not all realisms

Winter 2021

A black and white photograph of two people dancing close together, their heads almost touching, the man in a suit and shoes and the woman in a dress and barefoot.

not all realisms features photography in and of South Africa, Ghana, and Mali in the long 1960s—amid resistance, revolution, new nationalist and transnational movements, and the stuff of daily life therein. 

At the end of American photographer and theorist Allan Sekula’s 1986 essay, “The Body and the Archive,” Sekula turns to the work of the South African photographer Ernest Cole. In the essay, Sekula divides what he terms the “honorific” and “repressive” functions of the photograph—the portrait of a loved one versus the mugshot of someone to be surveilled, or more pointedly for apartheid-era South Africa, the passbook photograph that dictated according to an individual’s race where they could be and what kind of life they could live. Despite heavily critiquing photography’s use in the service of realism throughout the text, Sekula concludes his essay by contending that Cole’s incisive photos of the indignities of life under apartheid show us: “Not all realisms necessarily play into the hands of the police.” So which realisms can defy repression? What can photographic realisms offer? And how might we need and want photographic realism while struggling to trust it?

not all realisms brings studio and street, portraits and landscapes, glossy editorials and hard-edged reportage together to critically consider realism in different modes, to explore the impact of international circulation of print media and transnational dialogues, and to examine the multiple lives of single images. The exhibition addresses independence movements, resistance to oppressive regimes in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and great personal risk, and the hard work of sustaining momentum to move beyond revolutionary euphoria and into the slow, arduous, uneven, and often tumultuous efforts to build more just societies. Bringing together vintage prints, reprints, books, magazines, posters, and other material means through which these photographic realisms were produced and circulated, the exhibition includes works by Ernest Cole, Malick Sidibé, Peter Magubane, John Brett Cohen, Paul Strand, James Barnor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and more.


Top: Ernest Cole, From “House of Bondage,” 1960s, Gelatin silver print. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of the Estate of Lester and Betty Guttman, 2014.224. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photo. 

Above: Malick Sidibé, Happy Club (Christmas Eve) (Nuit de Noël [Happy Club]), 1963, Gelatin silver print. Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of the Estate of Lester and Betty Guttman, 2014.720. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.