Juan Orrantia, Garden #3, 2017–19
Every spring, the aging jacaranda trees lining the suburban avenues of Johannesburg, one of the most wooded cities in the world, produce intense violet blooms. The Colombia–born artist Juan Orrantia’s photobook Like Stains of Red Dirt (2020), his first about South Africa since settling in the country in 2008, opens with a flash-lit photo of the underside of this subtropical tree with long arching branches. The tree’s spring profusion of purple-blue flowers feebly registers in his photograph, partly because of his vantage point, but primarily due to Orrantia’s chromatic interference with the scene: the grey-brown branches of the tall tree are a dirty pink on the page in his book.
This formula, of quotidian scenes obliquely seen and strangely colored, is reiterated throughout Like Stains of Red Dirt. The book includes lavish spreads depicting, among other things, an evening thunderstorm rendered in volcanic tones, and an unidentified patch of dirt that may as well be on Mars. Most of the images were taken in and around the photographer’s apartment in the leafy neighborhood of Killarney, and they feature his partner, anthropologist Pamila Gupta, and their nine-year-old adopted daughter, Padma, in a mix of candid and staged poses. These portraits are juxtaposed with domestic still lifes, close-up botanical studies, and urban landscapes that together suggest a life of unassuming suburban privilege.
Orrantia’s photographs achieve their punch through a seven-color printing process known as heptachrome. He was introduced to this process—which adds orange, green, and violet to the traditional color printing model of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—by Artes Gráficas Palermo, a Madrid prepress and printer, which suggested heptachrome to translate Orrantia’s in-camera and digital postproduction experiments with color into print. (In 2019, Orrantia’s mock-up of Like Stains of Red Dirt won the Fiebre PhotoBook Festival’s Dummy Award.)
“I was really shocked when I saw on paper what I had previously only seen on screen,” says Orrantia of the first printer’s proofs he received. “Some of those colors are hectic to get on paper.”
Color is integral to Orrantia’s book about family, home, and the difficult process of integrating into an alien culture. What does it mean to belong? Is belonging even possible? Orrantia raises these questions in his opening image of a South American tree that, loved as it is in South Africa for its annual outburst of color, is nonetheless classified as an invasive species. In a country where settler and immigrant identities are hotly contested, and the ethics of representation is central to public debates about photography, especially portraiture, Orrantia found a liberating subject in his hometown’s floral abundance.
“When I wake up every morning, I look out from my balcony in Killarney and I see all of these plants that have nothing to do with the place, but are completely about the place,” he says of the subjects that allowed him to overcome his hesitation in taking photographs in South Africa. As Orrantia explains, the jacarandas were introduced as both ornamental plants and barriers to filter the dust that once swept off the profuse tailings from the city’s now-defunct gold mines. Similarly, the foreignness of the garden city created by waves of white settlers in Johannesburg has, over time, become normalized. Interested in playing with the natural-artificial binary, Orrantia’s pimped botanical photographs of rose bushes and palm trees render these naturalized aliens as strange and other again. “But, you know, it’s not the plant’s fault,” Orrantia recalls an academic supervisor jokingly remarking of his photographs and their links to South Africa’s colonial history.
Like Stains of Red Dirt had its genesis in the University of Hartford’s MFA in photography program, which has a strong emphasis on photobooks. Orrantia entered the program after a substantial detour—a visual anthropologist by training, he has a PhD from Yale University. Orrantia visited Johannesburg in 2008, intending to connect with his supervisor, who was on a research sabbatical there. Orrantia had no connection to South Africa and anticipated a short stay. He shortly met two influential people at the University of Witwatersrand: Gupta and the photographer Jo Ractliffe, then a lecturer at the Wits School of Arts.
Orrantia’s introduction to Ractliffe—the subject of a career survey currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago—was perhaps inevitable. Orrantia’s doctoral work, which photographically explored issues of memory and violence in Colombia, dovetailed with Ractliffe’s work examining the aftermath of South Africa’s Cold War–era conflict with Angola for her book Terreno Ocupado (2008). A friendship quickly developed. “I remember Jo always telling me that I was asking too much of a photo,” Orrantia says of Ractliffe’s influence. “I had these ideas in my head, and I slowly learnt how to photographically express them, to not force them into the photograph.”
A supportive mentor, Ractliffe also directed Orrantia to the Market Photo Workshop, a photography school established by David Goldblatt in 1989. The rigor of the discussions at the photography school, especially around issues of history and representation, proved bracing, and concretized Orrantia’s resistance to making photographs in South Africa. After completing his doctorate, Orrantia began photographing in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony neighboring South Africa that was wracked by civil war throughout the 1970s and ’80s. “I did not know much about Mozambique at all, but I had this idea, some sort of imagined familiarity, that their history was closer to where I was from.” (Orrantia’s black-and-white photographs from Mozambique are compiled in a limited-edition book, There was heat that smelled of bread and dead fish , and reveal his ongoing quest to visualize quietude.)
Orrantia subsequently photographed in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony in West Africa, and Colombia, where he explored the vestiges of the violent drug trade in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. In 2017, he enrolled in Hartford’s international, limited-residency program, and a year later began tentatively making photographs in and around his Johannesburg home; he also visited Tokyo to participate in a remote MFA meeting. He met Japanese photographers Yurie Nagashima and Mikiko Hara. “Seeing the work of Hara and having that conversation with her really opened up my thinking to what a color photograph can do,” he offers by way of an extended rebuttal to my question about the influence—possible or not—of Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen.
So what can a color photograph do? As Edward Steichen ventured in a press release announcing the Museum of Modern Art’s first-ever color photography show in 1950: “For the perennial experimenters, the seekers for greater freedom from the discipline of the purely descriptive photographic technique, new horizons of abundant promise are indicated, provided the ‘coloriferous’ is not mistaken for the colorful.” For Orrantia, color is not simply about vivid hues and sparkling luminosity. Color is about cognition. “Color,” he says, “allowed me to think.” It also enabled him to embrace his home.
Read more from our series “Introducing,” which highlights exciting new voices in photography.