CAMBRIDGE — Kimberley was once the second largest city in South Africa, and for a few years in the 19th century its diamond mines may have produced more wealth per square inch than any place on the planet. “The City That Sparkles,” Kimberley called itself. The mines long since exhausted, it’s now a backwater, with a population of 225,000, about the size of Akron, Ohio.
If South Africa had a Dust Belt, Kimberley could be its capital. On the evidence of Patrick Tourneboeuf’s photographs, it’s a place with a strong sense of afterward and not much sense of beyond. The French photographer went there with his view camera in 2012. Forty-four of his pictures, along with a slide show and video interview, make up “The Diamond Trace: Kimberley, South Africa, in Photographs by Patrick Tourneboeuf.”
The show begins with reproductions of several dozen black-and-white postcards from Kimberley’s heyday. Setting the stage for Tourneboeuf’s images, the display makes for a vivid contrast. The photographs are much bigger (all but three are roughly 20 inches by 26 inches) and in color. Color is crucial. The blueness of the sky and clarity of light bring you up short. Kimberley is just under 4,000 feet in altitude. Tourneboeuf shows you — he all but makes you feel — that atmospheric thinness.
The sky and light and dryness recall the American Southwest, except that you wouldn’t see a working trolley in Scottsdale, say, let alone Victorian architecture or a billboard for the South African National Defense Force. “Protecting Our Borders and Our Rhinos,” it says. Tourneboeuf has a nice eye for such details.
He acknowledges the mining past. How could he not? A photograph of the Big Hole, a famous open-pit mine that’s now abandoned and filled with water, is jaw dropping. It could be the eye of God — and the Kimberley skyline in the distance so much dust in that eye. Another photo, almost as striking, shows a mine interior — or, rather, former mine. It’s now a museum.
Few people are evident in these photographs. A view camera makes images that are highly detailed and with a splendid sense of depth. It requires long exposure times, though, so motion can be a problem — and people move. Also, Tourneboeuf frequently shot at dusk, after sidewalks and streets had emptied. Even now, a quarter century after the end of apartheid, blacks still mostly live in townships on the outskirts of Kimberley.
“There’s a conscious desire not to aestheticize,” Tourneboeuf says of these pictures. They’re uninflected, no frills, usually shot straight on. His approach lends the images a kind of moral weight. It’s not a weight he ever throws around. Tourneboeuf doesn’t judge; he records. The prevailing mood is a balance between anxiety and calm. It feels as much moral as emotional.
The slide show consists of 39 cellphone shots. They’re more casual, of course, less weighty. A few of them are of scenes Tourneboeuf would later photograph with the view camera, which makes for a revealing contrast in both method and tone.
Instead of titles and captions, there are nine wall labels with explanatory statements from Tourneboeuf. You’d expect the absence of specific information to be frustrating. It’s not. The photographs, for all that they vary in appearance — cityscapes (mostly), interiors, landscapes — feel very much of a piece. Visually, they cohere. They’re as much about space as place. They’re space as place.
THE DIAMOND TRACE: Kimberley, South Africa, in Photographs by Patrick Tourneboeuf
At MIT Museum, 265 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Sept. 4. 617-253-5927, mitmuseum.mit.edu