The earliest city photographs were done as an architectural student in the eighties, relentlessly documenting streets, shadows, buildings & the people who inhabited them. Johannesburg was the forerunner of a dramatic change in the history of democracy, as it annihilated its own monuments, it paved the way for a whole new population to occupy the inner city. As I climbed rooftops where servants & cleaners lived I became an unknowing witness to that transition, often taking a portrait of those who offered friendship or access, without necessarily making any political judgement. For this I thank my parents, who despite coming from a traditional rural background, and subject to all the right wing pressures of a “normal” working class South-African context, allowed me to challenge them constantly, to question why those rooms on the top of buildings were denied any view over the city, to quietly capture a paradigm shift without realising what I had witnessed – for this I love them dearly.
The images were quite rigid, done with old 2nd hand analogue medium format camera on budget roll film, printed with meticulous care but never perfect. In time, the use of old reject film & paper became more than just a way of affording to continue, it became a language of its own. The fogged & tinted paper reflected the toughness of the city I grew to love, like the smell of buses, walking down Kerk street to the Greek deli or L’Edicola, the Italian bookshop, or the beautiful faces of old Zulu security guards in front of steel mesh gates. In fact, when David Goldblatt, my greatest role model, eventually offered me a generous critique around 2010, he carefully scrutinized early black & white prints with his eyepiece, asking about the lack of sharpness & tonal imperfection, to my deep embarrassment. After 2 hours, as I was about to leave, I showed him the first large colour panoramics. He took out the eyepiece again as my heart was sinking, and said “why can’t your black & white prints look like this?”
Nevertheless this body of work represents a radical shift in the fabric of Johannesburg and indeed the whole country. I photographed the 1st nocturnal images of Jeppe station in 1985 after police confiscated my film during the day, as it was verging on an act of “terrorism”. The same 3 policemen who took my film laughed at me from their van for trying to photograph in the dark. The same happened at Kerkplein in Pretoria & other public spaces. But I learnt an enormous amount about photons & light, silver bromide crystals & exposure readings with a hand held light meter, long nights with the smell of chemicals in the darkroom – the painstaking process which marked the simultaneous transition from analogue to digital, a privileged place to work & a privileged time to live.