His earliest ambition was to be a photographer, emulating Henri Cartier-Bresson. Turning to prose in his late twenties, he retained a sense of photography’s “power over the human heart”. As he wrote to Wittenberg, a literary scholar, he wanted to be “present at the moment when truth revealed itself, a moment which one half discovered but also half created”. Photography was a “manly activity” in contrast to poetry or piano — his other pursuits. The show reveals his early creativity in a medium that marked his fiction (the protagonist of the 2005 novel Slow Man is a photographer), while illuminating the world of Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life. That first volume of fictionalised autobiography was written 20 years ago, without the aide-memoire of this trove.
The negatives came to light in 2014 among stored darkroom equipment when Coetzee sold an apartment he had rented out since emigrating to Australia in 2002. After the decaying contents of two canisters were restored, the author composed laconic yet revealing captions. On a quartet of self-portraits: “Who is this person? First steps toward surprising and uncovering his soul.”
Receiving the Nobel in 2003, Coetzee said: “For whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel Prizes if not for our mothers?” Here is Vera asleep, or surprised behind a door. She holds their dog Tuppy outside the bungalow in Plumstead, a lower-middle-class area of the snobbily stratified suburbs, where a fall in status meant a literal move downhill towards Cape Flats. After his father lost his civil service job when the “Nats” took power, and later failures as an attorney led to debt, Vera returned to teaching and took in lodgers. In a rare shot of Zac Coetzee, the former second world war anti-aircraft gunner shrinks before a finger-wagging aunt: “Undependable, errant, wayward: words that my mother’s side of the family attached to my father.”
Coetzee’s first mail-order camera, “advertised as the sort that spies used”, has spawned a spread of surreptitious spy snaps taken at St Joseph’s Marist College in Rondebosch, where he was the “driving force behind the photographic club”. He was not Roman Catholic, but — despite top marks — had failed to get into posher schools. The grounds below Devil’s Peak (still in use) are the setting for rugby and cricket matches. Clowning with a master’s cane is his friend Nick Stathakis: “My friends mainly Jews and Greeks, hardly ever Anglos. Why, I wonder?” Among shots of Brothers in cassocks — some obscuring the camera in protest — and classmates in striped blazers, is an unknown black man in profile leaning against a pillar.
After acquiring the Wega pictured at the start of the exhibition — a cheap Italian copy of the Leica — and creating a darkroom at home, Coetzee retained a taste for spontaneity and detachment. Within financial constraints (“I had to ration my shots”), he experimented with light and shutter speeds, with a passing train or Nick conjuring sparks between live wires. Coetzee’s put-upon younger brother David is made to leap off ladders to capture motion and flight.
Quotations highlight links with Boyhood. The German bookshelves from great-aunt Annie’s storeroom face a print of his own classics such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The few landscapes are of his beloved “shimmering Karoo”, where they spoke a “happy, slapdash mixture of English and Afrikaans”. Voëlfontein (“Bird Fountain”), the family farm, yields marvellous shots of farm hands dancing on New Year’s eve, or hunting. The unexpected intimacy of these images appears to flout the spirit of rules that came to my mind from Boyhood: “He does not like it when he passes Lientjie [a “Coloured” maid] in the passage and she has to pretend she is invisible and he has to pretend she is not there.” Or, after one of his father’s creditors comes to tea: the custom was that “after a person of colour had drunk from a cup the cup must be smashed”. On that occasion, “his mother simply washes the cup with bleach.”
In a 1990s review of a collection of 19th-century photographs of South Africa, A Vision of the Past, Coetzee warned against abstracting “social history that embraces the ordinary man” from larger history. What is outside the frame sharpens an appreciation of these images. Cape Town in the 1950s was a test case for racial segregation amid pass raids and forced removals — resisted by the Defiance Campaign. The District Six Museum (a central area purged under the Group Areas Act) quotes Phyllis Fuku recalling the Pass Laws’ impact on domestic workers in the Southern Suburbs: “It was a terrible time of our lives. You walked in the street. You were scared. You’ve got to have this thing [a pass] in your pocket otherwise they take you.” Or as Coetzee noted in Boyhood, “the Natives… arrive from nowhere and can be made to disappear into nowhere.” In the teeth of this erasure, for the teenager to use his rationed film on black subjects is an insight into the artist he would become.
Among the most poignant and enigmatic of these astonishing images rescued from oblivion is a sequence with Ros and Freek, Karoo farm hands to whom Coetzee was “kleinbaas” (little master). Freek, he had written, was “gentle and soft-spoken”, rode a bike and played guitar (“he would hero-worship Freek if it were permitted”). He photographed the men on Strandfontein beach, in jackets and hats, on a rare excursion with the family. “Their first ever sight of the sea,” Coetzee writes now. “What they thought of it I will never know.”
‘Photographs from Boyhood’, Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, to January 20. irmastern.co.za