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.

When is a rhino just a rhino?

Sometimes a rhino is just a rhino.

This big fellow, bringing up the rear of a group of white rhinos as they lumbered up a rutted track to the top of a ridge before disappearing down the other side, maintained a watchful eye as we jolted along in his wake, in the open LandCruiser, last week in the Madikwe Game Reserve. Every now and then he would turn, sending stones flying, and we would stop abruptly, the ranger assessing the risk of a charge. Then he would carry on browsing, and we would advance, until at last he was silhouetted against the sky, the photograph I had wanted.

He was all rhino, that fellow, and for perhaps twenty minutes, that was all we were conscious of – the morning wind in our faces, the smells of the bush, the early light casting its shadows, the armoured behemoth ranged against the sky above us, going ploddingly about his daily business.

Looking at these photographs now, my first thoughts are simply of that moment – how extraordinary it was, how lucky we felt to be in this presence, to experience this, to be there, in the bush, under a vast sky, waiting, listening, watching. It is a wonderful thing, to be freed from that human sense of urgency, of purpose, of things needing to be done, and simply to be there, to exist and to participate, knowing that the pace, the roll-out of events, what happens next, is out of your hands and dependent on the unpredictable whims of the large irritable animal blocking the path on the hill up ahead of you.

Back in my home office, though, this Sunday morning – how many of us have got used to working from home over the past interminable months of the Covid pandemic? – that rhino takes on other meanings, is suggestive of other possibilities and perspectives. Not least of which is the relief of seeing the rear-end of 2020. Including the rear-end of Trump, for that matter, a blight every bit as debilitating as the pandemic and with effects – social, political, environmental – every bit as malignant and possibly more long-lasting.

So what of the New Year? What of 2021?

One thing that we can be pretty sure of, it seems, is that 2021 will be much like the last year, the almost miraculous speed with which a Covid-19 vaccine has been developed notwithstanding.

It’s one thing to develop the vaccine, but it is another thing entirely, as we know, and will continue to learn in more painstakingly practical detail, to manufacture, store and distribute it. And still another thing to get people to take it, and to get those needles into the arms of those who do want to take it, and need to take it.

Like Rob and me, for instance.

Government here in South Africa, to put the matter delicately, says it has a plan, though how much of this plan is magical or wishful thinking is a matter of some public controversy. Rob and I can expect, or hope, to receive the vaccine in Phase Two of the rollout, apparently. This is the good news. When Phase Two is expected to begin, and how rapidly and smoothly the rollout will occur, is rather less certain.

In any event, we hope to be vaccinated before September, in other words, before we pack up our things here and return to Canada. Meanwhile, Covid-19 will continue to block the path to any easy or rapid return to what we, rather wistfully, think of as ‘normality.’

The thing is to survive, I guess, to stay calm and positive, and steadily plod forward. Live in the moment. Appreciate what we have. Develop a thicker skin towards life’s slings and arrows. Practice patience and resilience.

A bit like a rhino.

Stories on Stones

At a time like this, when half the world is on lockdown because of the pandemic, when civility and decency and the very foundations of democracy seem at risk in the face of racist populism and rabid know-nothingness, when the planes are grounded and we can barely venture out of our houses, when our ‘advanced’ societies are humbled by a virus, there is something to be learned from stories on stones.

The World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein, in Namibia, is a moonscape of waterless rock and stone, tones of orange and black against a blue relentless sky. The name – Twyfelfontein – means ‘fountain of doubt’ or ‘doubtful fountain,’ a reference to the spring that sometimes ran, and sometimes didn’t, somewhere near here. A name for our times, perhaps, and a reminder of our dependence on air, water – the simplest, yet irreplaceable things – for our very existence.

Yet people lived here, in this inhospitable landscape, somewhere between a thousand and two thousand years ago, people who possessed an art and culture, the traces of which are written in stone, in rock engravings, which are now a world treasure.

The engravings at Twyfelfontein offer a record of more than just a people, however. They offer a window on a natural environment, a world of mountains and grasslands that has long disappeared.

Look at the engravings, then look around, and think what has changed, what has been lost – how this barren terrain of sharp stones and rock once was home to elephant, giraffe, antelope, lion, rhino, hyena.

And think, that as this world has vanished, so too may our world, unless we face up to a challenge that is even more of a threat to us than the Covid-19 virus, the existential threat of climate change. A threat which – whether you are a head-in-the-sand climate change denier, or a believer in science and evidence – will take its course regardless of our opinions, just as the virus has, unless we take action.

But looking at these photographs also brings with it a simpler and more obvious message, a narrative of freedom and travel, and a reminder how travel shows us that our taken for granted worlds are not necessarily the worlds that everyone else lives in, and that the present is not the same as the past, nor is it the future.

More simply still, I look at these photographs, from our trip to Namibia in 2016, and I want to get out on the road again, big skies overhead, and the warm wind blowing.

Then I think of the heat – stunning, and the light – blinding – the hot climb stumbling over boulders, the views of the shimmering plains and the fortress-like mountains, the being intensely present in the moment, and I remember John Lennon’s saying that life is what happens when we are busy with other things, and I look down at the stones, and they tell me stories.

What to do in a lock-down?

What to do in a lock-down? This is a question to myself, you’ll be glad to hear, not another of those claims to instant expertise, sunny wisdom, righteous outrage or uniquely personal angst or fear that seem to be spreading around the globe with the speed and virulence of, well, a Coronavirus or a Donald Trump.

So nothing, then, about that squalid little misfit in the White House, nothing even about our so much more admirable and principled President Ramaphosa, no homilies about how to keep fit, or sane, or just plain human.

Just this.

We are in Day Three of our lock-down, here in Johannesburg. Keeping to ourselves, as we should. We are fortunate. We have our comfortable town-house, with its patio and garden and plunge pool and barbecue. The fridge and freezer are full. Rob has a studio where she can work on her collages, I have an upstairs office from where I can look out at the sky and some trees while I work, or while I video-conference on Zoom, or add a few lines to my novel – there is always a novel, in process, waiting patiently, without cynicism, to step outside, into the light of day. The novel has learned nothing, in more than forty years. It lives in hope. And there is a backlog of photographs waiting to be processed, to be selected and polished and posted on Flickr, a catalogue large enough to outlast this pestilence and any pestilences to come.

So we are, as I say, fortunate. We have kept in touch with family and friends, or they have kept in touch with us, via WhatsApp and FaceTime. As always there are jokes, there are inquiries about one another’s health, about how we are doing. We are doing fine, thank you. A-okay. Normal. Yet there is something in the air, isn’t there, an undercurrent of concern, that wasn’t there before. Like an odour or gas, as I wrote in my diary – yes, I have resumed my diary, too. There are unexpected benefits to being locked up at home.

It won’t be so easy for the people of Alex, for those who are unemployed, who live in the townships or in the poverty-stricken rural areas of South Africa; it won’t be so easy for the vast majority in this country who are unimaginably worse off than we are.

And it won’t be so easy for those on the front lines – the doctors and health-care workers, obviously, but also for the army and the police who are trying to keep the streets clear, the supermarket staff who need to get to work each day, the people who pick up the garbage or – for now at least, thank you Eskom – keep the lights on. Spare them a thought, and a prayer if you have one.

There is a strange sense of calm. Is this the phony war, you wonder, as you follow the news? The pretend-war before the real one arrives? And how bad will it be? Perhaps we will – all of us here in South Africa – get off quite lightly. And perhaps we won’t.

It is too early to tell. So back to our pastimes and interests we will go, to our photographs and collages, to catching up on films – we watched The Piano again, last night, and it still packs a wallop – and following the news while we try not to obsess.

Tomorrow is a work day. The work goes on.

Istanbul Archeological Museums

Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, is as we all know a modern yet ancient and historic city planted at the crossroads of East and West.

So it is not surprising, I guess, given its history and place, that the collection of antiquities held in the three institutions that make up Istanbul’s Archeological Museums is quite extraordinary – from tiled friezes that once graced the walls of Babylon, to ancient sculptures of such delicate humanity that what you see is not a general representation but the person himself, as in the figure below, which I kept coming back to.

This next, far more massive figure, from atop a column I imagine, though stylised and formal, still holds in the curve of the lips, the mouth, something human and identifiable – contrast, for example, with the flat and two-dimensional figures in the relief with chariot and horses, or the head of a man before that.

And lastly – look at the intense use of colour, in this frieze from Babylon – and look at that lion! Is that not the very ‘lion-ness’ of lions, in the ricture of his snarl, the bristling intensity of his pose!

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul

The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is an underground wonder, an engineering marvel, dating back to the 6th century.

Guidebook photographs show serried columns eerily surrounded by water, echoed in their watery reflections. The water had been drained, unfortunately, when we were there, for repairs, so some of the magic was missing, at least to my eyes, but the place was impressive, nonetheless, a kind of netherworld, the sort of place you imagine might be a crossing-point to the world beyond this one.

A solitary oarsman emerging out of the gloom, offering to transport you across.

A little girl and boy chatter away, oblivious to the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia

My post last week tried to show something of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – a glimpse, I hope, of more than just appearances – what does this look like? – but photographs that, perhaps, maybe, if I am lucky, encourage us to ask, what does this mean, what does it represent, what does it say to us?

In this black-and-white image, however, it is not the Hagia Sophia that speaks to us, it is a little girl and a boy, chattering happily away, not overawed at all, scarcely aware of the architecture, the monumental grandeur, the weight of religion and history even as, off to their left, a woman with her hair covered reads what might be a Koran or religious text.

It’s one of my favourite images of the Hagia Sophia, perhaps because it brings it all down to the human scale, the intimacy of the moment, reminds us that, without these children there, all this magnificence is just a heap of stone.

A little girl and boy chatter away in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Rosendal, Eastern Free State – Four Black-and-White Photographs

Rosendal, in the Eastern Free State, is a small village with big skies. Rob and I drove down on New Year’s Day, from Johannesburg, taking our lives in our hands over the last twenty or thirty kilometres of dangerously potholed roads, a legacy of Ace Magashule’s thieving and mendacious premiership of the province.

Then you arrive, and find your AirBnB, on the far edge of the village, with nothing before you but a garden gate, a dirt road, farmland and cattle, and dramatic cliffs rising up to the no-less dramatic storm clouds that gather each afternoon.

There is nothing to do but read, walk, braai, watch the cloudscapes and the birds, drop in at Benjamin’s for waffles, take a few photographs. That’s the whole point of going there – to do nothing.

So here are four black-and-white photographs, taken from Die Rooi Haan, where we stayed – the fruits of just the right kind of idleness, before the new year kicks in with its meetings and reports, its busy-ness and distraction.

Die Rooi Haan, by the way, is a place that Rob and I would absolutely recommend – perfectly situated, simply but beautifully furnished, with a large covered porch overlooking the farmlands and mountains.

As always, click on the images to enlarge. I hope that you like them.

William Kentridge at the Norval in Cape Town

William Kentridge, as you perhaps know, is one of South Africa’s foremost artists, and his spectacular exhibition of sculptures and artefacts at the no less spectacular Norval art museum in Cape Town is simply not to be missed.

These images, in black and white, are less about representation of Kentridge’s works than a form of play and engagement with them. I hope you enjoy. And if you do, go if you can to the Norval Museum and see the originals for yourself.

There is a sister exhibition of Kentridge’s work at the Zeitz-MOCAA at the V&A Waterfront that you might also want to check out.

[click on images to enlarge]

The River Rance at Plaisance

The River Rance flows in a wide, shallow loop around the village of Plaisance, as if the village were a head asleep in the crook of an arm. We went down to the river, one afternoon; the day had been hot and Tom and Gabriel were in in a flash.

Stones, fish, and deep tranquil pools kept them happy for what seemed like, and might have been, eternity.

Tom, being Tom, was fearless of course – impervious to the cold, up to his neck in the water, chortling, shouting, and thrashing about like a veritable water-baby.

I love these images – there is something about the golden light, the deep greens and browns, that call for colour. But the black-and-white (as always) offers something different – a more contemplative moment, possibly? These two pictures, by the way, also say something about the two little personalities – Tom, physical, exuberant, Gabriel quieter, more immersed in the moment.