South Africa’s veteran photographers make a comeback

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Cops, midgets, half-naked prostitutes and sailors fill the intriguing pictures that deceased bouncer-turned-photographer Billy Monk captured while embedded in Cape Town’s underbelly.

Monk’s black-and-white photographs are from a bygone era, a time when photography was still analogue instead of digital.

His collection is housed with the Photographic Archival and Preservation Association (Papa). The latter is a non-profit set-up run by former photographer Gavin Furlonger, who moved from London to South Africa in the 1970s.

Retired photographer Gavin Furlonger runs an archival agency set on reviving the work of South Africa’s veteran photographers. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Retired photographer Gavin Furlonger runs an archival agency set on reviving the work of South Africa’s veteran photographers. Picture Yazeed Kamaldien

Papa’s aim is to archive, digitise and bring back into the public eye the work of South African photographers that worked in various visual styles during the 1940s until the end of the 1990s.

The work of veteran photographers on Furlonger’s Gallery F walls, located on Shortmarket Street in central Cape Town, speak romantically, awkwardly and lyrically. It is a magical feast of cinematic Cape Town scenes frozen in time.

Some of the veterans – Monk, Ginger Odes and Anne Fischer – are dead. Others like Capetonians Rashid Lombard and George Hallett are still working in the visual world.

Photo by Ginger Odes

Photo by Ginger Odes

Hallett held a retrospective of his work at the Iziko National Gallery, in the Company’s Gardens, earlier this year. Lombard is founder of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, which showcases photographer’s documentation of musicians, their craft and their lives.

Furlonger turns to Monk’s work while talking about his gallery.

“We sold 24 Billy Monk photographs this month (October) when we opened the gallery,” he says.

“He was a bouncer and apparently by all records a bad bouncer. He then ended up taking photographs of people to make a bit of money. He wasn’t thinking, ‘Hey I’m going to make history’,” he says of Monk.

“He shows the underbelly of Cape Town when apartheid was at its peak. Where segregation was law and these people broke every barrier. Billy was one of these people. They didn’t have a problem with him taking these photos. They played to his camera.”

Photo by Rashid Lombard

Photo by Rashid Lombard

In the case of dead photographers, such as Monk, Furlonger works with living relatives to access negatives that are sometimes stored in boxes, hidden in cupboards or falling apart.

Furlonger recalls starting his journey of “collecting endangered photographers” 15 years ago. Gallery F was established recently as a space to show the work.

“It started with the simplest way that I could do, which was knowing photographers. They were the oldest photographers in town. I asked them what would happen with all their work when they died,” says Furlonger.

“I said, let me take some of this work of yours and look after it, archive it and preserve it if nothing else so that it does not get lost or destroyed. The immediate response was ‘Yes, okay’.”

Photo by Cloete Breytenbach

Photo by Cloete Breytenbach

“The first photographer I worked with was Ginger Odes who took photos for 60 years. When he died I worked with his widow. It was a daunting exercise. He had boxes and boxes and boxes of negatives.

“I looked at the negatives. I then employed a young lady who did low resolution scans of everything. I wanted to be sure that I had seen or explored the subject. I have 10,000 images of Ginger Odes. I’ve got at least 1,000 images that will blow your socks off.”

Another photographer whose work was saved from oblivion is Anne Fischer.

“She was famous for doing portraits and social occasions. She amassed a collection of work over 40 years. When she died her husband sold her two important collections to Iziko Museums,” says Furlonger.

“However, all the 40 years of her other works were all binned in about 2000 by her assistant who couldn’t cope with keeping all the material. There was a mass. And it was thrown away.

Photo by Obie Oberholzer

Photo by Obie Oberholzer

“I happened to pick up vintage prints off a phone call from one of the auctioneers who told me they have boxes of photography that they didn’t have a clue what to do with.

“I went and found the box and it held signed originals of her (Fischer’s) vintage prints. That was this year. Her stepchildren are still alive. We are curating the work on behalf of the family.”

Furlonger has 12 photographer’s work that he is presently focusing on. All the work is in black and white and depicts life in South Africa. Through Papa and his gallery – that will also show other artworks – he splits income with the photographers or their surviving relatives.

While there have been some sales, Furlonger says “these things take time”. For now, he is curating an archive of “craftsmanship”.

“This collection is about photographers who not only captured the moment but also who did so with style,” says Furlonger.

“They used to think carefully about each frame that they took. They already worked it out in their minds. It was a handwriting.”

Lombard says it is “important to start revisiting the work of veteran photographers”.

“There’s a big reflection on what Cape Town was like (in this work). This is also about the art of documentary photography. This is work that should be hanging in galleries and in people’s home,” says Lombard.

He adds: “There’s a lack of proper archiving in terms of having facilities, especially for photographers who still have negatives. It’s a huge cost to digitise those photos.

“At the end of the day it’s about budget. This takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time. It will work though because you could attach a commercial aspect to it to make it sustainable. The work can be published in books. There’s a huge demand for photographic books.”

Furlonger’s website www.papasa.co.za is set to launch shortly and will showcase the work of the photographers, as well as biographical information about them.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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