‘Sometimes photographs annihilate memory’ from Double Negative

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A lunch-hour, Pretoria Street, Hilbrow, 1966. (Courtesy The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust and Goodman Gallery.)
A lunch-hour, Pretoria Street, Hilbrow, 1966. (Courtesy The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust and Goodman Gallery.)

Published in 2011,  Ivan Vladislavic's novel Double Negative follows a young man who after establishing his career overseas comes back to South Africa to find a changed Johannesburg. Through his relationship with a seasoned photorapher, the young man's perspective on democratised South Africa widens into questions about perceiving and being perceived. 

Considering the documentation of a country attempting to transition from white supremist rule, Vladislavic brings the difficulty of depicting South Africa to the fore. 

Below is an excerpt from the book. 

Sometimes photographs annihilate memory; they swallow the available light and cast everything around them into shadow. Two of Saul Auerbach’s images were like shutters on my mind: Veronica in the yard in Emerald Street, Mrs Ditton in her lounge in Fourth Avenue. Dense with my own experience, but held there in suspension, in chemically altered form. If I could seize them for myself, my time and place would spurt like juice between my fingers. But how to reach through the frame?The house next door was another matter. Over the years, with nothing in the world to measure it against, it had crumbled away in the folds of my brain, leaving a residue as evocative as the smell of my father’s aftershave. It had the appeal of an incomplete gesture, always on the tip of my memory, just about to come back to me.

Living in Johannesburg again, I thought about the house next door more often. I was afraid to tamper with the memory – it was like a fragile manuscript it would be better not to touch – but eventually I went down into Bez Valley. Auerbach territory: on every side, there were street corners and houses he had photographed, or might have, or would yet. He was around here somewhere, I knew, still doing his thing.

Mrs Ditton’s house had disappeared behind a wall, an assortment of pillars, plaster and glass brick lumped together like a display of building materials. Given room to breathe, this wall might have suited a mansion, one of those elaborate new follies on the edge of the city; crammed into such a narrow space it could only look grandiose. It was all nouns. Through the tracery of a precast concrete rose, I saw Spanish bars on the windows, a prison gate on the front door.

Slegs Blankes. Europeans Only. Bus stop, Derby Roa
Slegs Blankes. Europeans Only. Bus stop, Derby Road, Lorentzville, December 1973. (Courtesy The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust and Goodman Gallery.)

The house next door – my house, the one I had chosen from the vast range of possibilities but could not enter – neither surprised nor disappointed. The instant I laid eyes on it, the faint traces in my memory were absorbed into its simple reality. The defensive touches were new: a doodle of barbed wire along the fence and armed response signs on the gateposts. Against the faded yellow plaster, the signs with their heraldic shields and pennants were as bright as stained glass. Rampant lions with flashy claws directed burglars towards Mrs Ditton’s. The plastic numbers attached to the wall were spaced too widely, so that the place appeared to be counting under its breath.

As if the blinds of Auerbach’s vision had fallen away, the day came back to me in a flash. I sat in the car, twisting the threads of my life in my fingers, while a young version of myself, a long-haired boy with a pipe between his teeth and his fists in his pockets, came and went on the pavement. My camera was in the boot, but I could not use it. A photographer! Sometimes the idea still made me quail. How on earth? When an acorn rebounded off the windscreen I took it as a sign that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and drove home to Killarney.

I arrived in London with no idea how to make a living. At least I had a roof over my head, half of a flat for which my father had paid three months’ rent in advance. As unhappy as he was to see me leave the country, he’d done everything he could to help. My flatmate Richard was the son of one of his business connections.

Richard was an actor. The two of us worked together for a while in a restaurant near Covent Garden where the menu changed with the nationality of the chef. The word ‘yuppie’ had just been coined to describe our clientele: young people with money to spend on the finer things and no way of knowing what they were. Being a waiter was not for me. I would have been happier washing dishes if it wasn’t for the tips. Orwell was right: restaurants bring out the worst in people. These days, we don’t expect to be waited upon much, we’re used to packing our own groceries and doing our own banking, but even then opportunities to be served were becoming rare. In restaurants, overpriced ones especially, people were flattered to think they had servants. Waiting on the lords and ladies of the realm knocked the last bit of working-class stuffing out of me.

Before I could give the manager a reason to fire the pair of us, Richard found me another job. One evening he asked, ‘Can you drive?’

‘Sure. But I’m not licensed for over here.’

‘Probably won’t matter. Can you use a camera?’

You did not need a licence for that. I went to work for John Hollier, a schoolfriend of Richard’s who had a small production company. He talked up their documentaries for Channel 4, the hot new broadcaster, but their bread and butter was in advertising.

Abraham Thipe's brick, Bree Street, 16 August, 199
Abraham Thipe's brick, Bree Street, 16 August, 1990. (Courtesy The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust and Goodman Gallery.)

I was not qualified to be a location scout – I could hardly find my way to the office in Soho without a map – but it mattered less than I expected. My boss was an old hand called Alice and she did the research and made the appointments. Her briefings were peculiarly precise: she showed me pictures in back issues of the Woman’s Weekly. Stuff the script. Then she would give me names and addresses, stick a business card between two pages of the A to Z and point me towards the tube station.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d used a camera. ‘But it’s the simplest thing in the world,’ Richard said. ‘You just look through the window and press the button. Make sure the client gets a sense of the place, the size of the room, the light from a window, some architectural detail they’re keen on. Click and it’s done. Send it off to be processed.’

It sounded easier than waiting on tables or painting road markings, but I was resistant. I kept thinking about my father’s arrangement with Saul Auerbach and it made me feel like a well-behaved child.

The new South Africa was a bewildering place. For a while, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. The parenthetical age had dawned, the years of qualification and revision, when the old versions of things trailed behind the new ones in brackets, fading identities and spent meanings, dogging the footsteps of the present like poor relations. Sometimes the ghosts went ahead suddenly, as if the sun had reeled to the wrong horizon in a moment and left you following your own shadow down the street.

I remember shooting stills on one of those rainbow nation commercials where a cheerful circle of friends, representing all the major population groups, gathered around the braai to drink beer and braai chops (but not yet to hold hands). These nation-building epics brought a lump to my throat, even if the easy companionship among the cast did not extend to the crew. When I left the studio and went back into the street, the present felt like the past.

Shacks in Diepsloot, a township of informal and fo
Shacks in Diepsloot, a township of informal and formal housing north of the city, established in 1995 as a 'temporary'measure for people removed from other townships. It is now home - whether 'temporary' or otherwise is unclear - to about 150 000 people. 15 August 2009. (Courtesy The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust and Goodman Gallery.)

I also remember the first time I heard Penny Levine’s northern suburbs drawl in the mouth of a cashier at Pick n Pay. A black kugel! She must have been to a Model C school (Sabine had told me all about it). I kept her talking. The papers were full of snide letters about the black voices we were beginning to hear on radio and television, and here was a girl whose accent could not be colour-coded. She struck me as a time traveller, someone who had gone into the future to show what was possible. The future is a foreign country too.

And then there were moments when the old South Africa reared its battered head. On a magazine shoot one day, I came face to face with the Great White Hope.

When Kallie Knoetze fought Denton Ruddock at Loftus Versveld in 1978, my father and I were in the crowd. Boxing was not my dad’s thing, but some big wall-to-wall buyer had given him the tickets and he felt he should go. That night Knoetze extended a winning streak by knocking the Englishman out in the third. I never thought I would see the man again, but here he was, up close, head to head with a Datsun bakkie in a scrapyard in Benrose.

The set-up was simple. Bakkie with crumpled bonnet facing right, boxer with broken nose facing left, boxer poking out a glove – hooks, uppercuts, let him try them all and we’ll see what works – as if he’s just stopped the bakkie in its tracks. The client was a body shop. When your car takes a beating, let us knock it back into shape. Knoetze himself had been panel-beaten by an amateur. It was fifteen years since he’d been in the ring, but when he made a fist he still looked like a fighter.

The shoot was sticky. I asked him what his best punch was and he said it was the knockout. But once I’d soft-soaped him a bit – mentioning the bout at Loftus did the trick – he relaxed and started performing for the camera. The photo is in my portfolio somewhere. A high point. 

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