Photographic History

In the article below, journalist Lucille Davie describes one of Joburg's hidden gems, the camera obscura at Museum Africa. She also delves into the significance of the Bensusan Collection held by the museum. The piece was first published on the City of Joburg's website on the 14 February 2006Click here to view more of Davie's work.

Did you know that there’s a periscope on the top of the Museum Africa building, looking down on the goings-on of Newtown?

This article is based on the combined resources of the two authors. Carol Hardijzer has an avid interest in 19th Century photography in South Africa and his research and collection of Carl Bluhm photographs compliments the fairly extensive family research conducted by Margaret Addis, great-great granddaughter of Carl Bluhm, an early photographer based in King Williams Town (Qonce today).

Prior to 1902, South Arica had three photographers with the surname Kisch, two of whom were active in the Natal province (Kwazulu-Natal today) and one in the provinces of the Northern Cape and the Orange Free State (Free State today). Each one of them has left a distinct individual impression on South African photographic history.

A love of pets might be seen as a modern trend and reaching ever higher popularity. People nowadays even subscribe to medical aid for their pets. They have them micro-chipped so that when the animal might become lost, the information of the owner can be ascertained by reading this chip. People even have their beloved pets cloned, so that they, in perpetuity, can have their pet with them.

A Namibian story has it that one morning during the early 1950s two men glided their light aircraft onto a diamond-strewn beach in the Namibian Sperrgebiet (German for no-go or forbidden zone) with the intention of collecting a large amount of diamonds hidden by one of them in rocky outcrops near the beach. On take-off from the beach the aircraft however nose-dived after one of the aircraft’s wheels struck a rock. They were subsequently spotted by the restricted diamond areas’ security personnel and arrested.

Knowingly or unknowingly, South African historians and researchers would have come across a wide variety of original albumen print photographs captured in South Africa during the late 1890s, all of which are titled and numbered followed by the cryptic initials G.W.W.

These photograph titles and numbers with the G.W.W. initials appear in white capital letters across the bottom of each photograph. But who or what was G.W.W.?

Every loved domestic dog, no matter how humble their origin, remains the best dog in the world in the eyes of their masters.

We affectionately refer to dogs as our best friend. They also happen to be humankind's oldest "friend" in the animal kingdom in that Canis familiaris, the domestic dog, was the first animal species to be domesticated by humans.

Photographic research, which includes the use of original photographic images, transcends disciplinary borders and combines fields of visual history, visual studies, visual anthropology and art history.

Herein lies an ethical responsibility – the avoidance of stereotypical or abusive representations of people portrayed in these images. Readers, of course, bring their own knowledge, emotions, and imagination, thus no author can fully control how their work is going to be interpreted (Gordon & Kurzwelly, 2018).

Worldwide, where precious mineral resources were discovered, buoyant photographers formed part of the desperate rush that ensued. This trend of fortune seekers, feverish migrating to these newly announced locations was also observed during the South African gold rushes at Pilgrim’s Rest (1873), Barberton (1883) and Johannesburg (1886).

During mid-2019, an exceptional Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902) collection of artefacts went up on auction at a Johannesburg based auction house. Photographic images in this collection fetched high prices. However, images that high-end bidders did not pursue with the same vigour were magic lantern slides in the collection. Why would this be?

 

With reference to the early Durban based photographers Caney, one author recently confirmed the challenge in “disentangling” the relationship between the various Caney individuals.

The number of Caney photographs identified in the Hardijzer Photographic Research Collection also confirms that closer scrutiny was required as to who these photographers were. The photographs in this research collection, all dating from prior to 1905, include studio-based images as well as images captured during the Anglo-Boer war.

Last month I attended the opening of the new photographic exhibition at Museum Africa: The Gift of Seeing History – The Legacy of Dr Arthur David Bensusan. The exhibition commemorates the 51st anniversary of the establishment of the Bensusan Museum and Library of Photography. The exhibition runs until 21st September and has been curated by Ms Dudu Madonsela of Museum Africa.

Toys, like play itself, serve multiple purposes for both humans and animals (just picture the joy created whilst watching a kitten at play with an arbitrary toy).

Toys provide entertainment and fun whilst fulfilling an educational role at the same time. Although unlikely to have been the original intent, they also enhance cognitive behavior, stimulate creativity and aid in the development of physical and mental skills which are necessary in later life.

Many registered trademark ephemera of yesteryear have collectors competing at auctions, markets and antique fairs to find that one elusive, or previously unidentified item for their collections.

On such trademark is Kodak. Registered as a trademark during 1888, Kodak, which was also present in South Africa some years later, undoubtedly was one of the more successful brand names within both the history of marketing and photography. 

First National Bank (FNB) just celebrated their 180th birthday on 15 December 2018. What makes this particularly significant is that the FNB storyline runs in parallel with South African history. 

Following the true corporate trend, FNB, as it exists today, came about following a complex tapestry of buyouts and amalgamations to become the well-established bank it is today. This journey certainly did not occur without any upheavals – but the bank managed to stand the test of time.

In a recent article published by the author (click here to view), reference was made to a modern photographic phenomenon, namely “found photographs”. In short: “Found photographs” are discarded vintage photographs typically found at charity stores, car boot sales, flea markets or antique fairs. As a single image, any “found” or the converse thereof, “lost” photograph, has sadly lost its original context when viewed by a total str

Recently the author was in Port Elizabeth searching for photographic material at book dealers, used goods and antique shops in town. At one of these stores he posed his standard question to a dealer: “Do you have any old photo-stories”? With the dealer not understanding the question, the author then explained what they were. To which the dealer responded: “Oh, you are referring to Café Bibles!”.

This article reflects on the influence of South African ethno-photographs on the picture postcard industry together with a reflection on their individual histories.

Most picture postcards at the turn of the 19th century had a strong photographic theme where publishers of the picture postcard relied on the original photograph for commercial purposes.

1. Introduction

During the early commercially embryonic era of photography, photographers from all over the world attempted to generate an income from this new art form. Many aspirational photographers arrived and settled in South Africa from countries such as Ireland, England, Australia, Switzerland, Holland, Latvia and Germany, to mention but a few. 

Rudolf Gottfried Steger was born in Germany on 11 March 1871. He left his country of birth aged 10 to attend school in Switzerland and then went on to complete four years of religious studies in Rome. Whilst in Switzerland, he also trained as a medical assistant at the Red Cross in Geneva – a skill that would later come in handy.

Steger arrived in South Africa during 1894 and became a naturalised burger (citizen) whilst based in Paarl during 1896. He established his first studio in Pretoria during 1898 aged 27.

A modern photographic phenomenon that has emerged is “found photographs” – these include everyday snapshot photographs taken by others years ago, but have subsequently been discarded. These discarded photographs can today be bought up cheaply by photographic curators at car boot sales, charity organisations, fairs or auctions (online auctions included). These photographs are typically found in old photo albums, boxes with photo-odds or photo sleeves holding old prints.

Established during 1786, Graaff-Reinet is the fourth oldest magistrate district in South Africa. At the time, this town was also the most important Eastern Cape based interior centre of trade in South Africa in that it was on the route of many travellers, mainly to and from the Algoa Bay harbour.

Drawing on a rare collection of souvenir photographic printed albums of Johannesburg, dating from the period approximately 1890 to 1910, we are able to build up a composite picture of Johannesburg's main thoroughfares, buildings and street life. These visual images show how Johannesburg's founding and growth coincided with the coming of age of photography.

The value of the photographic postcard, a unique historical document in itself, has been vastly underestimated by historians. Today, these types of photographs are of immense value in both photographic as well as social historical research.

It was not until recently that the author himself started to incorporate these long-undervalued photographic formats, also commonly referred to as the Real Photo Postcard (RPPC), into his own photographic research collection.

Most photographers at the turn of the last century were upstanding and hard-working citizens, however, there is always the exception. This article is about one such exception, namely the photographer Maximillian Alfred Daubert who was based in towns such as Wakkerstroom, Reitz and Pietermaritzburg. Daubert who often clashed with the law, spent many months in local jails, due to various criminal transgressions.

Little recognition has been given to Henri Ferdinand Gros for his outstanding contribution to the South African photographic history between 1869 and 1890. No other photographer has contributed to the then Transvaal photographic history like Gros. Without the Gros photographs, we would not have had an idea of what Pretoria looked like between 1875 and 1890. Gros certainly had the insight to identify the value of pictorial documentation.

Photography is the only “language” that is understood worldwide, resulting in a bridge being created between nations and cultures – it connects the family of humanity. Independent of political influence – where people are free – it provides us with an honest reflection about life and events, allows us to share in the hope, joy and despair of others, and potentially lightens political and social burdens. This way we become witnesses, not only of humanity, but also of the brutality of human kind (Gernsheim as quoted in Sontag 1977).

South African mining photographs from as early as 1870 have been identified. These early diamond surface mining activity photographs were taken by Weber & Sederstrom at New Rush (Kimberley). When gold was found in Johannesburg some 14 years later (1884), it was initially not difficult to mine as the gold was found near the surface and prospectors had many laborers to assist them with the digging.

The first permanent photograph to have been recorded was taken by the Frenchman Niépce during 1826 (after an eight-hour exposure). A fellow countryman, Daguerre, perfected the capturing of a permanent image by inventing the first practical photographic process during 1839. This photographic end result became known as the Daguerreotype.

Photographs produced on thin iron sheets? Yes, indeed! And it was cheap, even cheaper than the equivalent middle-class, paper based Carte de Visite. Photos on these thin iron sheets were actually referred to as a ‘plebian photographic end result’.

From their origin in the 1850s until the end of the twentieth century and beyond, these photographs remained popular because they were so inexpensive.

Jannie Roggeband, a Dutch citizen, was a field ambulance volunteer during the Anglo Boar War (1899-1902). Roggeband had a powerful accolade published in the Ficksburg community newspaper on 4 January 1923, a few days after the death of General George Alfred Brand (10 February 1875 – 24 December 1922). General Brand, one of President and Lady Brand’s 11 children, passed away at the young age of 47. A family photograph circa 1882, in the author’s collection, shows George and his older siblings, 7 of which were boys.

As a collector and researcher of Anglo Boer war related images the author, on occasions, finds original letters or newspaper clippings that relate to the “sitter” (person in the photograph) who was either a participant in the Boer War or simply a citizen caught up in the war.

Photographs in themselves tell stories, but to find personal letters either written by, or addressed to, the sitter enriches the story. The author feels compelled to record some of these personal stories – like this one:

Stereo photography is a craze that has swept the world since 1851, so much so that modern View Masters are still being produced commercially today. Stereo images (two photographs of the same subject, taken from slightly different angles but covering the same subject area, and mounted side by side) must be viewed through a special viewer where the two images then fuse into one giving a visual impression of subject depth – or a three dimensional effect.

Death, or more specifically images of the dead, remind us of our own mortality. During the mid 1800’s to early 1900’s, photography played a vital role in capturing images of loved ones, not only whilst alive, but also at the time of their death.

Where citizens could not afford a painted portrait of a loved one, photography was a cheaper and quicker alternative, providing the middle class with a photographic image in memory of a loved one who had passed away.

Since South Africa’s first professional photographer, Julius Leger, established himself in Port Elizabeth during 1846, both local and international photographers who foresaw commercial opportunities in this newly established art form, as well as missionaries, anthropologists, soldiers, explorers and traders have contributed to the spread of photography into the interior of South Africa.

Above is a postcard of an SAA Airways or Suid-Afrikaanse-Lugdiens DC-7B aircraft. This post card came my way when it fell out of a book I bought recently. The reverse is blank, so it was never sent and simply says "with the compliments of South African Airways” (in English and Afrikaans). The interest to me is the backdrop of Johannesburg viewed from the air. The challenge is to date the photograph. The central iconic building is Escom House (completed in 1937 and demolished /imploded in 1984) and the view is in a westerly or north westerly direction.

Here is an interesting photographic souvenir and important record of early Johannesburg. The title is "South African Goldfields Panoramic and Other Views of Johannesburg, 1889". This small booklet is a rare item as it was published just three years after the start of the town and its mining camp origins. It came to me together with a second little booklet, called  "Johannesburg, Golden Centre of South Africa ", also dated 1889, by Charles Cowen.

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