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).
The reader of this article may therefore be inclined to criticise the approach due to its apparent racial compartmentalisation. In the South African context, it needs to be acknowledged that early South African photographic history remains inextricably entangled with the history of colonialism and a society that was divided along racial lines.
South African historical studio photographs, as nostalgic as they seem to be, hold limitations due to the seemingly gracious lives of the white section of the community in a large mythical colonial world.
The purpose of this article is therefore to uncover the neglected side of South African photographic history, namely Black families photographed in a both formal and informal studio settings.
Historical photographs, when uncovered, create new significance and meaning. There has however been a neglect in researching earlier photography in South Africa – specifically around black communities being photographed - not the tribal or ethnical aspect thereof, but the how the black population of South Africa presented themselves photographically in South African photographic studios. These early private and social photographs, meant for family use and inclusion in photo albums, need to surface and be researched on a more regular basis.
Photographs fade and as physical objects they also “die”. Every single historical South African image, more so those of our own black population, is therefore worth saving for future research, yet due to disaffection they are getting destroyed.
Although largely neglected and at risk of continuing to be lost to history, the good news is that early photographic images still lie hidden in kists, cupboards, boxes or plastic bags and are simply waiting to be uncovered and shared.
Overview of article
Whilst an extensive article on the Graaff-Reinet based photographer William Roe was published fairly recently on The Heritage Portal (click here to view), the article below focuses mainly on father and son’s (Roe) versatile photographic work performed within the black Graaff-Reinet based community during the turn of the twentieth century.
Considering that Graaff-Reinet only had some 5 000 residents during 1880 and around 12 000 during the Anglo-Boer war era (1899 – 1902), patrons wishing to have their images captured were minimal and required the Roe’s, as well as other photographers at the time, to expand their photographic activity. Some photographers travelled extensively in search of additional patrons.
Passing though trade contributed to Graaff-Reinet based photographers surviving (Graaff-Reinet was the main link between the coastal town Port Elizabeth and the then Transvaal). Although the early South African based photographers primarily generated their income from the white population, the Roe’s did not restrict their work to the white population only in that they also photographed the black population based in Graaff-Reinet and its surrounds – not something many South African based photographers elected to do in those years.
In this article, the reference to black community specifically relates to African and Coloured South African citizens. For the benefit of the international reader, the word Coloured is a term used in reference to an individual of mixed race. The African population of the Graaff-Reinet environment has always been mainly Xhosa. No Roe photographs of the Indian community have been identified to date in that there would not have been many Indian citizens that settled in the Eastern Cape in the earlier years. Images used in support of this article are therefore of African and Coloured citizens.
Only posed images, where the sitter is the primary focus, are included in this article. Images where the black population are secondary to the theme of the photograph (such as childminders, domestic servants, labourers etc.) are not under discussion. This in itself becomes an entirely separate topic.
The single source of the images included in this article are those contained on the Roe glass negative collection held by the Graaff-Reinet Museum. The visual content of this article can be vastly expanded if any of the other photographic formats held by this museum had to be included.
William Roe & Son
Roe senior was born om 25 March 1827 in Northampton – England. His parents were shoemakers and Roe himself was an apprentice shoemaker whilst still in the UK.
Roe settled in Graaff-Reinet at the age of 32, some 73 years after the establishment of the town and 32 years after the invention of photography. Photography was invented the same year he was born.
Roe resided in Graaff-Reinet for almost 57 years (1859 to 1916). During this period, he documented the growth and development of Graaff-Reinet by photographing a broad spectrum of topics and in doing so captured the social context as well as the history of the town – extensively so.
William and his wife, Mary Ann’s, second eldest son William Edward, born August 1849, assisted his father in his photographic business. Whilst Roe senior was travelling the country during the early 1870s, Roe junior, then in his early 20s, in all likelihood managed the Graaff-Reinet studio.
At one point the business was known as Roe & Son or simply Roe Photographers.
It is known that the Roe’s also had a studio based in neighbouring Aberdeen.
The unmarried Roe junior passed away in Graaff-Reinet at his Church Street house on 12 September 1913 (aged almost 65), two and a half years before his father. Ironically the gravestone indicates that he passed away during 1914. Archival records of 1913 are accepted as the correct version.
Roe senior passed away at his residence at Parliament street on 12 April 1916 – aged 89 and lays buried with his son in Graaff-Reinet.
Black communities photographed
The field of visual history has become an important and legitimate area of rigorous enquiry. Photography and photographs used as sources during research has become a widespread practice in history, anthropology, sociology and other social sciences and humanities (Gordon & Kurzwelly, 2018).
With the above in mind, photographic research and analyses of South African based studios at the turn of the twentieth century therefore assists in expanding our knowledge base along similar lines.
Little has been published on black community based photographic work produced by South African based photographers from before 1915. Two such exceptions would be the publications by Schoeman (1996) and Mofokeng (2013).
Unlike ethno-photographs, there is nothing exotic in studio photographs (indoors or outdoors), nor were they intended as a form of art for commercial distribution world-wide. Ethno-photographic images were captured by both local and foreign photographers for pure commercial purposes in order to satiate foreign curiosity around the African continents’ ethnic cultures, traditions and appearances. Indigenous people found themselves subjected to the process of being photographed without their wishes being considered. See previous article published on South African ethno-photography (click here to view).
Studio produced images however largely belong to, and circulate in, the private domain – they have not been intended for the tourist market.
Ethno-photographic themed images remain in high demand by collectors. Studio-based images of South Africa’s black population may however not have the same interest.
Roe images included in this article display the early South African black community in a different context compared to ethno-photographic images. Here we see the black population in a social context. A strong family theme is observed. The images potentially reflect on the sitters’ sensibilities, aspirations and self-image in that some of the images confirm that many of the individuals photographically captured may also have adapted the British settlers’ lifestyle and dress codes. Many may also have undergone mission education. Although the image in itself may not be unique, the sitters certainly are in that their clothing, poses etc. tell a story.
The Roe’s also produced some Ethno-photographic images, but these are minimal compared to their family centric studio work.
Although the photographs may tell us little about how the patrons would have imagined themselves, some pride and even self-confidence can be observed in studying the images.
The sitters on the Roe images appear not as generic specimens but as individuals – husbands and wives, parents, children, grandmothers, siblings, friends or young children accepted into western family structures.
Campbell (in Mofokeng, 2013) states that by posing for the images of this nature that the sitters were displaying respectability, whilst asserting urbanity, modernity, pride against a society that sought to assign them to a static past.
As can be observed from the photographs, studio portraiture in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras was a highly conventional art, with its own protocols, props and poses.
It has been suggested that that pre-1900s there was a strong resistance amongst the South African black population to be photographed in that the concept of the photograph or the technology behind it, would have been foreign and therefore intimidating - more so than for the white population.
Significant about the images included is that most early South African based photographers would not have focussed on taking studio-based images of their town’s black community. The main reason for this would be that the art of photography was a Eurocentric concept. Prior to at least 1900, owning an image of one self was not a priority to the black or poorer part of the South African population at large.
An American based academic however recently stated that the local black South African population did have many images taken of themselves but that they were more private compared to their fellow white citizens when it came to sharing of such imagery. This argument may be more applicable for the period post 1930. The view however remains that images of the black South African population originating from South African studios around the late and early 1900s remain minimal.
As can be seen from the images below, the Roe’s did not only capture these images in studios. They clearly also travelled into rural settings where they would then put up a backdrop and photograph their clients in their natural settings.
One of two identified backdrops used by Roe whilst travelling. From the background it can be seen that the European themed backdrop was set up in front of an external building. Note the male’s interesting hairstyle – Circa 1910
The lady on the left has been positioned to pose with a tea tray in hand. A rather unusual and condescending position applied by Roe not seen before – Circa 1910
Image clearly shows European themed backdrop set up in front of an outbuilding – probably a farmstead – Circa 1910
Couple with their 3 children standing in front of a Roe backdrop used whilst travelling
A family image captured outdoors. Unusual about this image is the cheetah skin the little one is sitting on. This skin would have belonged to the couple and not to Roe. The little one’s blurred hand confirms that exposure times were a challenge to photographers when photographing children
A Xhosa mother with her three children. The carpet they are seated on would have been their own and not the photographer’s
The second of two backdrops used by Roe whilst travelling. From the background it can clearly be seen that this backdrop was set up outside a building
A poor black family photographed outside their homestead – Circa 1910
This then raises the question, did the Roe’s demand payment for images captured of the local African and Coloured community? Considering that only some 6% of the Roe images on glass negatives are of the black community, it is safe to argue that most of the sitters would not have been able to afford the luxury of purchasing the end-product from the Roe’s. The Roe’s may also have produced these images at a reduced price or as a favour for other parties who may have paid the Roe’s for their services.
A crucial question remains. Why were these images captured? Was it on the request of the sitter or were there other reasons behind this? The Roe’s main motivation here may not have been for profit. Analysing the images suggests that a large percentage of the images are Anglo-Boer war related or of missionary members or mission station co-workers.
Although in some instances there are clear indications of tribal links in the Roe images, attempts to classify each image accordingly has intentionally been avoided. They remain primarily family photographs, paid for by either the sitters, their masters, British soldiers or missionary leaders.
Malherbe (2014) states that Roe senior was pro-Brit and that he therefore only took images of British soldiers or their supporters. Could this then be that the Graaff-Reinet black community, loyal to the British flag, would have had British soldiers paying Roe to have images captured of this part of the community?
Seated male in uniform holding what seems to be a bible. Note the two medals on his jacket. The younger male standing is in all probability the brother of the seated male. Both have an earring. The seated chap with an earring in his left ear whilst the chap standing has one in his right ear. The backdrop, carpet and bricks are typical for many of the Roe studio images – Circa 1903
Three men in uniform. The male standing is the same male seated in the image above – this time with a different jacket but with the same medals as in the image above. The two fellows on the right are holding leaves, whilst the African chap on the left has an leaf arrangement of some sort in his left top pocket. It is clear from this image (and images to follow) that a fashion statement was to have a pathway as part of the hairstyle at the time. Circa 1903
Two men in British uniform. What would their role have been during the Anglo-Boer war? Circa 1902
Would this be a couple in mourning considering the ladies black dress and the black material around the soldiers hat as well as black material stitched on his right sleeve? Considering the material on the soldier’s left lapel, he clearly held rank of some sort – Circa 1903.
Four men in uniform. The soldier on the right has a black piece of material sown to the right hand sleeve of his jacket. The bottom of the image shows some deterioration of the original glass negative – Circa 1902
A corporal photographed with his brother – Circa 1902
Male in unknown uniform – Circa 1903
A further question arises – Did the individuals posing on these images simply comply with the colonial ways? Part of the answer is that it needs to be acknowledged that mission-based Christianity introduced far-reaching changes in African life for some resulting in a larger exposure to, and uptake in the Western ways.
Campbell (in Mofokeng, 2013) refines the question even further: “Do these images suggest mental colonalisation or where they simply progressive and schooled individuals?”
Photographers produced cabinet card images (printed from the glass negative) in batches of up to 1 dozen. This means that more than one identical image maybe in circulation but the black community would in all probability not have ordered more than one paper print version (cabinet card format). The European part of the population may have bought multiple images in that it was standard practice to send images abroad, something the black population did not do. This confirms that photographing sitters with family ties abroad would have been a more profitable sitter to have in the studio due to multiple print requests that potentially followed.
The fact that these Roe images originate from glass negatives, means that there may still be some of the original resultant prints in circulation. It would be a great find to match any of the Roe digitised images with any original paper-based format (cabinet cards in this instance). With this end in mind, all the images being digitised by the Graaff-Reinet Museum are now scrutinised to record the photographer’s name where available and record as such on the electronic database. In this way, Graaff-Reinet Museum will eventually have a full digital catalogue of the photographs by the Roe’s (all formats and also of all other photographers) which will assist any future research.
Roe clearly preferred to use artistically painted backdrops. Three different backdrops used by Roe have been identified to date. Two of these backdrops are very Eurocentric (scenes originating from Europe) and hardly match the South African setting. In some of the images this Eurocentric backdrop was erected in front of the sitter’s rural residence – a clear dichotomy. The three images included in this article where no backdrops were used are much more original. They show sitters in front of their rural residence.
Most of the images included in this article were however taken in a studio. These images all include bricks in the foreground and a painted backdrop showing a staircase and pillar. The bricks in the studio, as untidy as they may appear, is a clear Roe trademark. This studio was used for both black and white patrons. To date it has not been determined where this studio was based. Was it a studio in Graaff-Reinet at Roe senior’s house? The view is that it may have been a studio in Aberdeen as well.
One image in the Graaff-Reinet collection that may illicit some negative commentary due to South Africa’s history (and is therefore not included in this article) had the author, Haarhoff and Kayster baffled. It is of a black male being held on a leather leash by a bearded white male. What is the significance of this? Is this an escaped convict that was re-arrested? What was the man’s transgression?
Elegantly dressed young lady holding a fern leave. The ring on her finger suggests that she may be married. Note the typical Roe studio features, namely the backdrop and bricks. The white mark on the bottom right of the image is an example of previous incorrect archival attempts at numbering the images – Circa 1905
Lady in her Sunday best – Circa 1905
Lady resting her hand on a Victorian photo album – Circa 1905
Siblings – Circa 1905
Xhosa couple – Circa 1905
Young child. The top right of the image shows some deterioration on the original glass negative - Circa 1905
Two friends or are they brothers? Roe clearly had a creative preference for positioning sitters on chairs as indicated in this image
Xhosa couple. The male has an earring in each ear. It is not clear whether there is any significance around the white material on the male’s hat
Siblings? Note the large shoe laces on all their shoes. The white mark on the right hand bottom of the image is a sticker applied by an earlier archivist in an attempt to record the images held by the museum
A mother with her two daughters – Circa 1906
Blended family. The lady seems too young to be the mother of the young fellow seated on the left. It may therefore be her brother. Significant is the horsetail on the gentleman’s lap
Family of five – Circa 1906
A rather unusual composition at the time. A mother combing her daughter’s hair – Circa 1906
A young couple. Note the male’s interesting hairstyle. He also has an earring in each earlobe – Circa 1906
Young female – Circa 1905
Two Xhosa women – Mother and daughter. Circa 1905.
Two Xhosa women – Mother and daughter. Circa 1905. The younger woman has two keys on a chain attached to her blouse. The older woman seems blind.
Young brother and sister - Circa 1906
Graaff-Reinet Museum Photographic collection
Some of the images produced by the Roe’s, in glass format, have been lying dormant in the Graaff-Reinet museum for many years. Whilst previous researchers may have been aware of the existence of these images, they have not been studied in detail. Two of the main reasons being that they are in a negative format and handling of glass negatives of more than a 100-years old may cause damage.
Malherbe (2014) points out that in an article by Arthur Rabone in the Graaff-Reinet Advertiser (1968) he referred to thousands of glass negatives that were uncovered by an unknown Graaff-Reinet resident - in the backyard of Roe’s old studio (some 52 years after Roe’s death!). Urban legend has it that shortly after Roe senior’s death, that the new owners of the Roe photographic studio removed all remaining Roe photographic equipment, glass negatives and paper prints from the house/studio and placed it in a room in the backyard with the intension of having it all destroyed.
It is of interest that the Roe glass negative collection of 1138 images contain mainly cabinet sized glass negatives (165 x 120) from between 1875 and 1915 and that it hardly contains any carte-de-visite sized glass negatives (120 x 90) from prior to 1875.
This in all probability suggests that the carte-de-visite glass images created by Roe senior prior to 1875 have largely been destroyed. This means that only the final paper print version of the carte-de-visite format may have survived and may still occasionally be found in Victorian/Edwardian family photograph albums.
What is significant about the Graaff-Reinet glass negative collection is that a clear link has been identified between this collection and the Hardijzer Photographic Research Collection of some 1500 glass negative plates (obtained by the author in Calitzdorp during 2009. This confirms that both these collections are Roe images. Multiple images between these two collections confirm that the same studio was used in that props and backdrops correlate. Even the same sitters and animals can be identified between the two collections.
It is estimated that between the Graaff-Reinet and the Hardijzer Photographic Research Collection that less than 5% of the images captured by Roe are of the local Graaff-Reinet (or immediate surrounds) African or Coloured community which in itself confirms the significant historical value of the images.
It needs to be acknowledged that previous attempts have been made to curate the glass negatives in the photographic collection held by the Graaff-Reinet museum. Sadly, an overzealous and ill-informed archivist applied white stickers to each of the glass plates (As can be seen on some of the images included in this article) - Hardly an effective method to curate images of this nature.
Mother and daughter in front of their mud clad homestead. Both holding fern leaves. Poor condition of image is due to deterioration of original glass negative – Circa 1910
Two mothers and their children in front of their mud clad homestead – Circa 1910
Importance of photographic conservation
Photographs are at once the most obvious and enigmatic of objects – an aperture opens and closes; photons of light stream upon a prepared surface creating a fixed image with multiple possible interpretations and paradoxes (Campbell in Mofokeng, 2013), yet photographs, more so historical photographs, are often taken for granted – not only due to our lack of curiosity around their existence, but also our irresponsible care and curation of them.
Photographs require constant care, for they begin to chemically self-destruct as soon as they are made. Historical photographic preservation, restoration and archival efforts cannot be delayed in that these images do ultimately support the study or interpretation of history.
One individual who fully comprehends the need to preserve humanity’s visual history is Johannes Haarhoff.
Volunteer initiative at the Graaff-Reinet Museum
The photographic images housed at the Graaff-Reinet museum have now come to life. The author was recently invited to observe the digitisation process of the Graaff-Reinet Museum Photographic Collection. Whilst studying the collection, one theme stood out strongly, namely the number of photographs Roe took of both the black African and Coloured community of Graaff-Reinet.
Volunteer Johannes Haarhoff and museum curator, Anziske Kayster with the support of an intern, have diligently tackled an unorganised photographic collection in a variety of photographic formats, by not only digitising the collection but also categorising and cataloguing each image. Each of these images are in the process of being uploaded to an electronic database accessible by staff and visitors through the local intranet. The AtoM (Access to Memory) database, freely available and in full compliance with the standards of the International Council on Archives, was configured specifically for the hosting of the museum photographs. A purpose-made light box was manufactured locally in order to scan each of the glass negatives, as well as sturdy wooden crates to store the glass negative plate images in the collection, each in their own envelope duly numbered.
Haarhoff is also the project leader in digitising the photographic collection at the Johannesburg based Transnet Heritage Library (See the Digital Rail Images of South Africa’s website – Drisa.co.za). The Graaff-Reinet Museums and the Transnet Heritage Library work in close association on their respective digitisation projects.
Two ladies photographed at an unknown location. The curtains in the background have not been identified on Roe images before. It could be that this image was taken in their homestead.
The fact that the Roe’s photographed a broad spectrum of subjects indicates that they comprehended the historical social context in the history of a town and its community and that they attempted to capture this accordingly.
No doubt, the Roe’s, with their artistic sense combined with their overall diligence and sense of duty, made a huge contribution to the South African photographic heritage. Malherbe (2014) aptly states that: The Roe photographs can be viewed as the bridge that anchors the current with the past.
Although ongoing research is required, it can be argued at this point that the Roe’s were probably the South African photographer who would have photographed the local community in a family setting more than any other South African photographer would have prior to 1915.
In conjunction with the above, the author, who conducts extensive research on South African based photographers prior to 1915, has to date not identified a single professional African, Indian or Coloured photographer of this era.
Less than 2% of the entire Hardijzer Photographic Research Collection contains images of black South African citizens. It could be argued that due to the author not being sufficiently networked into these communities could be the reason for the limited access to additional material. The stance however remains that studio-based images of the African, Coloured and Indian communities prior to 1915 remain limited, more so for the African community.
Ongoing selfless efforts in digitising our photographic history for eternity remains crucial in South Africa – irrespective of the size of the collection.
- This article is mainly based on images in Graaff-Reinet Museum Photographic collection which is in the process of being digitally recorded by Prof. Johannes Haarhoff and the museum curator Anziske Kayster.
- The Graaff-Reinet museum provided kind permission for the use of the images included in this article.
- Dr. Ansie Malherbe provided additional perspectives to the content of this article.
Main image: Large family in front of their mud clad homestead. Three of the adult females are holding books which may signify missionary involvement – Circa 1910
About the author: Carol is passionate about South African Photographica – anything and everything to do with the history of photography. He not only collects anything relating to photography, but also extensively conducts research in this field. He has published a variety of articles on this topic and assisted a publisher and fellow researchers in the field. Of particular interest to Carol are historical South African photographs. He is conducting research on South African based photographers from before 1910. Carol has one of the largest private photographic collections in South Africa.
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- Bensusan, A.D. (1966). Silver Images. Howard Timmins. Cape Town
- Cape Archives. Various archival documents extracted during 2018 as it relates to the Graaff-Reinet based Roe family.
- Gordon, R. & Kurzwelly, J. (2018). Photographs as sources in African history. Oxford research encyclopedia of African history. Online publication
- Graaff-Reinet Museum Photographic collection
- Haarhoff, J. (2020, 6 January & 18 February). Email communication between Hardijzer and Haarhoff
- Hardijzer, C.H. & Malherbe J.F. (2018). William Roe (1826 – 1916) – Long serving Graaff-Reinet based photographer. Theheritageportal.co.za
- Hardijzer, C.H. (2018). Early Ethno-photography and the picture postcard – a South African perspective. Theheritageportal.co.za
- Malherbe, J.F. (2014). Die rol van neëntiende-eeuse fotografie in eietydse bewaring: William Roe en Graaff-Reinet. University of Stellenbosch
- Malherbe, J.F. (2020, January) – Electronic communication between Hardijzer and Malherbe
- Mofokeng, S. (2013). The Black Photo Album/Look at me: 1890-1950 – with essay by J.T. Campbell (The Walther Collection). Steidl. Germany
- Nunn, T. (2008). Graaff-Reinet – An illustrated historical guide. Westby Nunn publishers. Western Cape
- Plug, C. (2014). Roe, Mr William. S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science.
- Schoeman, K. (1996). The face of the country – A South African family album (1860 – 1910). Human & Rousseau. Cape Town.
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