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Photography--the orphan of visual arts?

Schadeberg, Jurgen. 2004. Witness: 52 years of pointing lenses at lire. Pretoria: Protea Boekhuis. 143 p. Price: R250,00. ISBN: 1-86919-067-X.

A decade or two ago photography as an art form in the South African context might have been described as the orphan of the visual arts, and yet this dubious distinction was certainly not due to a lack of highly professional and often internationally renowned photographers, such as Paul Weinberg, John Liebenberg, Alf Kumalo, Peter Magubane, Ken Oosterbroek, Sydney Goldblatt and of course Jurgen Schadeberg, as well as many others. Often these photographers received more recognition overseas than Iocally, underlining the old adage that the prophet is not honoured in his own country.

Perhaps one of the overriding reasons why photography seemed to have been sidelined out of the sight of the mainstream arts, especially in pre-apartheid South-Africa, was because it was so often simply too close to the skin for comfort. Whereas the contributions in other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture largely ignored social issues until the advent of township and resistance art, photographers more often than not consciously confronted sensitive issues dealing with race, gender, politics, religion and other matters.

Generally speaking, therefore, it was usually the photographers who challenged our comfort zones and confronted us with issues of the day normally hidden under a lacquer of self- or state driven censorship. Jurgen Schadeberg was one such photographer who contributed towards the bursting of the bubble, especially with his objectively and discerning photojournalism during this turbulent period in our history. He was one of very few white photographers who dared to document the lives and times of black people. The recently published Witness documents selections of Schadeberg's best photos reflecting his art from his first sojourn in South Africa until very recently--a period spanning 52 years of his life.

This 74 year old Berlin-born photographer and painter started his career in South Africa in 1950. He joined Drum magazine's staff as a freelance photographer in 1951 and also did freelance work for Time, Life, Black Star and Stem Magazine. While working for Drum he was instrumental in creating a dynamic photographic department that included the training of a number of talented and successful black photographers. At barely twenty years of age the vibrancy of township life, as well as his own distinctive memories of a very recent past influenced by Nazi oppression, were formative influences on his photographic style. He identified with his subjects in a most poignant way, and frequently found himself the victim of police harassment. Among other things he caught on film the rise of the freedom movement against a constant backdrop of apartheid repression, with the Sophiatown removals in 1959 and its destruction shortly after, being perhaps the most well known.

But Scadeberg did not always focus on hardship, and in Witness he often celebrates humankind through his lens. He not only gives us the vibrancy of township life, but we are also taken on a biographical tour of places around the world that formed the portfolio of his life. From the Costa del Sol in Spain to a village in Italy; from kings and diplomats in aristocratic London to Soho and Covent Garden; from Berlin, Oslo and Paris to a Welsh pub; a Glasgow street cleaner and street musicians in Holland.

Schadeberg's love for the Southern African scene is portrayed in a number of pictures, including Lesotho tribesmen, ditch workers in Johannesburg, young boys in Botswana climbing a tree, San boys climbing a ladder and some inspired photos showing a trance dancer in the Kalahari. Inevitably the social life of celebrities are included, such as Nelson Mandela in 1952 looking very distinguished in suit and tie in his law office, and again Mandela revisiting his cell on Robben Island after his release, looking perhaps even more distinguished.

Special reference must be made of his photos rendering township jazz, including a 1952 Boycie Gwele Big Band player, the Jazzolomos, Vi Nkosi with his trombone and Dolly Rathebe. His 1952 cover for Drum featuring Dolly has become a virtual classic of the genre. Other celebrities include Lena Horne, Mirriam Makeba, Alec Guiness, Harold Pinter, Rudolf Nuryev and Mick Jagger.

In the relentless pursuit of photgraphic excellence, this very unusual photographer has notched up an 11 000 kilometre hike through Africa. His website lists 24 selected participations in group exhibitions, and he has to his credit no less than 43 solo exhibitions. He is associated with the production of 12 documentary films and features in 15 publications.

Witness contains 125 photos with an introduction by Hazel Freedman and is dedicated to his wife and partner, Claudia. For the serious photographer this is an extremely valuable addition to the book shelf.

Resensent: John Botha

School for Communication Studies, Potchefstroom campus, North-West University
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Title Annotation:Witness: 52 years of pointing lenses at lire
Author:Botha, John
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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