Together in the Picture

John Peffer scans the photographic styles that image a black South African self outside the Apartheid frames of negation, negativity and separation.


Senyane Boshielo holding her wedding portrait, produced by Alpheus Gwangwa studio in Alexandra during 1970s. Family collection, Limpopo.

Senyane Boshielo holding her wedding portrait, produced by Alpheus Gwangwa studio
in Alexandra during 1970s. Family collection, Limpopo.


The story is well known.

As Apartheid was gradually imposed in South Africa during the 1950s, urban black families were forcibly removed from mixed-group neighbourhoods to locations far from the city centres. From 1952 to 1986, all black South Africans were forced to carry passbooks (dompas) that included a photograph and stated their official identity according to ethnicity, as a means for racial policing and labour control. What is rarely spoken of is how, as black families were being uprooted, other forms of self-imaging such as studio portraits and snapshots were becoming increasingly common in their homes. During Apartheid, a novel kind of portrait, combining airbrushed enlargements of passbook-type or snapshot images with painted-on suits and sky-blue backgrounds, was particularly fashionable.

When photography first became widespread in the 1840s, the images gave a detailed likeness but lacked colour. In portraiture particularly, pigments were often applied to give a more life-like appearance or to create a more precious commemorative object. The airbrush technique, which replaced earlier hand-painted approaches, had been developed in the US in the late 19th century and quickly spread to other countries. In South Africa, painted-on portraits were popular in white and middle-class parlours around the turn of the century, but as black families moved in greater numbers to the cities, they also began to acquire objects like these, which signified access to cosmopolitanism, and thus the market shifted to serve this wider clientele. The popularity of these types of pictures in black communities closely coincided with the era of racial segregation, labour migrancy, and forced relocation. Airbrushed portraits were made as late as the 1990s in South Africa. Then the advent of digital cameras and Photoshop altered the former roles of the photographic studios.

The following is an excerpt from the Chronic, a pan-African quarterly print gazette published by Chimurenga.


The full article, Together in the Picture, is part of the of 48-page newspaper and 40-page stand-alone books review magazine featuring writing, art and photography inflected by the workings of innovation, creativity and resistance.

The Chronic, the inaugural issue by Chimurenga.
Stories range from investigations into the business of moving corpses to the rhetoric of land theft and loss; from latent tensions between Africa’s most powerful nations to the soft power of the biggest satellite television provider; and from the unspoken history of Rushdie’s “word crimes” to the unwritten history of PAGAD. It also investigates crime writing in Nigeria, Kenya and India, takes score of the media’s muted response to the ‘artistry’ of the World’s No1 Test batsman, rocks to the new sound of Zambia’s Copper Belt and tells the story on one man’s mission to take down colonialisms monumental history.

Contributors include | Jean-Pierre Bekolo, Binyanvanga Wainaina, Dominique Malaquais, Mahmood Mamdani, Andile Mngxitama, Gwen Ansell, Patrice Nganang, Achal Prabhala, Rustum Kostain, Karen Press, Niq Mhlongo, Paula Akugizibwe, Tolu Ogunlesi, Sean Jacobs, Harmony Holiday, Howard French, Billy Kahora.


Find a stockist near you, or order it directly from the Chronic online shop.


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