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Antique and vintage photographs are still found on the rare occasion from which a variety of narratives can then be constructed. The purpose of this article is to present a visual narrative using recently discovered discarded photographs.
These 45 inconsequential small format vintage photographs, stored in a little envelope, were found at a Johannesburg based car-boot sale. The amateur photographer that created the images included in this article had a clear intent, namely to present the visual narrative of a bridge under construction. Sadly, nothing is known about the photographer who created the images.
Before presenting the actual visual narrative, it is necessary to briefly reflect on the concepts of “found photographs” and “narrative photography”.
Found photographs can simply be defined as lost, unclaimed, or discarded photographs that have been found/recovered by collectors and researchers. Discarded or unwanted photographs can literally be acquired from anywhere, be that at flea markets, charity or second hand stores, car-boot sales, rubbish dumps or be rediscovered in those forgotten boxes in the cupboard.
By default, found photographs are mainly photographs that have been captured by amateur photographers about whom very little, if anything, is known. Much of the appeal around found photography therefore remains the mystery around the reason for the existence of the photograph in the first place (the intent) and the photographer itself.
People are more likely to engage in found photography as either hobbyists, researchers or as viewers looking at the collection of found photographs.
Found photograph hobbyists may accumulate an eclectic range of antique or vintage images for various reasons such as:
- they like abstract images of people potentially in non-standard poses;
- people wearing eccentric or old-fashioned clothing;
- they have personal sentimental reasons behind their choices where the photo collection possibly validates their own personal history;
- thematic interest, such as photographs showing cars, motorcycles or pets for example;
- broader research and archival interests;
- storytelling - relying on the image to put together a narrative of some sort.
In all the above cases the hobbyist's reason becomes a unifying theme throughout their collection and this theme in turn becomes a way of looking at found photography. In this way it can be argued that found photography takes on the form of art - in the hands of professionals and amateurs alike.
Found photos will always have some meaning linked to them - granted, some more significant than other. The actual photograph therefore becomes a by-product to a narrative of some sort.
The creation of new online platforms has resulted in many online collections of found photographs being displayed for viewing. In fact, the majority of these platforms are based on viewer participation, where anyone with a found photograph can upload the image for exhibition onto a digital gallery.
Photographs have become a tool in narrating the world. The photographer invites us to obtain some insight from images captured – as the photographer has done with the images included in this article of a bridge being constructed.
Narrative photography is simply the idea that photographs (a single or a series of photographs) can be used to tell a story. Any event or visual interpretation that can therefore be narrated.
It is doubtful whether a photograph can help us understand everything, yet it may provide for some insight. It remains but only an invitation to the viewer to make deductions and potentially speculate as to what story the photograph intents to portray.
Only that which is narrated assists us to better understand what the image potentially portraits. The ‘reality’ of the world is however not contained in its images, but in its functions. Functioning here refers to the “time and place” that the image was captured, suggesting that interpretation of the image needs to occur accordingly.
Narrations of photographs does however not go without any challenges. There is an onus that rests on narrators of any found photographs to ensure that the image is interpreted optimally in terms of the “time and place” concept. As an example – the author recently placed an image on the internet requesting some views and opinions on reader interpretations on what story was possibly being portraited by the particular image. One of the suggestions received was some 300 years off point in terms of both the “time and place” principle. It was suggested that the photograph, and its associated narrative, originated from around the 1700s. Photography did not even exist at the time of the suggested narrative presented.
Brief reflection on the photographs found
Only one of these images (all measuring 8.5 x 6 cm) has the name “Peroni” inscribed in pencil on the back of the photograph. It is assumed that this may well have been the amateur photographer, who himself was involved in constructing of Beitbridge over a three-year period (1928 – 1930).
It is not clear whether the photographer was a contractor from Europe or whether he was a South African based individual. The fact that the photographs were found in South Africa suggests that he may have resided in South Africa, unless of course the images were passed on to a local resident after they were developed, and the actual photographer returned to Europe.
The majority of images have the date 1928 inscribed in pencil on the back, with the last image in the range with a date of 1930. It could be that the few dates inscribed on the back of the images are incorrect in that a flood of the Limpopo has been recorded for February 1929, yet some images showing the river in flood are dated as 1928.
Only the better quality images out of the 45 images found have been included in this article.
No professional photographs of the bridge under construction have been identified to date which makes the relevance of these amateur images even more significant.
The story - A bridge spanning the Limpopo – Beitbridge
Investigations into finding a suitable location for Beitbridge already started during 1910 in that then already there was a need for a rail bridge over the Limpopo that would facilitate rail traffic between South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (became Zimbabwe during April 1980).
During 1926 the site of the new bridge was chosen and in 1928 construction started. The site chosen was near a place called Liebig’s Drift.
The original Alfred Beit Bridge was built over the South Africa’s second largest river, the Limpopo River, approximately 1750 km long, which generally flows eastwards through Mozambique into the Indian Ocean. The name Limpopo is derived from the word Rivombo (Livombo/Lebombo). A Tsonga tribe, led by Hosi Rivombo, who settled in the mountainous vicinity named the area after their leader.
Beitbridge is 462 meters in length, weighing some 1876 tons and was completed during 1929 by Dorman Long (Arthur Johan Dorman & Albert de Lande Long), a well-established engineering consultancy and equipment manufacturer for the construction of long-span bridges, power stations, refineries, offshore structures, stadia and other large building structures. Originally based in Middlesbrough, northeast England, the company was a major steel producer that later diversifying into bridge building.
Once listed on the London Stock Exchange, Dorman Long only entered bridge building during 1924. Their first bridge constructed was the Sydney Harbour bridge.
Sydney Harbour Bridge (The Heritage Portal)
Beitbridge, described as a memorial bridge, was designed by a Douglas Fox and Partners employee Ralph Freeman (later Sir). Freeman also had his hand in the building of the famous Victoria Falls bridge.
Beitbridge was constructed under supervision of James Mackenzie. After his retirement as bridge engineer from the South African Railways and Harbours Administration during 1922, aged 65, Mackenzie remained active as engineer. Mackenzie also submitted a design for the bridge, however, a competing design of a rival engineer (Freeman) was chosen for the final construction. Mackenzie ironically took on the job as Engineer-in-Charge for supervising the construction of his competitor’s bridge.
The structure has also been described as a deck bridge (where the railway track and roadway are carried on top of supporting girders) or a rivet bridge (steel girders have been put together with rivets). The girders are about 6 meters in depth with the deck being about 21 meters above the river bed. There are 14 spans of approximately 34 meters each, giving an aggregate bridge structure length of approximately 462 meters.
Named after German born Alfred Beit (15 February 1853 – 16 July 1906), a South African based gold and diamond magnate, the bridge was opened by the Earl of Athlone on 31 August 1929. Beit was known as a major donor and profiteer of infrastructure development on the African continent.
The rail line was constructed and managed by the then South African Railways and Harbour Administration under agreement with the Southern Rhodesia Government. The cost of the bridge ($600,000) was carried by the Beit trustees as a memorial to the late Alfred Beit. Following completion of the bridge, it was handed over to the Southern Rhodesia and South African Governments.
Interesting information that can be derived from the images include:
- Based on the name “Dorman Long” (seen painted on at least one of the girders) it is assumed that the steel girders used in constructing the bridge were imported from Britain at the time;
- Employee safety clearly was not important in the earlier years of construction in that the none of the images included suggest that employees had to wear hard hats or safety harnesses;
- Most of the material (especially the steel) was transported to the construction site via rail;
- Contractors had to face occasionally flooding of the Limpopo. The floods during 1928/29 were clearly intense
- Multiple contracting firms would have been involved in the building project. One such contracting firm has been recorded as “Remo Contractors” on the back of one of the photographs.
The seventh pier was extended in granite, obtained from Pietersburg, to a height of 6 meter above the deck level of the bridge to serve as a monument for the late Alfred Beit.
During the opening of the bridge (31 August 1929), it was described as: “New avenue to the North” and “One of the most memorable and impressive ceremonies that have ever marked the progress of modern transportation” or even more poetically as “…A new bridge spanning the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees”.
Today this wonderful old steel bridge, which now only carries rail traffic, is testimony to its designers, engineers and financiers. From a current list of longest railway bridges in South Africa, the original Beitbridge is ranked number ten.
The new road bridge runs parallel to the old bridge and was constructed by Murray and Roberts during 1995.
The two nearby towns to the bridge are the towns of Musina (formerly Messina - Limpopo province, South Africa) and Beitbridge (Matabeleland South, Zimbabwe).
Somewhere there is another story waiting to be narrated from some discarded photographs. The source remains endless – at least for now. Just consider the amount of potential historical narration that is lost when photographs are destroyed or discarded without any consideration.
Earliest of the images in the range of the Beitbridge in the process of being built showing the Limpopo river in flood during 1928. The extension on the pier seen on the left, the seventh pier, was extended to a height of 6 meter above the deck level of the bridge to serve as a monument for the late Alfred Beit
A photograph captured during 1928, either before, or shortly after the floods confirming the extend of the floods as indicated in the image above. See the ladders used to get to the top of the concrete pillars
An image captured from the top of one of the cranes showing the part of the work yard, assumed to be on the South African side of the border between South Africa and then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today). The image also confirms that steel girders used in the construction were brought in via rail. Note the steam engine on the far left of the image.
A pencil inscription on the back of this photographs states: “Remo contracting on the bridge – Beit”. The number plates on two of the vehicles are “TAR” – Early Transvaal vehicle number plates for vehicles from the nearby town Messina
Manpower - Steel girders being moved via rail trolleys. Being stacked in the work yard after they arrived via rail, they would have been loaded by cranes onto the smaller rail trollies, from where it seems to have been pushed to a point closer to the bridge where another crane would then have put beams in place on the bridge
Another flood during 1928 showing what is assumed the be the project office and crane (in background) being flooded
Project office under water from a different angle. This image shows part of the steel construction already being in place, confirming that the project team had to face multiple Limpopo river floods during 1928. The first two images included in this article show the concrete pillars prior to any steel structures in place confirming an earlier flood during 1928
Operator manning a crane mounted on top of the bridge during 1928
Front view of bridge under construction. Note the ladder – this seems to have been the only way to get to the top of the bridge whilst it was under construction (see image below)
The photographer would have climbed the ladder (see image above) to take this close-up image. Again the crane is seen as per image above – also see the labourers at the bottom and top of the bridge. Construction safety precautions were clearly not in place during the 1920s in that none of the men have hardhats or seem to make use of any safety harnesses
Steel structure of the bridge that shows multiple rivets. See man on left of the image standing on top of the vast steel structure
Steel beams in the process of being hoisted onto the bridge. See rail trucks standing on the right
Steel beams, with “Dorman Long & Co – Middlesboro” imprinted on them, awaiting installation onto bridge structure. See concrete mixer on right of steel beams
Crane on rail track. See rail lines as well as multiple rail wheels. This part was probably not unaffected by subsequent floods
Bridge nearing completion with the Limpopo river underneath in flood
Beitbridge from a distance showing nearly completed bridge with work yard and rail line in front
Only image showing elementary scaffolding around one of the concrete pillar. Note the crane on top of the bridge as well as rail line in front
Finishing touches to the rail line and road surface on top of Beitbridge
Crates and bags full of rivets. Note the gravel piling in the background as part of the road construction leading up to the bridge. It is assumed that this photograph was captured whilst looking towards Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today)
Beitbridge with final steel structures in place. Note the rail trolley on the rail line on the left. None of the men seem to be in safety harnessing.
Barriers between rail line and what is to become the road surface being put in place
Completed Beitbridge (1930). This is the only photograph that gives us an indication as to who the photographer of the series of images above may have been, namely Perino (inscribed in pencil on the back)
Main image: A balancing act – men on top of steel girders being put in place
Special Acknowledgement: Whilst discussing another topic, mention was made of this pending article to Sandy Buchanan, following which he then freely shared an article published by himself earlier during the year on the same topic which provided some additional insights.
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.
- Buchanan, A. (2020). Beitbridge. On Track newsletter - Railway Society of Southern Africa Reef Branch
- Buchanan, A. (2020). James Mackenzie: Email communication between Sandy Buchanan and Johannes Haarhoff (5 February 2020)
- Buchanan, A. (2020). Email communication between Sandy Buchanan and Carol Hardijzer (25 June 2020)
- Campbell, D (2010). Photography and narrative (www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18)
- Rosenthal, E. (2011). Girders on the veld. Structural steel and its story in South Africa. Southern African Institute of Steel Construction. Johannesburg
- South African Railways and Harbour Magazine – September 1929 (railways.haarhoff.co.za) – September 1929 - Vol 23 (9)
- South African Railways and Harbour Magazine – September 1929 (railways.haarhoff.co.za) - October 1929 – Vol 23 (10) - Providing detail around opening of bridge
- South African Railways and Harbour Magazine – September 1929 (railways.haarhoff.co.za) - Nov 1930, Vol 24 (11)
- wikipedia.org (Alfred Beit Road Bridge - extracted 4 June 2020)
- wikipedia.org (Found photography - extracted 5 June 2020)
- wikipedia.org (Dorman Long - extracted 4 June 2020)
- wikipedia.org (Beitbridge - extracted 4 June 2020)
- wikipedia.org (Narrative photography – extracted 5 June 2020)
- wikipedia.org (Limpopo River - extracted 12 June 2020)