Witness: 52 Years Of Pointing Lenses At Life And Voices From The Land

by Matt Damsker


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"Witness" with photos by Jurgen Schadeberg. 2004; 141pages; 120 plates. ISBN No. 1-86919-067X.

"Voices from the Land" with photos by Jurgen Schadeberg. 2005. 165 pages; 155 plates. ISBN No. 1-86919-105-6.

Both volumes published by Protea Book House, PO Box 35100, Menlo Park, 0102, Pretoria, South Africa. Email: protea@intekcom.co.za .

These are the two most recent volumes of works by the peripatetic Jurgen Schadeberg, who, though born in Berlin in 1931, established his reputation after the Second World War and well outside of Germany, immigrating to South Africa in 1950. There, he led the photo staff of the country's leading magazine of the 50s and 60s, "Drum", and developed a reputation as a South African Eisentstadt; more importantly, he helped affirm the black experience under apartheid, with everything from street photography to images of Nelson Mandela and other heroes of the African National Congress. With "Drum" banned in the mid-60s, Schadeberg freelanced all over Europe and America, and taught at the New School in New York and even briefly in Hamburg. By 1984 he returned to South Africa, a major figure among photojournalists.

Of the two volumes, "Witness" best represents the pop-cultural Schadeberg whose camera embraces worlds of humanity and personality on an almost Shakespearean level--there's hardly a photo here that lacks for expressive depth, from a 1952 shot of a young Mandela in his law office to a 1994 image of a wizened Mandela revisiting his prison cell on Robben Island. In both cases, the rueful wisdom of the South African leader is iconically captured. In between these watershed images, of course, are just about everything else--gamblers and jazz musicians in Johannesburg and Sophiatown, the old and young faces of London in the 60s and 70s, the gritty life of Glasgow, Tyrol villagers, even the Berlin Wall. The theatrical lighting and full-frame detail of Schadeberg's "Drum" portraiture certainly evokes Eisenstadt's great Life magazine images, but Schadeberg seems most fully engaged on the fly--grabbing the richly textured, often random, visual information of markets and snowbanks, or celebrities like Nureyev and Jagger in casual moments. In every case, his lens finds people being themselves, and they interest us.

"Voices from the Land" is altogether different, a much more solemn documentation of struggle--in this case, it's the hardscrabble reality of South Africa's rural farm laborers, who toil in a difficult, sun-baked environment without ownership. Indeed, the book's running commentary details the conflicts that make these workers' lives so tough; their allegations of abuse and attack by farmers are legion, while many of them face eviction from their own ancestral lands. Schadeberg brings his camera to bear on the worn, weary faces of these survivors, many of them living in shacks yet soldiering on with great dignity.

There are white faces as well, among them farmers who acknowledge the tensions and symbolize the troubled inequality of this earthbound culture. Schadeberg's camera doesn't judge, of course, but it sees clearly and affirms powerfully for us that apartheid still exists.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.