Photographer Mikhael Subotzky

View of the inside of a South African prison - there are rows of beds, windows and prisoners dressed in orange
Photographer Mikhael Subotzky Porterville. 2004. Voorberg Prison. Copyright Magnum Photos. For his final degree project Subotzky explored life inside South Africa’s prisons. The portfolio earned him the best marks ever given at Michaelis and got him noticed by the photography world
(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Photographer Mikhael Subotzky (opens in new tab) puts South Africa in the frame.

The story of how Mikhael Subotzky first got hooked on photography is refreshingly unpretentious: he simply wanted to take snaps of the exotic places he visited during his gap year in Southeast Asia.

But the 29-year-old Capetonian went on to photograph a very different world for his final portfolio at Cape Town’s prestigious Michaelis School of Fine Art, which explored the life inside South Africa’s prisons.

‘I was scared a lot of the time,’ he said of his experience of being locked up with inmates. ‘I don’t think it is on a par with war photography, but it was a difficult environment to work in.’

It was all worth it though, as his portfolio earned him the best marks ever given at Michaelis. First exhibited in 2005 at Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison, Subotzky’s student work also got him noticed by the photography world.

At only 25, he was snatched up by Magnum, one of the youngest photographers ever invited to join the elite photo agency. Subotzky then went on to exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The show featured striking images from his Beaufort West project, which focuses on an isolated Karoo Desert town and the life of its impoverished inhabitants. ‘It was quite a shock,’ said Subotzky of his New York appearance, ‘to suddenly find myself standing in a circle of people talking to photographers Josef Koudelka, Jim Goldberg and Elliott Erwitt.’

For the past two years, Subotzky has been photographing, in collaboration with British artist Patrick Waterhouse, a circular residential block in central Johannesburg called Ponte City (W*80). The 54-storey building, the tallest residential tower in Africa, was once a highly desirable Hillbrow address, but has now become a symbol of urban decay, gang wars and crime. The project combines photography, historical archives, found objects, videos and interviews. Subotzky has also been exploring alternative ways to display his photographs. At a recent exhibition at Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery Project Space, he created three towering light boxes detailing, floor-by-floor, life in Ponte, while in Berlin and Cape Town, he set up a circular, walk-in scaffold on which he displayed a concertina-fold printout of his forthcoming book. Audacious and engaging, his unorthodox displays achieved a long-held aim: to transcribe his feeling of being in a space into a photograph.

Ex-prisoner Joseph having his eyes tested. He is shirtless and wearing a black and beige jacket, a black hat and a long necklace

Delmas. 2005. Ex-prisoner Joseph has his eyes tested.
Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Ex-prisoner Marc cleaning Hout Bay Beach. He is wearing black and blue and there are multiple people in the sea

Cape Town. 2005. Ex-prisoner Marc cleans Hout Bay Beach.
Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Several people standing on top of a pile of rubbish inside a tall building which has light shining through the windows

Beaufort West, 2006. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

At the halfway point along South Africa’s great highway – the N1 running from Cape Town to Johannesburg – lies the small town of Beaufort West. With its prison in the middle of town, on an island in the highway, it’s a surreal road-stop that offers everything a traveler might want – food, gas, a place to stay, an hour of sex... Mikhael Subotzky considers the town, its vivid characters and poignant social landscapes, in a photo essay that confronts central issues of contemporary South African society.

Three people in white robes kneeling on grass with scattered rubbish all over under a cloudy sky. There are multiple buildings in the distance

Beaufort West. 2006. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Mr Roussouw sitting at a table in a room with multiple antique pieces including candelabra and mannequins

Beaufort West. 2006. Mr Roussouw, antique dealer. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Sunday church service at Beaufort West Prison - There is a man wearing a black jacket standing in front of prisoners dressed in orange. Everyone has both arms up in the air

Beaufort West. 2006, Sunday church service, Beaufort West Prison. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

View of a diorama at Chris Barnard Museum - the scene is of an operating room with hospital staff dressed in white and green and wearing hair protectors, masks and gloves. There are multiple black and white images on the beige coloured walls and there is a man tending to the diorama

Beaufort West. Diorama, Chris Barnard Museum, 2008. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

A gang meeting inside Beaufort West Prison - the prisoners are dressed in orange standing in a room with laundry hanging on lines above their heads

Beaufort West. 2006. Gang meeting, Beaufort West Prison. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Oom Giepie - an older man dressed in a blue shirt, brown cardigan, light coloured shorts, socks and trainers. He is sitting in a wooden chair with his legs crossed and he is waving with one hand

Beaufort West. 2006. Oom Giepie. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Multiple people standing on top of piles of rubbish at Beaufort West rubbish dump during the day

Beaufort West. 2006. Beaufort West rubbish dump. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

A man in a wooden wagon pulled by two donkeys at Beaufort West rubbish dump. There is a light fog behind him

Beaufort West rubbish dump. 2006. Copyright Magnum Photos

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Image of a black rectangle with the wording 'South African Architects Directory' and 'RSA' in white and blue

(Image credit: TBC)

Mock up image of the design for the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST) head office - exterior view under a blue, cloudy sky

Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST)

(Image credit: TBC)

Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST)
Paragon architects

The bar has been raised in institutional head office design in South Africa, with the recently completed design for the national department of Arts, Culture, Science and technology by Paragon Architects.

The plan arrangement consist of three long rectangular interlinked blocks, arranged like a lazy ‘Z’ across the floor of the site. Gently folded strips of concrete floor plates define the silhouette and the visible edges of the building’s form. Vast cut-outs in the planted rooftop landscape pour light deep into the courtyards defined by the blocks of offices. Cavernous performance spaces are shaped at key intersection points in the building’s layout.

The entire site is intensively landscaped and entry to the building is through planted areas, across sheets of water, and through forests of columns placed at rakish angles, into the belly of the building. The material palette is kept simple and almost spartan, and form becomes the dominant element of expression.

Mock up image of the design for the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST) head office - exterior, side view under a blue, cloudy sky

Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST)

(Image credit: TBC)

Mock up image of the design for the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST) head office - exterior view from above and surrounding greenery

Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST)

(Image credit: TBC)

Mock up image of the design for the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST) head office - interior view with multiple people inside

Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of South Africa (DACST)

(Image credit: TBC)

Mock up image of the new design for the T-Systems head office - exterior view under a blue, cloudy sky

T-Systems head office, Centurion, Pretoria/Tshwane

(Image credit: TBC)

T-Systems head office, Centurion, Pretoria/Tshwane
Paragon Architects
Scheduled for construction in the second half of 2011

Information Technology company T-Systems currently operates from a head office building designed in 2004 by Paragon Architects, and is now looking to accommodate its growing needs in another Paragon-designed environment. The design continues the sharp-edged, folded-plate silhouette of the existing head office, but internally has a much more complex assembly of sculptural forms and spaces.

Mock up image of the new design for the T-Systems head office - alternative exterior view under a blue, cloudy sky

T-Systems head office, Centurion, Pretoria/Tshwane

(Image credit: TBC)

View of The Highveld Pavilion and the outdoor area during the day. There is a swimming pool and greenery

The Highveld Pavilion

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

The Highveld Pavilion
Studio Mas Architects (opens in new tab)

This private guest cottage is situated in a lush smallholding along the Vaal River in Vanderbjlpark, south of Johannesburg. The buildings function is as garden pavilions, with open entertainment areas that also provide weekend accommodation. The building maximises the scenic surrounding by providing complete visual connection between the interior spaces and the surrounding landscape.

The building consists of two parallel blocks set within the densely treed landscape. They are connected by a garden wall along their eastern façades, creating an intimate courtyard space. The illusion of being completely outside while inside is enhanced by the use of frameless glazing on all sides as well as seamless external floor finishes. Bedroom suites feature open plan bathrooms as well as an intimate television lounge. Laser cut artworks by Willem Boschoff slide across the façade, providing an interesting and beautiful solution for adjustable privacy.

Alternative view of the outdoor area at The Highveld Pavilion during the day. There is a swimming pool, lounge chairs, a black and glass structure and greenery

The Highveld Pavilion

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

View of The Hamilton Hotel and the outdoor area at night. There is a swimming pool and greenery

The Hamilton Hotel

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

The Hamilton Hotel
Studio Mas Architects

The brief was for a boutique hotel with the comforts of home, but where all the requirements of the most demanding businessman are addressed; space efficient design that maximised use of a relatively small site.

The hotel, commissioned by private developers, is located in the leafy suburb of Craighall Park. It is designed to look like a residential building but still creates a bold presence demanding attention and interaction.

The building is located on a small corner stand and consists of a linear plan with two wings. The ground floor forms the public space of the hotel with the lobby between the dining room on one side and boardrooms on the other. The public space spills over into two private courtyards, which are used for functions as well as recreational space. The floors above consist of several private suites with en-suite bathrooms, a feature of which are the bay windows which puncture the façade and allow the users an opportunity to step out of the building and into the public domain, albeit only on a visual level.

The materials explored in this design once again relate to minimising building costs; therefore steel roof sheeting was used and timber trusses became a design feature. The design uses tyrolean wall finishes, allowing for the growth of creepers on part of the walls, creating a changing façade over time.

Exterior view of The Hamilton Hotel and surrounding greenery at night

The Hamilton Hotel

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

View of the buildings and greenery in Ellis Park Precinct during the day

Ellis Park Precinct Upgrade 2007

(Image credit: TBC)

Ellis Park Precinct Upgrade 2007
MMA Architects (opens in new tab)

The Ellis Park Urban Development Framework is part of the Inner City Revitalization of the City of Johannesburg. The location of two stadiums in the middle of the city is a unique urban condition that has to be taken advantage of. In regards to the World Cup 2010, with Ellis Park hosting a number of World Cup games, the urban framework prepared the city for this huge event of global attention. At the same time the proposed structures will cater for a large number of citizens after the event. The inner city of Johannesburg has undergone radical change after the apartheid area officially ended. Today, ten years later, planners and city government aim for integration and bringing back urban life into the streets that should be enjoyed by a large number of citizens.

View from above of the buildings, roads and greenery in Ellis Park Precinct during the day

Ellis Park Precinct Upgrade 2007

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Close up view of an orange building and its metal framework plus surrounding greenery in Ellis Park Precinct during the day

Ellis Park Precinct Upgrade 2007

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

View of blue and white buildings, greenery and rocks in Ellis Park Precinct during the day

Ellis Park Precinct Upgrade 2007

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Exterior view of the gated South African Embassy and nearby trees during the day

South African Embassy, Berlin, 2003

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

South African Embassy, Berlin, 2003
MMA Architects

The re-unification of Germany and the liberation of South Africa in the nineties resulted in the need for a new South African Embassy in Berlin. The chancery is located between the recently completed Indian embassy and the yet to be built embassy of Turkey. The urban design framework for Berlin is based on the recreation of its neo-classical past and the ‘villa type’ developments, with 10m between buildings prescribed in this street in order to maintain the park-like surroundings.

The location of the site determined the conceptual departure of the scheme. The building opens out to both sides, the north opening being on axis with a memorial to Otto Wagner. The south opening is off-axis and focuses onto a sculpture by South African artist Speelman Mahlangu as a counterpoint. The confluence of these two (German and South African) axis is at the main central gathering and exhibition space.

The concept of confluence is used to further elaborate the design, primarily through integration of the Berlin ‘hof’ and African ‘khotla’ - German technology and African attitudes to adornment; Berlin town planning and African massing and proportions. A sun-drenched South African natural sandstone is used externally, offset by a granite base and aluminum ‘bangles’. These are meant to unify the diverse artistic and cultural references contained within the building, which are reflective of all South Africa’s people. The design mediates between images of South Africa’s turbulent political past and tourist present and provides an image appropriate to an efficient modern South African administration in the global arena.

Alternative view of the South African Embassy with the flag of South Africa hanging outside during the day. The outdoor area with greenery can also be seen

South African Embassy, Berlin, 2003

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Interior view of the South African Embassy featuring wood flooring, large spotlights and glass windows

South African Embassy, Berlin, 2003

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Interior view of the stairwell at the South African Embassy featuring glass balustrades and geometric patterns on the wall in different colours

South African Embassy, Berlin, 2003

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Exterior view of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls and the outdoor area with grass, trees, walkways and lighting at night

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
Mashabane Rose Associates

A new 450 student boarding high school designed with an African spirit to encourage and nurture the learners from all parts of South Africa. The library and quadrangle are at the centre of the school with the learning and living environments extending in two arms into the landscape setting.

Exterior view of the new theatre and art gallery at the University of Johannesburg at night

University of Johannesburg

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

University of Johannesburg
Mashabane Rose Associates

A new 400-seat concrete shell Theatre and Art Gallery designed around a green gathering space/square.

Mock up image of a library design for a Science University in Central Africa - close up exterior view with multiple people on campus under a blue, cloudy sky

Dieter Brandt

(Image credit: TBC)

Dieter Brandt

Namibian-born Dieter Brandt is collaborating with MMA Architects on this library design for a Science University in Central Africa.

Mock up image of a library design for a Science University in Central Africa - wider exterior view with multiple people on campus under a blue, cloudy sky

Dieter Brandt

(Image credit: TBC)

Mock up image of a library design for a Science University in Central Africa - exterior view from a distance with multiple people on campus under a blue, cloudy sky

Dieter Brandt

(Image credit: TBC)

Colour illustration of a library design for a Science University in Central Africa

Dieter Brandt

(Image credit: TBC)

Colour illustration of a library design for a Science University in Central Africa offering a view from above

Dieter Brandt

(Image credit: TBC)

Exterior view of River House, the driveway and surrounding greenery during the day

River House, Denysville, Free State

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

River House, Denysville, Free State
26’10 South Architects

This house has been designed for week-end use and eventually early retirement for a family currently living in Johannesburg. The site is located on the Free State side of the Vaal River and has been extensively quarried for gravel prior to the flood line being established in the 1970’s. This has resulted in much of the site being rendered unbuildable. The clients’ desire for a long, north facing, single storey structure resulted in the western edge of the house projecting over the flood line. The natural depression in the ground at this point was slightly lowered to serve as a carport.

The folded plane of the roof is functionally derived and aesthetically fine-tuned to create a modulated form that mirrors the horizon on the north but rises up to announce the house to visitors approaching from the south. Red, earth-coloured, brick walls without visible lintels and subtle window sills form a monolithic base capped by the thin metal plane of the roof.

The existing trees, flood line and contours provided the parameters for the positioning of the house and informed proposals for landscaping including the siting of a concealed access track to the boat launch which is located between two tall existing trees.

Black and white sketch of River House

River House, Denysville, Free State

(Image credit: TBC)

Black and white photo taken from above of an architectural model of River House

River House, Denysville, Free State

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

The remains of Sans Souci Cinema in Soweto with people dancing inside and people watching outside during the day

Sans Souci Cinema Project, Soweto, Johannesburg

(Image credit: Mikhael Subotzky)

Sans Souci Cinema Project, Soweto, Johannesburg
26’10 South Architects and Lindsay Bremner

In the absence of a budget and local capacity to re-build the famous Sans Souci Cinema in Soweto, Johannesburg, the content, rather than the container, was realised. The cinema building was destroyed in a fire in 1994 and subsequently pillaged for building materials resulting in an evocative ruin used as an informal public space by the local youth. 26’10 South Architects’ brief from the Kliptown Our Town Trust was to re-imagine the Sans Souci as a cultural public space. Through a series of workshops and events, the remains of the cinema were animated as a space of cultural happening and meaning over a period of several years. A film festival, dance outreach project and several performances were held during this time. These events employed the ruin as urban armature and were curated together with the community.

Through their practice as architects in a need-based context in which resources are scarce, 26’10 had to discover, for themselves, the value in the directness and immediacy of informality. By harnessing informal processes, they are finding new ways in which to make positive and interactive public spaces. Rather than abandoning their clients in the light of limited budgets, they have pooled human resources through combined networks in order to realise their mandate of creating a public space for cultural programmes.

Four illustrations relating to the Sans Souci Cinema Project in Soweto

Sans Souci Cinema Project, Soweto, Johannesburg

(Image credit: TBC)

Image of a black rectangle with the wording 'Photographer Mikhael Subotzky' and 'RSA' in white and blue

(Image credit: TBC)