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Together in the Picture

John Peffer scans the photographic styles that image a black South African self outside the Apartheid frames of negation, negativity and separation.



The story is well known.

As Apartheid was gradually imposed in South Africa during the 1950s, urban black families were forcibly removed from mixed-group neighbourhoods to locations far from the city centres. From 1952 to 1986, all black South Africans were forced to carry passbooks (dompas) that included a photograph and stated their official identity according to ethnicity, as a means for racial policing and labour control. What is rarely spoken of is how, as black families were being uprooted, other forms of self-imaging such as studio portraits and snapshots were becoming increasingly common in their homes. During Apartheid, a novel kind of portrait, combining airbrushed enlargements of passbook-type or snapshot images with painted-on suits and sky-blue backgrounds, was particularly fashionable.

When photography first became widespread in the 1840s, the images gave a detailed likeness but lacked colour. In portraiture particularly, pigments were often applied  to give a more life-like appearance or to create a more precious commemorative object. The airbrush technique, which replaced earlier hand-painted approaches, had been developed in the US in the late 19th century and quickly spread to other countries. In South Africa, painted-on portraits were popular in white and middle-class parlours around the turn of the century, but as black families moved in greater numbers to the cities, they also began to acquire objects like these, which signified access to cosmopolitanism, and thus the market shifted to serve this wider clientele. The popularity of these types of pictures in black communities closely coincided with the era of racial segregation, labour migrancy, and forced relocation. Airbrushed portraits were made as late as the 1990s in South Africa. Then the advent of digital cameras and Photoshop altered the former roles of the photographic studios.

Seen together, these pictures comprise a kind of popular art and, as such, they form part of an alternative ‘people’s history’ of visual experience, one that parallels the more commonly shown documentary and photo-journalistic images depicting the political history of South Africa from the mid-century. They differ in that they are idealizing types of images, produced within black communities for their own pleasure; they represent a kind of photography (and self-imaging) that was more familiar in the majority of homes across the country than the documentary images seen either in elite art circles or abroad today. They are evidence of how the people lived and enjoyed life, despite the segregation and violence that surrounded them.

From around 1950 until 1990, ‘white wedding portraits’ were in demand among the residents of black townships. They combined enlargements of two separate passbook-type head shots with painted-on suits and bridal veils, and were in effect a montage of the distinct aesthetics of the identity document and the studio portrait. Sometimes, within a single image, they united families who were, in fact, separated by Apartheid.

Even today, the histories of families are in a sense ‘kept together’ as they are re-collected through these images. For instance, Charles and Paulina Matiwane were removed from the mixed-race neighbourhood of Sophiatown to Meadowlands in Soweto during the late 1950s. Their ‘white wedding’ portrait dates from that time. It was constructed using two smaller photographs, joining and enlarging them, and painting in the clothing details. Their sole surviving descendant, Ms H Matiwane, keeps this picture today as an heirloom – her only keepsake from her grandparents.

Coloured enlargements often portrayed couples together in an oval frame, couples who, in many cases, were not often at home together because of the migrant labour system. One example is the wedding portrait today displayed in a private home in Limpopo. The couple was married in both traditional and civic ceremonies in 1970, but the husband soon took a job on annual contract on the East Rand with the SAPPI paper company. He had seen painted portraits in the homes of well-to-do local persons in Limpopo and spent much of his first year salary paying for one for his own wife. This he brought home as a gift when he returned the following year. As the family tells the story today, he went searching for a place that could make one of these wedding portraits, eventually finding a photographer and framer, Alpheus Gwangwa, located in the men’s hostel in Alexandra. The double portrait was made from two separate snapshots of himself and his wife. These were enlarged and details were painted in, using the airbrush technique. The added details were standard: a white veil, pearl necklace and flowers for her, and a fine suit and Dobbs hat with rim turned up – fashionable in the 1960s – for him. The image is a sign that the couple had a high-class ‘white wedding’.

This couple was like many others living under Apartheid – those who worked in town for most for the week, if not most of the year, and only saw their family occasionally during holidays. The husband might return home at the end of a year-long work contract, perform marital duties and then return, as in this case, to the East Rand. The framed picture was a wedding present, a way to show devotion to the family that was otherwise split apart by the political economy of the day. It was also a sign of cosmopolitan status, of a sort seen in only the fanciest homes in Limpopo; a symbol of access to the city, of being well-off, and also a counter to the most common image of the black family toiling in poverty. Sometimes the only available likeness was the dompass, especially for older people or those from rural districts, for whom snapshots and studio portraits were less common. In fact, the identity photograph and the studio portrait were the two most common images of the self owned by black South Africans during Apartheid.

Many urban photography studios also sold painted photographs. But hand-coloured photographs are a hybrid popular art form. They are not just photographs and not just drawings. While photography is commonly equated with reality, painting is usually associated with the imagination. But painted photographs encompass both: they create a realistic likeness and at the same time create a fantasy image. In fact, they help bring to the surface an understanding of how even regular photographs are also always about the imagination.

If identity photos were depictions of an official and public definition of labour and racial roles, studio portraits used conventional props and backdrops, such as telephones and country scenes, to create idealised images for private consumption. Painted wedding photographs were in effect a montage of these two distinct aesthetics, since they retained the somber official aspect of recognising a person as a public subject, while transforming the connotation of subjection into one of aspiration.

These highly personal objects were created by many hands: the ID picture-maker (often a street photographer present at the government office), the state, the touch-up artist, the framer and studio entrepreneur, and the client and their descendants. Often these different hands were also those of several different communities. For instance, the Gujarati shop-owners of Popular Picture Framers in Johannesburg outsourced retouching work to Jewish and Afrikaans artists. And although the clientele was mostly black after the 1950s, in fact all groups in South Africa had these images made for themselves at one time or another. Producers of painted portrait photographs also did not come from any specific group. South Asian, Jewish, Afrikaner and black-run shops sold these images and particular studios produced pictures with distinctive looks. It appears that while the state was busy constructing and policing a rigid racial hierarchy, all groups in South Africa assisted in the making of more positive forms of identity images for black communities.

The advent of digital imaging did not put an end to the making of these kinds of constructed images. One recent example is set in an imaginary landscape with palm trees, floating clouds and a verdant beach. We see a picture of three young men dressed in white, black and red standing shoulder to shoulder, almost connected as if they were three facets of one body. It is a formal occasion, perhaps a wedding held at an exclusive resort somewhere in a tropical paradise. The figures are floating against this background, their eyes faintly smiling, as if at peace together in a heavenly realm.

The picture is a montage, a digital composition pieced together a few years ago from four separate images by a photographic portrait studio in Mpumalanga. The background is a general scene of leisure and idyllic peace in an exotic location – a beach front or the Taj Mahal – the kind often displayed in sitting rooms across South Africa. These men are three brothers named Abraham, Moses and Simon, whose likenesses have been cut and pasted from separate snapshots taken at a wedding in the 1990s. The brothers have not seen each other for many years. One lives in Europe, the other is a successful businessman in Johannesburg. Simon, in red, was with UmKhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and has not been seen since the early 1990s. He disappeared during the turmoil leading up to South Africa’s first democratic elections. In this picture, with its gilded frame, the brothers are forever together. Today this memorial portrait watches over the living room of Mahlodi and Marishane Sedibane, who wait still for word from Simon and who wish for the day when their three successful sons may be reunited, at home, as they are in the picture.

Although the traditional definitions of photography derive from a particular institutional history of collecting aesthetic objects, the study of popular uses of images as they appear in family albums, snapshots, studio portraiture and sentimental objects for commemoration complicates the picture. For South Africa, more work remains on how to understand the vernacular experience of visual objects, and what this can tell us about how people lived through Apartheid in the everyday sense. For this, a wider definition of archive is needed, one that includes the contexts of private collections in family homes and the personal uses of objects, as well as closer attention to the interconnectedness of visual worlds beyond the borders of the photographic.

It is important to return to these types of images now, because so much of what the world knows about South Africa is the result of the global dissemination of social documentary and photo-journalistic photography; of images that have observed the South African experience from the point of view of photographers and other audiences removed from that experience. Such iconic images have also been canonised within South Africa as markers of the heroic history of the anti-Apartheid struggle. These have been mostly images of poverty, violence and racial struggle, conforming to a limited set of types determined by the mainstream media and serving the desires of the metropolitan middle class. Documentary-style images and art works circulating in the international exhibitions circuit during the post-Apartheid years have, in some cases, contained a more uplifting perspective, but most of these images, while depicting South African life as observed, have not been widely seen in most South African homes.

Indeed, most people did not collect images of street protests and violence, but had pictures of themselves made for their own pleasure, often imagining a wholeness to everyday life that was full of imagination and positivity. They pictured what they wanted in ways that were not always limited by what they were given.

Chronic + Chronic BooksThis piece originally featured in the Chronic (April 2013 edition), available here. Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialism’s monumental history.


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