In his ongoing photo series Golden Youth photographer Oliver Kruger (b. 1977), based in Cape Town, draws on the tradition of African studio photography, amongst others, to capture the arresting faces and flamboyant street style of young urban South Africans. We had the opportunity to ask Oliver about his exceptional series of portraits, several of them collected in the beautiful volume Golden Youth (L’Artiere Edizioni).
Could you please tell us a little bit about your career as a photographer, and your special interest in the portrait as a genre?
My interest in photography came from my parents who were both keen amateur photographers, and many holidays fiddling and shooting pictures with their cameras. I also spent a while shooting skateboarding and the friends who I did that with.
Initially I learned photographic technique from fashion photographers, which is what I thought I would like to have done, but as it turned out was what I did not enjoy. People interested me more than aesthetics and style. As a result, I guess I enjoy portraiture. Also a photographer friend of mine in London with whom I used to drink, made me aware of all the great american photographers from Carlton E Watkins through to Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. I think after looking at the cannon of american photography I felt that there was a far more interesting world to explore outside of commercial photography, and that this sparked my real interest in photography.
All images © Oliver Kruger
You have said elsewhere that the portraits in Golden Youth doesn’t represent a specific subculture, yet they seem so perfect gathered together. They express individuality, yet they seem to have something in common. Please tell us a little bit about the series and its connection to Joburg.
Johannesburg is a city created by commerce and industry and did not develop naturally around natural surface features, as such there is little to engage people outside of work and socialising. It’s infrastructure developed around mining and engineering, which has largely passed, and is a post industrial space which is quite ugly and yet beautiful at the same time. It also has a population of 12000000 people in the greater area, which covers four municipal areas. I think there is a convergence of two factors: One being a psychological space which not only permits, but encourages individuality and flamboyance, and a physical space in which it is one of the few ways that young people can assert themselves.
I came upon this project purely by chance. A friend of mine Bradley Abrahams, who is a designer invited me to join him at a kind of street culture festival, where he was attending a trade show and series of lectures by artists and designers. He mentioned that I should probably bring a camera. I decided to set a studio up in the parking garage where the trade show was held and grabbed anybody who interested me or whom I thought stood out for whatever reason. I went back for three years and set up studio for two days at a time. It was a great way of finding people from all the corners of Gauteng and Vaal Triangle, that I would never have been able to find through networks of friends or by driving around or going to bars, clubs or social events.
I might be wrong, but the clothes, even though they look luxurious, don’t seem to be brand name clothing. Could you please tell us a little bit about this specific street style?
Much of what people with a keen sense of style wear is what is found and appropriated. In a place with money and a huge foreign influence, it is easy to wear designer brands and recognizable names, and to differentiate oneself, you have to find something a little different. It seems to me to be an amalgamation of street style from the last thirty years, eighties hip hop, colonial references, pan-african designs and current pop references.
You are mostly a portrait photographer. I think your photos have a beautiful painterly quality. What have been the main influences, not necessarily photography, on this series and your photography as a whole?
At school, painters were held up as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. I also imagine that the painterliness comes from having people sit very still and not rushing. I admire certain photographers, like Stephan Ruiz, Oliver Sieber, Pieter Hugo and Katy Grannan, and have certainly borrowed from them. I also worked with Pieter Hugo, Alessandro Cecchinni and Randal Mesdon, from whom I learned a lot.
Could you name a few of your favorite contemporary photographers, and say something about what makes you fond of them?
Stephan Ruiz, Oliver Sieber, Bryan Schutmaat, Pieter Hugo and Katy Grannan and Rineke Dijkstra would be my favourites, along with Stephen Shore and Alec Soth. I think mostly because of their considered manner of working, and their formalism, along with their critical engagement with the world.
And, finally, are there any other things from Joburg you would like to recommend? Art, galleries, music, books?
I would say that Johannesburg’s energy and the people that inhabit it are what I would like to recommend most. Once you get a handle on those two the rest follow. Johannesburg has a very active art and music scene unlike any other in the world. It also has amazing food if you know where to look. The books that I admire regarding Johannesburg would be any of David Goldblatt’s work in Johannesburg and After the Mines by Jason Larkin and many more. The work of the Drum magazine photographers and the press photographers of the eighties and nineties are very important. Also, many of the recent graduates of The Market Theatre Photo Workshop are producing amazing work.
Photo 1-10 taken in Johannesburg: Shelly Mokoena, 2013, Zamokuhle Nkutha, 2014, Abiah Superstar, 2012, Pfano, 2012, Lulama Dingane, 2013, Thabang Moatshe, 2014, Fani Segerman, 2012, Maitele, 2013, Tish Pillay, 2013, Rachel Molabane.