Photographic History

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.

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