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Stephen Coan reviews Commonplace, a new photographic book that provides a unique view of parallel universes which occasionally collide

A new photographic book provides a unique view of parallel universes which occasionally collide: life lived in a Johannesburg township and life on a farm near Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal. STEPHEN COAN reports. Originally published in The Witness

A man opening a door with one hand, in the other a lit cigarette. He looks directly at the camera; at you. An invitation to enter the book you hold in your hands? Turn the page. A short explanatory text for what will follow. Turn the page. Another photograph: a man in shorts, in one hand a camera in the other a bunch of leaves. Behind him, not far along a rural dirt road, is a car dating the taking of the photograph to the 1950s.

The man in the first photograph is black, in the second, white. They are photographs from two collections, The Ngilima Collection and the Drummond-Fyvie Collection.

In 1905 Temple Lascelles Fyvie bought a plot of land outside Estcourt in the then Colony of Natal. In the 1930s Ronald Majongwa Ngilima left the Eastern Cape and headed for Benoni on the East Rand. “The photographic collections that grew out of these two moves form the basis of our book,” write Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder, authors of Commonplace.

Tamsyn Adam
Sophie Feyder

 
“Their placement, side by side, starts to suggest the varied ways in which lives lived in different times and places, and under very disparate circumstances, might nevertheless be tied to each other – if not in a common place then at least in their commonplaces.”

“Collection” may seem a rather formal word to apply to these photographs but Adams and Feyder were trying to find an alternative to “archive” and opted for “collection” as, according to Adams, “the word implied a sense of the messiness, especially of the Drummond and Fyvie photos – which were rather an ‘accumulation’ as opposed to a formal ‘collection’.”

In the latter case the old-fashioned word “snaps” would likely have been applied by the two families (united by marriage in 1941) to describe their “collection” however the Ngilima Collection had more deliberate beginnings. When Ngilima obtained one of the new houses in the location of Wattville outside Benoni in 1952 he set up a dark room in the bathroom. Otherwise employed at the Leonard Dingler tobacco company in Boksburg Ngilima took photographs in his spare time, cycling around the townships with his camera to take photographs of people in their own homes while others came to “Mr. Snappy”, as he was popularly known, in his home-based studio.

Location unknown, mid-1950s. Photo: Ronald Ngilima, Ngilima Collection.

 

Scottburgh, 1930s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 
When Ronald Ngilima died suddenly in 1960 his son Thorence took over and ran what had become a small business until his work for the ANC became all consuming. A street in Wattville is named after him.

Meanwhile 25 boxes of negatives were kept safe in the family home where Ronald’s grandson Farrell came across them in 1999. Realising their historical value he was instrumental in their being stored at the Historical Papers archive at University of the Witwatersrand and thus making them publicly accessible.

Scottburgh, 1930s/1940s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 

Wattville, Benoni, early 1960s. Photo: Thorence Ngilima, Ngilima Collection

 
The photographs in the Drummond-Fyvie Collection date back to the 19th century and were probably stored without any particular consideration other than being family photographs from whenever until Adams similarly realised they possessed an importance that went beyond “family snaps”.

Both Adams, who has a fine arts background, and Feyder began working with the collections collaboratively as part of a joint doctoral research project between the History and Anthropology departments of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Location unknown, 1930s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection.

 

Wattville, Benoni, early 1960s. Photo: Thorence Ngilima, Ngilima Collection

 
Feyder, from Luxembourg and now resident in Brussels, Belgium, had long had an interest in southern Africa and studied political science and development. “But I realised you needed history to understand the situation today; to understand colonialism. I had a background in photography and at Leiden in the African Studies Program I was able to combine African history and photography.”

Feyder first encountered the Ngilima Collection in 2008 and arranged its digitization. Subsequently she and Adams worked with other colleagues from Leiden organising a conference in Johannesburg built around the relatively new discipline of visual studies. Their contribution would be to present their work with the two collections.

“We wanted to say that private archives, family photographs, are also interesting to look at in terms of history,” said Feyder. “They also have something to tell us; historic photographs are not just the famous photographs of iconic figures or of violent protests.”

At first Adams and Feyder intended presenting images from the collections separately but then decided it would be interesting to combine these seemingly non-political images within a larger context. Would it be possible to see apartheid reflected in these private photographs?

The answer was a qualified “yes”, according to Adams. “Putting the two collections together suggests another way of understanding them. It draws attention to the specific political context in which the photographs were taken. But it also highlights similarities in a way that hopefully doesn’t try to resolve the underlying tensions.”

Glenroy, near Estcourt, 1950s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 

Suburbs of Benoni, mid-1950s. Photo: Ronald Ngilima, Ngilima Collection

 

The resulting exhibition, Sidetracks: Working with Two Photographic Collections, went on display at the Market Photo Workshop in 2013. “For the book we drew on the same photographs but we worked with them in a slightly different way,” said Adams. “We also emphasised more social pictures. There is a perception that photographs from this period should focus on struggle – we were trying to give a different view.”

Feyder agrees. “Private photos like these suggest what it was like to live at the time. People did not go to the photographic studio to “resist” apartheid, they went there because it was fun. But you can say that it was part of a strategy of resilience, to construct a positive image of oneself in a context where you are being constantly told that you are inferior for not being white.”

Whereas the exhibition featured text and maps the book is determinedly minimal. Commonplace is a photographic book and the photographs dominate. Apart from those opening few words other text is to be found at the back of the book. Nor are there captions to the photographs; they too are at the back below thumbnail reference images.

Davies Social Centre, Benoni location, mid-1950s. Photo: Ronald Ngilima, Ngilima Collection.

 

Fyvie Farm near Estcourt, 1930s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 

The absence of captions was quite a leap for Adams and Feyder. “We were both reluctant at first,” recalled Feyder, “but Oliver Barstow, the book’s designer, encouraged us to keep it simple. As scholars the idea of having no captions horrified us, but we were also aware that scholars write all sorts of things about the images they are working with while forgetting to really look at them. “

For the viewer a lack of captions forces direct engagement with the images. You also discover how captions, when and if you refer to them, exert power and add bias thus mediating and manipulating your response. For example, you find that a full-length portrait photograph of a teenage Temple Fyvie in the late 1900s was taken shortly before he died, thrown by a horse. Does that knowledge add or detract to the image? It certainly changes how you “read” it. On a more prosaic level you discover the cigarette held by the man in that very first photograph has an added dimension: he is opening the door of the Leonard Dingler tobacco factory.

The many and various images in Commonplace either stand alone or on facing pages, such as the coy “pin-ups” of white women posing on sandy holiday beaches juxtaposed with those of black women on beds in their township homes; black or white their poses echo those of models in the swim- or underwear advertisements of the day.

Individuals, adults and children, couples, groups. Family photographs. In Adams case the family is her own. “Yes, they are private family ‘snaps’– and I feel protective of them in that sense – but they also bear witness to a particular past. In both the book and the exhibition we wanted to keep that sense of conflict.”

Feyder acknowledges the shared aspects of the photographs drawn from the two collections but the similarities are serendipitous rather than schematic. “There are similarities,” said Feyder, “but we are not out to make some redemptive statement about our shared common humanity with the book. We are more interested in the grey areas.”

Commonplace

Book details

 

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