Commonplace is an extraordinary collaboration between Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder that presents private images from two different family photo collections. These collections give the reader an intimate view on the everyday life of two South African families.
BK: Tamsyn and Sophie, Commonplace began as two separate research projects for which both of you were working/researching private photographs. The postscript of the book states that you were working together on an exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop Gallery (Sidetracks: Working with Two Photographic Collections). You are both from different places and backgrounds, can you elaborate a bit more on how the two of you met and how you decided to join forces to work on this project?
SF: My background is pretty mixed: I am Luxembourgish, have Latin American roots and as a young child grew up in the States. I started doing research on South African photography at the African Studies CentreAfrican Studies Centre at Leiden University in 2008. I then went to do my PhD as part of a larger research project with two other researchers. We all had in common the fact that we focused on private collections of photographs from South Africa. And Tamsyn was part of this project.
TA: I was born in Zimbabwe, and grew up in South Africa, before moving to London in 1999, where I was living when I joined the PhD research project at Leiden University. I first met Sophie with another colleague, Christoph Rippe, in 2010 when they came to meet me at Schiphol Airport. Since then, Sophie and I have worked on several visual projects together, linked to our research.
BK: In Commonplace you more or less juxtapose photos from two very different collections. One is the Drummond-Fyvie Collection that belongs to a white, English-speaking farming family from Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, covering 150 years of the family’s history. The other, The Ngilima collection is the combined work of Ronald Ngilima and his son Thorence who photographed life in the African, colored and Indian neighborhoods around Benoni, east of Johannesburg, in the 1950s. Did you both separately working with one of these collections and how did you decide that these collections could and should be brought together?
SF: My PhD focused on the Ngilima collection, while Tam was working on her own family’s extraordinary photo collection. Our joint research project included a budget to organise a conference and an accompanying exhibition. Our workshop “Beyond the Iconic Image” held at Wits university in June 2013, explored this idea that private collection of photographs can also be historically meaningful, even when they do not explicitly relate to the struggle against apartheid. When we started working on the exhibition, we quickly realised it was far more exciting to think of curating this exhibition as a joint project, rather than simply showcasing both collections separately. It was fascinating for us to see how photographic practices evolved differently within these two communities, while the technology itself is more or less the same. Just to give one example, there are no landscapes in the Ngilima collection, while photos of landscapes (and cows) abound in the Fyvie-Drummond collection. Why is that? Kodak had understood that very early on and had different advertising for its rolls of film depending on whether it was for Drum Magazine or for Farmers’ Weekly. But then the similarities in terms of poses on the other hand were at times incredibly striking.
TA: I’ve worked with the Drummond-Fyvie collection at different points over the years (first as part of my Fine Art degree in Durban, and later as part of my MA at Goldsmiths College in London), but this was the first time I approached it explicitly in relation to other photographic collections. Beyond the fact that the Ngilima and Drummond-Fyvie collections are both based in South Africa and family-owned, they are in many ways very different—in terms of their subject matter; their location (not only their physical location, but also their relation to urban and rural contexts); the period they cover (the Ngilima collection captures a relatively brief period of around 15 years, while the Drummond-Fyvie collection covers decades); the intentions underlying each collection (the Ngilimas used photography as a form of income, the Drummonds and Fyvies used it to document their families and farm); the circumstances in which the collections were embedded (the pending forced removals that threatened the subjects shown in the Ngilima collection are a far cry from the stability of the Drummond and Fyvie families); and the material characteristics of each collection (the Ngilima collection consists almost entirely of negatives, while the Drummond-Fyvie collection includes a range of photographic material). Commonplace drew heavily on our experience of working together for the Sidetracks exhibition, where it quickly became apparent that focusing on these different collections in isolation would result in two parallel exhibitions, with few intersections. The idea of drawing out the connections between them came out of our discussion with Molemo Moiloa (from the Market Photo Workshop) and Thenji Nkosi (who was working with us on the curation), and suggested a way of integrating these two distinct parts. But I think even we were surprised how many similarities emerged once we started looking for them.
BK: (long question): It seems the exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop Gallery hinted at South Africa’s history of inequality. The Drummond-Fyvie Collection consists of private photos from a white family, and the Ngilima photographs were made by black photographers Ronald and Thorence Ngilima. The fact that the extended duration of the Drummond-Fyvie collection suggested permanence through a settled existence on a farm that passed from one generation to the next, contrasts much with the Ngilima collection. The Ngilima collection conveyed the uncertainty and flux experienced by South Africa’s black population, ultimately culminating in the forced removals of the 1960s.
Commonplace on the other hand seems to focus on the more quiet, non-sensational stories taking place at the margins of the ‘struggle narrative.’ At the same time the photos in a very implicit way seem to tell about the experiences of living in South Africa under segregation and apartheid.
I find this very interesting for several reasons, but most of all since it reminds me of the way David Goldblatt worked on, for instance, In Boksburg in which he took a very different path than his contemporary fellow-photographers who focused on the struggle and made the ‘iconic’ images many seem to know from South Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s. Did the fact that David Goldblatt is the founder of the Market Photo Workshop contribute to this ‘non-sensational’ and more subtle approach?
SF: Our involvement with the Market Photo Workshop came from my friendship with Molemo Moiloa, who was then in charge of their exhibition space. Of course, the school’s educational project, which remains greatly influenced by Goldblatt, was such that the MPW was keen to host this exhibition as a way of getting students to work on the theme of archives and vernacular photography. But I think our “non-sensational” approach mainly stemmed from the material itself. Allocating value to these humble images meant allocating value to a different kind of history, a history of everyday life, which is what we were interested in exploring in our own research. Theoretically, I was influenced by Njabulani Ndebele’s seminal essay “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary” and by Jacob Dlamini’s autobiography Native Nostalgia. Davild Goldblatt’s determination to shy away from the obvious, the dramatic, definitely fits into this. But I think his influence on me was perhaps more on a personal level. Goldblatt was basically the reason why I wanted to come to Johannesburg to begin with, back in 2008. I just wanted a reason to meet him…
TA: Goldblatt’s photographs made a strong impression on me when I first encountered them, and I think his focus on ‘non-sensational’ subjects maybe reinforced our belief that the quieter images of the Ngilima and Drummond-Fyvie collections also had something to offer to an understanding of moments of South Africa’s history. But as Sophie suggests, our approach was perhaps more dictated by the actual collections and, in particular, the areas of overlap between them. Your highlighting of the difference between the exhibition and book is a very relevant one, very much affected by the different formats in which they appeared. The gallery space allowed us to work with a far greater volume of images, to include other items (e.g., maps, official documentation) providing contextual information, and to connect and juxtapose multiple photographs—both through groupings on each wall, and the use of literal tape-drawn lines between photographs on different walls. Although we initially considered ways of carrying this through into the book, Oliver Barstow and Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (from Fourthwall Books) encouraged us to think of the book as something new. In the end, the facing pages of the book format provided a quieter space of encounter between the different images, a shift that was also behind the change in name. As the book took shape, it became clear that Sidetracks (with its emphasis on diversion, inter-connection, and the metaphor of the train-line which was central to the exhibition, but not the book) no longer reflected what we were trying to do. We took the book title from a piece written by Betony Adams, which drew attention to both the commonplace subjects of many of the images, and the idea of bringing them together in a common place.
BK: It looks like by juxtaposing these photos from different collections and made in different eras, you don’t follow a purely historical, chronological documentary approach. The book covers almost 150 years of family history. It is, for instance, unlikely that the people portrayed in the different collections ever met. Nevertheless, some kind of a dialogue evolves. Can you tell something about the edit and the intended effect?
TA: Here, too, the book was affected by our work on the exhibition, which provided a first round of editing. In trying to find a way of working with the two collections together, Sophie and I started by exchanging emails about the photographs, trying to establish some possible points of connection (Sophie was in Brussels; I was in South Africa). At that point, Thenji suggested stepping away from a written dialogue, and focusing on the actual photographs instead. This resulted in a series of photo-mind-maps put together in Photoshop, in which we responded to each other’s suggestions with new images and associations of our own. Through this process, we agreed on about 600 photographs which spoke to each other in some way. When it came to working on the book, we had to further edit the exhibition selection to fewer than 200 photographs. Here, there was much more emphasis on sequences, and especially on the pairing of images—most often (although not always) between Ngilima and Drummond-Fyvie photographs. We tried out many different combinations. Some worked, with the images amplifying or playing off each other in sometimes unexpected ways. Others didn’t—often those in which we tried to force a more conscious connection or juxtaposition. I think this editing process gave rise to a dialogue that emerges out of the images themselves. Often, for instance, formal similarities (composition, subject matter or motifs) work both to emphasise connections (for instance, shared aspirations), and to highlight different circumstances. One of the things we didn’t want to do in this project was to smooth out the particularities and complexities underlying these two collections, but to keep open this space for different engagements.
BK: How did the owners of the collections react to you plans to mingle both collections and create a new fictional dialogue?
SF: Farrell Ngilima, the present caretaker of the collection, was I believe quite happy to see his grandfather’s and uncle’s images published for the first time in an art book. He has went to art school in the late 1990s; his particular visual sensitivity led him to rescuing these negatives, when stumbled across them at his grandmother’s place in 1999. He always thought the collection would make a great starting point for art projects. We’re now presently working on multiplying such projects within the space of the township itself. I’m not sure about the rest of the family… I haven’t been back to SA since the book came out, unfortunately.
TA: I’ve had very positive responses from my family, although the book wasn’t always what they were expecting (I think they had imagined an illustrated genealogy). Combining the two collections definitely affects the personal and familial nature of the photographs, by placing them in a broader political context.
BK: In my opinion, your approach is very interesting and I think by bringing the collections together it brings more layers to both collections. That said, the book is complicated and I can imagine many people, especially from outside South Africa, will find it hard to comprehend this project. How did the audience respond to the book? Was it any different than the reaction to the exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop? And do you see differences in response in ‘Africa’ and other places? If so, do you have an idea why?
SF: When writing up our chapters of our dissertations, we realized that there is a risk of no longer “seeing” the photographs when engaging with them in such a theoretical, academic sort of way. Hence we were keen on making a book where the images had primacy over text for a change. We really wanted to make a book about looking, close looking. Juxtaposing photos prompts readers to look for connections between the images in order to make sense of them, which will hopefully stimulate closer scrutiny.
Sidetracks also had little text but we used other curatorial techniques (for instance presenting images in clusters, establishing visual connections between photos with white lines running through the space) to make certain points clear. It’s harder with a book, where you are limited to a face-to-face between two pages and where you need to think in terms of sequence.
I think you’re right, the exhibition is more accessible than the book. Yet when trying to find an institution or a gallery for this exhibition in the Netherlands, I was already told that our exhibition was “too specialised”, and that it needed to be adapted to a European audience. On the other hand, some of people who’ve bought the book from me here in Europe seem to perceive some kind of universal message (“people are people across the racial divide” kind of thing), which was not our message at all. Why art books resonate with some people and not others is quite arbitrary, I’m not sure nationality comes into play. Of course, South Africans will be more familiar with this material and probably grasp what is at stake more quickly than someone who didn’t grow up with a South African visual culture.
TA: The feedback I’ve had has been mostly limited to South Africa, with the exception of a few meetings Sophie and I had together in the Netherlands soon after the exhibition, and while we were still working on the book. Based on this very limited experience, there did seem to be more of an openness to what we were trying to do in South Africa when it came to approaching galleries and publishers. On an individual level I think, as Sophie says, the responses are often quite personal and varied.
BK: Commonplace was published by Fourthwall Books, a publisher known for publishing ‘visual books that are, in their own words, ‘provocative, experimental, well designed and interesting to read.’ How did the cooperation with this publisher go and what was their contribution to the book?
SF: For instance, it was Fourthwall who pushed for not having any captions nor page numbers, and generally very little text. As a historian, the idea of not having captions is pretty horrifying. We eventually found a compromise with the thumbnail system and the short essay placed at the back of the book.
TA: Fourthwall approached us after the exhibition with the idea of making a book, so they were central to its inception. Conceptually, they nudged us to consider the book as something quite different from the exhibition—our early ideas followed the exhibition format much more closely. We also benefitted greatly from their expertise when it came to questions of production, in making an object that is beautiful to hold and look through.
BK: I always ask photographers and artists the following question. Since our blog is about the changing visual representation of Africa as expressed through the medium of the photobook I wonder if there is a book, or more, that you really admire and should be included to the website (according to you)? Please explain why?
SF: For me it would be Revue Noir’s Anthology of African Photography from 1998 and Santu Mofokeng’s Black Album: Look at me. That seminal anthology was the first publication to shed light on the fact that there were African photographers already running studios as early as the 1860s. Africans took on the task of representing themselves quite early on, which is the main message of Santu’s book. That project (it started as a research project, then became an art installation before becoming a book) was definitely key to changing the narrative on South African photography— challenging the idea that there were no black photographers prior to the photojournalists of Drum magazine (1950s).
TA: It’s difficult to choose, but two books I keep coming back to are David Goldblatt’s In Boksburg (which you mention above) and Santu Mofokeng’s monograph Chasing Shadows, for the sense of strangeness that they bring to quite ‘ordinary’ scenes.