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.

Two photographs, and a poem

If I have been remiss lately in posting my photographs, here are two images from an ongoing series on rural Ontario, with the promise that there will be more to follow.

And just to mix things up, here is a teeny weeny poem from my Lost Poetry project.

Words and pictures, folks, words and pictures!

The Gift

Let me wake within your eyes
And sleep again in your safe arms,
Free from the terrors of surprise
Protected from all worldly harms:

I swear your love, with its strong powers,
Will raise a man so joyful, true,
He'll charm the desert into flowers
And give the sun and moon to you.

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.

Staying Home during the Lockdown – Day 10

It is Day 10 of the Covid-19 lockdown, here in South Africa, and autumn is in the air in Johannesburg. It has been an intense week of work, and the calm and quiet are strangely welcome. I say strangely, because the times are not normal, and we stay home not by choice but because we have to.

Outside, the reported number of Coronavirus cases has reached 1585, with nine deaths so far.

It would be nice to think that we are flattening the curve, but that seems optimistic. There have been projections, apparently, that cases may only peak in June, and that we could be in lockdown till August. Not something I wish to contemplate, not at this moment.

Last night I cooked up a storm, duck breasts with a spicy cherry sauce, made with dried cherries that our friends Lisa and Klaus brought us from Germany, in what seems right now another era. Fluffy and crisp baked potatoes, peas, and a lovely and perfectly matched Bouchard Finlayson Pinot Noir, a 2014, made for a perfect meal and a relaxing and happy evening.

We are very aware how lucky we are, and we are grateful.

Today I have found peace and fulfilment working on some images from our visits to the Marievale Bird Sanctuary, which I hope will give you at least some of the pleasure I have had in making them.

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.

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.

Mausoleums of the Sultans – Hagia Sofia, Istanbul

In the grounds of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul are the exquisite mausoleums of three Sultans – Mahmut I, Murat III and Selim II.

Here are three images, in black-and-white, that express something I hope of what I saw and felt.

A woman at prayer, a sleeping cat, a pair of shoes by an entrance.

Deliberately not the usual touristy images, I hope they evoke something of the sense of place, of time and timelessness, history and the sacred.

With a touch of humour, perhaps, provided by the cat.

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]

L’Eglise Romane St Martin at Plaisance

The 12th century L’Eglise Romane St Martin dominates not only the small village of Plaisance in Aveyron but the surrounding valleys. No matter from where you approach the village, it seems, there is the squat Norman tower atop its hillside, holding dominion.

We visited on a bright, sunny day – blue skies, green hillsides – but it was the brute, stark power of the building, the brooding severity of its Catholicism, the way the church and the church graveyard seemed to hold sway over both the dead and the living that captured my imagination and led to these photographs. In black and white, of course.

Click on images to enlarge.