18 May 2012 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Streets of our lives

Discover the streets of Cape Town, Ho Chi Minh and New York through the perceptive eyes - and lens - of photographer Gregor Röhrig.

Gregor hanging his work at Alliance Française. Image courtesy Gregor Röhrig.

The arresting portrait depicts a man, his back turned, sitting on a motorbike, facing a large billboard of a poised Chanel model gazing directly out of the image, as though peering out at the street from behind a window, a faint glassiness adding to the air of untouchability she exudes. The composition is strong structurally with decisive and well-chosen lines that position the male subject perfectly in relation to the model and her cool stare.

The poster for the exhibition. Image courtesy Gregor Röhrig.

The black and white accentuate the markings on the street and pavement in the foreground, which contrasts with the smooth reflective quality of the background, in the same way that the slouch of the male figure contrasts with the posture of the model; an appealing combination of grittiness and flair, remoteness and accessibility.

The photograph is the poster image for Cape Town photographer Gregor Röhrig’s first solo exhibition, “Streets of our Lives,” on at the Alliance Française until 26 May. “I remember being there and taking this image, assaulted by new smells and noises and then to find this elegance in the midst of it…” he recalls.

The image reminds me of Adam Marelli’s analysis of some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, where “a critically strong figure to ground relationship” features, small figures stand against highly contrasting backgrounds with minimal single point perspective lines and the scene shows people “connected by proximity, not by interaction… as they go about their own life.”

Gregor and Bianca at the opening of the exhibition. Image courtesy Gregor Röhrig.

“This image also speaks to the overall theme of the exhibition,” Gregor explains. Like most of the 25 images on show, it could be anywhere in the world. “As a narrative whole, the selection of images I am exhibiting speaks of universality – the streets of the world are so similar in terms of the common rituals that bind us together as people – but within that, there is individuality that is culturally defined and I am referencing both in my work,” he clarifies.

For example, while this image could just as well have been taken on any street in the world, it was actually taken in Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam and its title, “French Invasion”, as well as its content, references the particular history of France and Vietnam, commercial and political power relations etc. So while it is ‘universal,’ it is also very context specific with nuanced dynamics at play.

The selection of images I am exhibiting speaks of universality – the streets of the world are so similar in terms of the common rituals that bind us together as people – but within that, there is individuality that is culturally defined.

The image also references the genre of street photography itself as the mechanics of the gaze position you, with the photographer, as Flâneur.

While Gregor has been taking pictures since high school, when he moved to Cape Town two years ago to start his digital agency, he made a conscious decision to dedicate some additional time to his photography, “a necessary balance” to the demands of running a start-up. He has an impressive portfolio of clients, having photographed Helen Zille, Miriam Makeba and Craig David, just to mention a few.

The content of this exhibition evolved from his growing interest in street photography, a genre he was exploring more and more on travels to America, Vietnam and, around South Africa; “I realised that some good content was coming out of it.” Alliance Française agreed and the selection process began, with the help of his art-curator girlfriend Bianca Pieper, to put the exhibition together. He spent 5 months selecting his final images from the several thousand he had shot. “I wanted the work to represent something more than just aesthetically pleasing images,” Gregor says of the quirky, unique and sensitive scenes displayed on the walls.

The title of the exhibition of course is a reference to a popular soap opera; “it’s both ironic and honest as life on the street is packed with drama and I like to play with titles, which for this exhibition are often playful,” he reveals. The themes - like individuality and family - began to emerge from the pictures in a very organic way and reflect Gregor’s interests, as well as the way he views the world. “Every image resonates with me on an emotional level,” he notes, referencing the vulnerability the street photographer often reveals through his or her work, which says as much about them as what they see.

Although he shoots in colour, Gregor composes each image in black and white before he takes it, using a classic approach to the genre and working with ambient and natural light to capture candid, but eloquent moments before carefully processing each image. “Even without a camera I’m a photographer; I’m curious and want to understand the context I find myself in,” he admits.

The relationships he has with his subjects differ from knowing them for a few days – like the family in portrait in Vietnam – to mere seconds. “Each shot involves a judgement call on my part and you can generally tell with candid shots if the person was ok with you taking it,” he explains, “I try never to be intrusive and I respect my subjects.”

Gregor plans to continue with street photography as well as his sought-after commission-based work, which currently involves creating a visual archive of the life and work of artist Paul du Toit.

“I sometimes get irritated with ‘serious’ street photography that just looks at pain and poverty or socioeconomic issues,” he adds; “life, the world, is more complex than that and more joyful too, with nuanced and multiple ways to interpret what you see on the streets; those small but universal stories, enriched by cultural context that I like to find with the help of my camera.”

For more information you can contact Gregor via e-mail: gregor.rohrig@gmail.com or call him on 082 547 7806. You can also follow him on Facebook  or visit his website.

Alliance Française Art Gallery is located at 155, Loop Street in the Cape Town CBD. You can call them on 021 423 56 99 or email info.cpt@alliance.org.za. 

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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