Ractliffe, Jo


South African, b. 1961; lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa


Throughout a career spanning nearly four decades, Jo Ractliffe has approached the photographic medium from widely varying strategies. Ractliffe's photographs often portray spaces where humans (but significantly, not their earthly traces) have vanished, a presence that evokes a surplus of meaning, alluding to and extending beyond the evidentiary. Whether animating images of barren terrain to accompany audio recordings from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Vlakplaas, 1999–2000), or photographing "quiet” spaces of Angola in the wake of a devastating and extended civil war (Terreno Ocupado, 2007 and As Terras do Fim do Mundo, 2009–10), Ractliffe repeatedly emphasizes that the “truth” of the camera is as contingent as the histories the device purports to narrate.

This strategy, what Okwui Enwezor has referred to as "a photographic antidote to documentary literalism,” is also evident in her toy camera works, shot on Holgas, Dianas, and other 120 mm plastic toy cameras. Shot between 1990 and 1994, and newly sorted into a portfolio in 2004, Diana Archive features dozens of such fragmentary moments: dolls’ heads, glowing birthday cakes, empty yards, street signs, and arrivals at oceans are all woven together in a manner that suggests a transformative road trip, a visual vocabulary indebted to both the logic of the snapshot and the documentary photograph. The relative instability of these inexpensive cameras—light seeps in, frames advance erratically—frequently results in vignetting, wherein the center of the image is most saturated, and the edges of the frame are darkened and softened. The phenomenon hearkens to an earlier era of photography, where the mechanical limitations of the photographic medium accommodated terms such as unreliability and porosity.

Artworks by Ractliffe, Jo

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