the power of “light” in photographs as somehow enabling them to “annihilate memory”, casting it into “shadow”. Continuing his theme, he sees his mind as camera-like, in having “shutters”, which must refer to the exclusion of light, but may also refer to the closure attained when the shutter of a camera measures out the amount of light it will grant any image before it. The photographic experience is also imbued with his “own experience”, since he is familiar with the places and people concerned, though these have been changed through some process of artistic transubstantiation, existing for him now, as he ponders, in a “chemically altered form”, a reference to the process of developing a roll of film, and perhaps extending further into the conundrum of a “double negative”, the title of Vladislavic’s text. Finally, and most deconstructively, Neville longs to “reach through the frame”, as though some resolution lies through the picture, rather than in it or around it – a wish that strives to divest both words and frame of the structures they embody, so that the experience of looking at a photograph can become as sensual and immediate as “juice” spurting “between [his] fingers”. Neville’s radical reconceptualisation of modes of representation casts him in the role of narrator-philosopher, and makes Auerbach’s amorally pragmatic approach to his art seem banal and shallow.
That Vladislavic intended to scrutinise some of Auerbach’s techniques seems clear, but it is unclear how he is inviting reflection on the similar-seeming work of Goldblatt, of whose philosophy and way of proceeding we have access only to the little Goldblatt says in the introduction to his volume. The reason for publishing two such texts in tandem is never stated in either, and the pairing can be viewed as a loose collaboration between a writer and a photographer who both have a strong feel for the quality and nature of changing spaces, though their exploration of these differs, as it must in the nature of things. Double Negative is full of fine writing and intriguing obliquity, while Goldblatt’s TJ has an uncompromising quality which draws his viewer deeply into his photographic work. Their shared concerns emerge as they deal with shifting political and social issues in South Africa, though Vladislavic voices his concerns in such indirect, often ironic ways, that what is foregrounded in this collaboration is their different ways of representing the same field rather than their complementarity. These twinned texts, though somewhat pricey (online sources are the best place to buy), will be irresistible to Vladislavic addicts.