Cedric Nunn is a photographer whose work should be hanging in the Museum of Modern Art alongside Edward Weston, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. His pictures are elemental in a way art rarely is anymore. They seem to emerge from a place that is at once archetypal and very much of this world. Although the images are black-and-white photographs, mostly shot among the crumbling buildings, sweltering cane fields and burned-out savannas of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, they sometimes evoke Renaissance masterworks with their balance and quiet power.
In one stunning print, a fisherwoman strides through shallow waters, headed for the horizon, a small fish dangling from her bamboo staff, her torso gently turned contrapposto, so that we feel we are walking right behind her and could reach out to touch her waist.
In another photo, a somber group of young men carry a coffin up a barren road, close on the heels of a boy bearing a wooden cross. Their bodies are tilted forward, their heads down, as they move in unison. Aside from the clothes they're wearing, it might be a scene from any epoch. But, the title tells us, it's the funeral of two youths killed in South Africa's Natal wars of the 1980s and '90s. There is a long and tortured history behind this simple image. But it is only after seeing the larger body of Nunn's work that you begin to understand this context.Two simultaneous New York shows
Two New York exhibitions now on view finally offer Americans a selection of Nunn's photographs and some of the context too. Five of his images have a wall in "Rise and Fall of Apartheid" at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in midtown Manhattan. More extensive is "Call and Response," a small retrospective of his work, hanging at David Krut in Chelsea. In conjunction with this show, the beautiful book, "Cedric Nunn: Call and Response" is published by Hatje Cantz and offers an even larger number of images.
The book contains one of my favorite pictures by Nunn, a portrait of a farmworker, his wife and son, standing in front of a cracked adobe wall in the town of Ixopo. You are drawn in first by the remarkable intensity of the farmer's eyes, as he stares into the camera, his brow furrowed with an almost existential consternation. This is tempered by his wife's balanced but guarded gaze and their little boy's dreamy expression, as he leans sleepily into his father. The man wears flat, old shoes, but the woman and child are barefoot, and a powdery dust has turned their black skin almost as light the sun-baked mud.
Everything about this photograph is formally perfect. From the textures of the adobe to the slight bend of the farmer's frame, as he draws his son close to him, it's as if this image had been designed by a classical draftsman, who engraved the subtly curving lines and patterns into a copper plate. Every aspect works harmoniously with every other. Each one pulls us into a protected space where we are free to encounter this little family and can even imagine they are speaking to us.A mixed-race photographer under apartheid
Nunn, who grew up in KwaZulu-Natal during the 1960s in a mixed-race family of modest means, led a life constrained by apartheid, the racial segregation that was the law in South Africa at the time. After leaving school at 15, he worked in a sugar mill for eight years, and it wasn't until he was in his mid-twenties that he first picked up a camera.
Nunn has described photography as the most democratic of media, since simple cameras have been-for a long time now-cheap and ubiquitous. He has been quoted as saying that he is not "a photographer's photographer," that he was essentially untrained, but that he has been able, with just "a little direction" from mentors, to learn to use a camera to express his vision of the world he inhabits.
But this narrative, like the stories told about many artists' lives, is in some ways misleading. It implies that photography isn't really a difficult craft to master-let alone an art-and that any Joe could probably do what Nunn did, if he worked hard and got lucky. It does not begin to suggest the real complexity of Nunn's photography.A portrait of a man and his universe
In a 1987 portrait of a shack dweller on the outskirts of Durban, Nunn divides the frame in half. A dark lean-to with an open, light-filled window takes up the left side of the image, while a bright field with a row of tiny, wooden shanties in the distance, takes up the right. What we have is a geometric, Rothko-like composition, involving squares balancing squares, light balancing dark.
But this is no piece of abstract art. An ebony-skinned man in a wool cap peers through the window staring straight at the camera. Beyond him we see in shimmering detail how the land-a chaos of underbrush-slopes down to the shanties below. Nunn has given us the man, his home and a slice of his little universe, all in remarkable focus. This is the kind of consummate control and minute attention to detail you find in so many of Nunn's photographs.A legendary photo collective
The 1980s were a turbulent time in South Africa. After more than 30 excruciating years of apartheid under the control of the right-wing Afrikaners National Party, the system was finally coming apart. But the protesters in the black and "colored" townships were met by the government's security forces, tear gas and bullets.
Photographers who were able to cover not only the ever-changing battlefronts in this war, but also the realities of life under apartheid, suddenly found a market for their work. Nunn became one of the founding members of the photographers' collective Afrapix, which ended up supplying newspapers around the world with images of segregated South Africa and the uprisings against it.
While some members of Afrapix, like Guy Tillim, shot images from the front lines, crackling with violence, Nunn mostly concentrated on the before and after. A 1987 image from the ICP show and his book depicts a mother, a blanket pulled over her head, sitting alone in a barren room, mourning the murder of her son, who had supported the United Democratic Front.
Another photo from the same year shows three survivors of the "AK-47 Massacre" in KwaMakhuta township, standing in front of their pock-marked house on the day after 12 family members were mowed down by state-sponsored hit men. They look mute, bleary-eyed and bewildered.
No matter how tragic or extraordinary the situation, Nunn's compositions are always calm and considered. He takes his time to clear away the distractions and he concentrates on the essence.Blood relatives
The majority of the photos from Nunn's New York retrospective come from " Blood Relatives," an on-going project he's worked on for years. These portraits, landscapes and still-lifes constitute a study of Nunn's extended mixed-race family, the descendants of English settlers and Zulu tribesmen who intermarried and have been living for generations in the region now known as KwaZulu-Natal. We see Nunn's grandmother, Amy Madhlawu Louw, in a big straw hat, hoeing her field at age 88; his mother Lilly Nunn, carrying a bucket of water to mop the floor; and the family's ancient kitchen with its stone walls and a giant kettle steaming on a cast-iron stove.
One of the finest images in the group shows a bride and groom embracing beside a freshly marked grave. Her white gown billows out over the dusty grass, while a small wooden cross tilts ominously in the foreground. The figures in the photograph are members of Nunn's family, and the wedding took place in KwaZulu-Natal in 2001, but the image evokes a poetry and mystery that render it as timeless as a Florentine altarpiece.A moment of liberation
Just as poetic and more thrilling is a silver gelatin print of three boys perched on a rocky cliff, watching their friends bodysurf in the waves below. Their slender black limbs are silhouetted against the white foam, and the curve of sea and rocks makes your eyes swirl like the eddies. With its muscular composition, silvery tones and vertigo-inducing depth of field, this 1987 photograph from the shores of the Western Cape is Nunn at his most wonderful.
Long after I'd left the gallery, the image of those boys and the waves stayed etched in my memory, the embodiment of joy, daring and liberation.
It's time Cedric Nunn gained his rightful place in the photographic canon in this country and around the world. After the work he's done and the things he's seen, I'm sure he doesn't need MoMA or any other museum for validation. But the fact is that they need him.Where to find Nunn's work:
"Cedric Nunn: Call and Response," Sept. 6-Oct. 25, 2012 at David Krut Gallery - 526 West 26th Street, Suite 816 - New York NY - 212-255-3094
"Rise and Fall of Apartheid," Sep 14, 2012 – Jan 06, 2013, at International Center of Photography - 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street - New York NY - 212-857-0000
"Cedric Nunn: Call and Response" the book published by Hatje CantzOriginal