PHOTOGRAPHY: Uncanny similarities and stark differences
Commonplace, a new book of photographs published by independent publishers Fourthwall Books, shows two personal collections of images of 20th century SA as it is seldom seen
These startling juxtapositions appear in a new book, Commonplace, a collaboration between Sophie Feyder and Tamsyn Adams, published by independent publishers Fourthwall Books (with the help of L’Oeuvre Nationale de Secours Grande-Duchesse Charlotte and CNA).
There are no words accompanying the images, not even page numbers. All the detail is in a section at the back of the book with the thumbnails. The images are presented unmediated to the reader.
The pairing of similar images and scenarios is sustained throughout the book: photographs of little boys dressed as cowboys pointing toy guns, but once again, one in Old Location in Benoni in the mid-1950s, and the other on a farm in Estcourt in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands around 1910. There are pictures of couples doing identical dance moves, groups arranged identically around cars (even a pair featuring the same model of Chevy truck). On one spread, groups play-act stabbings. The pairings are not all quite so direct or obvious. Sometimes the emphasis is on the similar ways in which groups arrange themselves for the camera despite the vastly different contexts in which these images were taken.
Each collection is remarkable in its own right, and would probably have been worth a separate book or exhibition. In fact, they were already heading in that direction. Adams and Feyder were preparing separate exhibitions as part of their studies, and, as part of a research team focusing on SA photographic collections, they began noticing startling similarities between individual images in their collections.
The similarity between the photographs is almost uncanny. The women’s poses are identical: a sort of sideways reclining pin-up pose, with their upper bodies resting on one elbow and a coy kink in one knee. The difference is that one is a white woman in a bathing suit on the beach at Scottburgh in the 1930s or 1940s, and the other is a black woman in a kind of undergarment arranged to look a bit like a bathing costume, on a bed in a room in an East Rand township in the mid-1950s.
The images are from two vastly different private photographic collections. The Drummond-Fyvie Collection belongs to a white, English-speaking family who lived in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands, and spans 150 years. The other, the Ngilima Collection, is a collection of photography by Ronald Ngilima and his son Torrance, taken mostly in Wattville and other townships around Benoni, east of Johannesburg, between the 1930s and early 1960s.
Adams frequently mentions the words "connections" and "coming through" in conversation. "I think at one point we thought that there was nothing to connect them in terms of urban, rural, time," she says. "They were polar opposites." But after they noticed one "connection", more seemed to arise. Over months and months, Feyder and Adams created mind maps and the images coalesced into clear tropes.
The Ngilima collection is a rare discovery. Farrell Ngilima rediscovered his father and grandfather’s photo archives in the mid-1990s. His grandfather, Ronald, settled in Watville in Benoni in the 1930s. He had a camera, and remarkably, a darkroom of his own, in the bathroom of his house. He took photographs around the neighbourhood — people posing for studio-type images, enacting scenarios, gathered for special occasions, just goofing about. When he died suddenly in 1960, his son Torrance carried on his work, but gave it up in the early 1960s to pursue political activities.
"The story he [Farrell] told me was that when he was growing up he knew that there was this cupboard in his grandmother’s house, and the bottom part had these two drawers that were locked," says Feyder. "So, he was aware of this material, but he kind of forgot about it until he found a few negatives, at the bottom of a drum, I think, and it was about to be burnt."
He subsequently convinced his grandmother to give him all the negatives and set about ensuring that they were preserved for posterity. After contacting various museums and encountering interested academics and photographers (including Jürgen Schadeberg), Feyder says he became concerned that he would lose control of the archive and its legacy. He took a big step back until she contacted him in 2008 while doing fieldwork for her PhD. With bursary money, she managed to have the collection digitally archived — there were about 5,600 negatives.
The Ngilima Collection offers a rare glimpse of life outside the more public struggle narrative that we tend to associate with images from the 1950s and 1960s. "There’s a very well-known body of work from SA from those years that very much shaped my idea of what life was like," says Feyder. "What’s fascinating about the Ngilima Collection is that you don’t see any of that."
You see private life and leisure when the dominant narrative tends to be public, political and spectacular. "What you see is not victimhood," says Feyder. "What you see is really people who were determined to look their best, portraying themselves in such a way that transcends all the limitations of their daily lives."
Adams’s rediscovery of her family archives — the Drummond-Fyvie Collection — also involved some snaps that were about to be thrown away. "I was studying fine art in the mid-1990s and I found my gran heading off to the rubbish bin with a big box of photographs that she was clearing out," she recalls. Tamsyn "grabbed them" and began incorporating them into artworks – cutting them up and preserving them in resin and so on. "In retrospect I’m horrified," she says, thinking of the archival materials she happily scissored up. But that interaction also prompted her to take a more serious look at the boxes and suitcases full of snapshots that her family had stashed in barns and sheds over a century and a half, and eventually to use them as the basis of her PhD.
Both Adams and Feyder admit to some anxiety about the uses to which they’ve put these images. "They are very personal photographs, and you’re using them in ways you wouldn’t have imagined them being used," says Adams. But they were convinced enough of the benefits of the combination to risk combining them to go ahead. "They’re no longer family photos, they’re now something different," she adds.
There were other questions. "One of the things we were worried about was getting rid of the differences between [the two collections] by putting them together," says Adams.
"[W]e definitely didn’t want to erase the context behind them," says Feyder. "And I think what is so interesting is that it heightens both the similarities and the differences." Bringing the collections together also guards against sentimentality, "pulling them back" from nostalgia, and "keeping them in limbo" in Adams’s words.
Rather than erasing the differences, the juxtapositions and similarities "play out the differences" and "make you look again", as Adams puts it. The pairings that she thinks are most successful are the ones in which the background details bring out the context. And you do pay attention to the backgrounds in a way you might not have had the collections been published separately. "They go back to these very different social-economic worlds," says Feyder.
Even more subtly, the photos from the Drummond-Fyvie Collection are represented as the printed snapshots that Adams found. The Ngilima images, however, were negatives — the prints were scattered and lost over time. The stability of the Drummond-Fyvie families allowed the collection to remain coherent and preserved for so long, and this is represented through their materiality. The Ngilima collection represents no such stability, and this comes through in how their material existence has been lost.
Though the 140 or so images in Commonplace were drawn from a combined total of about 10,000, the exactness of some of these correlations between them remains flabbergasting.
Feyder suggests an explanation: "[R]acial divides and other socioeconomic factors mean that these populations would probably never have met in real life, yet they’re nonetheless in the same economy, whether it’s the economy of objects or the economy of images, consuming probably the same movies, definitely the same adverts."
There’s a commercial pop aesthetic that infuses the private uses of photography. She points out that these images provide a glimpse into the fugitive history of desire, consumption and leisure that is usually ignored or neglected. "What do you do with this desire … to be part of the global economy, to be modern, to feel included?" asks Feyder.
Back in the mid-1980s, Njabulo Ndebele famously wrote: "The history of black SA literature has largely been the history of the representation of spectacle." In the same essay, Rediscovery of the Ordinary, he says: "SA society, as we have seen, is a very public society."
Commonplace throws up a composite vision of the private uses of photography, adding an ordinary dimension to the dominant images of public memory in a way that is so surprising that it refreshes and enriches our views of both.
I think what is so interesting is that it heightens both the similarities and the differences