Leon Krige is well-known for his incredibly rich panoramic cityscapes, but his photographic journey started out with analogue in a pre-liberated South Africa, capturing portraits of protest theatre icons like Robyn Orlyn and The Jazz Pioneers. Like many artists of the 1980s, Leon wanted out – to leave the country in pursuit of artistic freedom, yet his architectural studies would soon allow him to see things from the outside – a gift, in my opinion, that has made him ours to keep.
We met up at the AGOG which, itself seemed a prelude to his exhibition. Its location pulls you into the heart of the Joburg CBD, the object of his gaze, before nudging you out again as the panoramas extend into the landscape. However purposeful it feels, Leon seems unaware of its non-conformity, asserting that the choice of gallery is about freedom of presentation, which is essential to his vision.
A beautifully soft aquarelle of a Gothic Cathedral, among others. These showcase Leon’s precision and attention to detail.
Each panorama invites you to investigate: Featuring an iconic building or landmark, fitting for a postcard, it unravels untold stories of people and time. The more you look, the more you will see…
Leon’s uninterested in the obvious; in what has been done. What really fascinates him are those photos that seem to reveal more about the essence of life. His photos reward the patient viewer with clues about location, time and history.
With its blue then red Vodacom advertisements, the 54-storey Ponte Tower in Hillbrow is a great example of how commercial signage can indicate time. In contrast, Leon considers how Lei Cidade Limpa, the clean city law of São Paulo, Brazil prohibits the outdoor advertising is a type of artistic control. Essentially, it mutes the city’s transformation.
Discussing Rome, the Vatican and its inviting nature. Leon tells me about Pope Francis’ compassion for the homeless.
Leon turns to a wall with photos taken in Rome, Italy – from the Pantheon to the Vatican City, the Catholic Church’s flaunts its prosperity. This, in extreme contrast with the homeless who sleep in its footsteps; possibly a political statement. “The subtlety of how the homeless arrange in modern places” fascinates Leon. He has a sixth sense for what happens at night, and his sensitivity towards anonymity together with an autodidactic, unassuming walk serves him well.
He also knows where to look: At midnight, when everything has settled down, the homeless shelter in the light, often in public spaces. Here, they become static subjects in Leon’s long-exposure photographs. “Something that reveals itself is a city after light”, says Leon. Vehicles turn into dancing light and the image transfigures into a compelling digital painting, but perhaps the most significant of all is how colour manifests itself. Are these colours inviting, or are they cold and hostile? What can they tell us about the city?
Even though sodium lights are well-known for their warm, yellow glow, the quality of light seems to betray a city’s character: Basking in yellow gold tones, the people of Rome remain warm and welcoming after midnight as the homeless wrap themselves in blankets under the stars. In Paris, a city with strikingly cold blue and green hues, the homeless are given tents to sleep in – a kind act, but also one of confinement.
Leon tells more about photographing Paris at night, and how walking around after midnight is frowned upon.
Before braving the after-hours night, Leon does a reconnaissance by day. In a backpack, he takes with a digital camera, prime 24mm and 100mm lenses, a sturdy albeit heavy Manfrotto tripod, and test prints with which to demonstrate his skills and negotiate access if need be. He relies on his gear and expertise to create, then stitches together hundreds of high-res images with uncompromising quality – each shot can be printed up to at least 840cm x 3m.
For his exhibition, Leon mounted the latter of his Wemmer Quarry prints at Art of Print using DiaMount®. This method allows framing large, 3m-wide works with a light, transportable and robust method. Its almost as if the image becomes a window into the documented spaces as opposed to a framed object. Leon upholds: “I’ve had works shipped to London and back; to foreign clients in Abu Dhabi and London; normal framing at that scale wouldn’t survive.”
At first, the Wemmer Quarry is a rather romantic image with rainclouds gathering and warm, sandy browns, but this urban desert is tainted with residual toxic chemicals like cyanide and uranium used to extract gold. Today, zama-zamas scour its golden underground as a way of boosting their own livelihoods and so, this seemingly deserted space continues to change.
We are inured by things in our face, but there lies beauty in change. Leon does very well at capturing its unpredictableness. That is the golden thread that runs through his work – transformation.