Stories about pictures

If you have been following along on Facebook on our 3700km road trip through the small towns of the Karoo, the Western Cape and all the way back to Johannesburg, you will have been following a story written partly in pictures – pictures taken, not for the photography but for the story, and on an iPhone rather than a camera.

This is a departure for me – I have tended to disregard the iPhone’s picture-taking ability, in part because my photographic interests lie elsewhere, and in part because I have never really taken the iPhone seriously as a photographic instrument.

My wife, on the other hand, takes exactly the opposite approach – she uses her iPhone almost all of the time, to capture the everyday moments of our lives, and only hauls out one of the large and clunky cameras I have lent her when there is a specific subject to be addressed. You can’t really take wildlife pictures on a phone, but you can take great pictures on a Nikon DSLR with a telephoto lens.

So, as I was saying, I used the phone a lot, on this trip, to capture the kinds of everyday images that could illustrate our travels, and – this is important – that could be uploaded easily to Facebook or Instagram, without complicated processing or file transfers. And I have to say it was liberating, and also quite satisfying: not only was the phone easy to use, and convenient but, with the controls afforded by the Halide camera app, it was capable of producing quite effective images, too.

All of this meant that I was free to snap away with the minimum of fuss; and free, too, to use the Nikon in a more considered and selective way, for only those images that I could see in my mind’s eye not as snaps or selfies but real ‘photographs’.

So, in future when we travel, I will use both of these tools, the phone and the camera, for the purposes they are best suited to and, in the process, I hope, will find a new kind of creative flexibility and freedom.

What then of the photographs?

The NG Kerk in Graaff Reinet

If you have been following, as I said, the story on Facebook, you will have seen the first of these more ‘serious’ images is the series of NG Kerk images I have been posting. And, of course, there is a story behind this choice of subject – not very complicated, but a story nonetheless – one I will return to.

To mix things up a bit, though, and to keep things interesting, I thought I would start this blog post, and those that will follow, with a set of images that I haven’t yet posted on Facebook, and rather than using the photographs to tell the story of our travels, tell the story of the photographs instead.

I will start in McGregor, a little Karoo town in the Western Cape, where we spent a couple of days on our way down south. The town itself is quite charming, set against the mountains in the dry Karoo, a harsh and arid landscape that manages somehow to support vineyards as well as sheep and goats. Like the rest of South Africa, it is also a place where poverty and inequality are starkly evident, but kept on the margins of what is still a mostly white, affluent village.

It would have been easy to focus, in these photographs, on the prettier, cottagey, quaint blah blah side of McGregor but what I wanted, even though time was limited, and we were on holiday, was to capture something else: a sense of the ruggedness and isolation of the area, for one thing; a recognition of the poverty and hardship that the area’s coloured population experiences; and something too about the almost abstract, spiritual purity of the place – the vast blue skies, the open spaces, the simple geometry and the forms of things.

Karoo Homestead, near McGregor

The image above, for instance, captures to my mind the almost lunar planes of the surrounding mountains, as well as the isolation of that small white homestead. Look, too, at the telephone pole and telephone line at the bottom of the picture – a symbol of connection, perhaps, a link to civilisation, but also, perhaps, a crucifix.

The next image, of workers’ cottages high on a mountain pass above the village, captures the same harsh landscape, the same isolation: but the cottages, with the laundry drying on the line, are not simply markers of poverty or isolation, they are people’s homes, lived in, occupied – remote but human.

Workers’ Cottages, near McGregor

The choice of black and white in these images was deliberate, of course: but in these next few images colour seemed the more appropriate medium for what I wanted to express – even though, in formal terms, each of these images would work well in black and white also.

First, ‘The People’s Choice,’ a shop on the margins of the town serving mostly the coloured community. I took several photographs of this, from different angles, taken by the bold advertisements, the splash of colour. In a couple of the images, I caught a man sauntering across the street and into the shop; in others, there was a glimpse of the poor streets behind. But in the end, it was this plain, frontal shot, with the man in the doorway and the bicycle propped against the wall, that seemed to me to make the most effective statement.

The People’s Choice

I mentioned earlier the – alongside the harshness, the isolation, the poverty of the coloured community – almost abstract sense of purity, simplicity, that you feel in this place; and these two images, I hope, abstract, detached from their wider context, say something about this.

Join me next time, for the next in this series of stories about photographs.

Let me know what you think - comments and feedback are always welcome!

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