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JM Coetzee: Snapshots of Aesthetic Development

JM Coetzee: Snapshots of Aesthetic Development

“Have you ever seen a photograph of JM Coetzee smiling?” Hermann Wittenberg asks as he leads a walkabout around a new exhibition at the Irma Stern Gallery.

JM Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood is a collection of black and white photographs taken by the author as a teenager - long before he became a literary legend (and Nobel Laureate). The collection will be on display until 20 January 2018.

Asked which photographs stand out for them, one participant in the walkabout points to a series of self-portraits in which teenage Coetzee self-consciously tries out different facial expressions.

When Coetzee’s southern suburbs apartment was cleaned out to be sold three years ago, Hermann Wittenberg, Associate Professor in the department of English at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), was offered the old photographic paraphernalia about to be tossed. He discovered a collection of aluminium film canisters containing undeveloped film and some photographs in an old suitcase.

“It was like looking through a keyhole into a bygone world, looking at his world through his eyes,” Wittenberg described the find.

He worked with curator Farzanah Badsha to put together the exhibition, eliciting captions and memories from Coetzee, who had initially dismissed the idea of displaying the works to the public. Coetzee thought no-one would be interested, but Wittenberg showed some of the images at a conference in Adelaide, Australia, attended by the author - where they witnessed firsthand the intense interest they provoked.

Once Wittenberg showed him the contact sheets, Coetzee was persuaded of the quality of the long-forgotten photographs, and after some trans-continental communication a concept was agreed upon.

Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

The photographs in the exhibition include digital scans of negatives as well as a number of original photographs which the young Coetzee had printed in his darkroom at the time. But most of the images on display had never before been printed - and this is the first time the full extent of Coetzee’s early experimentation with the medium of photography is on display.

While not quite selfies, the self portraits are a candid glimpse of a teenager figuring out how to present himself to the public. The more serious picture Coetzee chose to print at that time is on the back cover of the exhibition brochure, which features a note on the provenance of the photographs, as well as an interview by Wittenberg with Coetzee.

An entire wall of one room is covered with images Coetzee took with the first camera he bought, a miniature spy camera, sneaking shots of school friends and teachers.

While the photographs were taken in 1955 to 1956, Coetzee only wrote his memoir Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life in 1997, by which time he may have forgotten about these particular images.

Still, many of the photographs are displayed with captions depicting quotes from his work, especially Boyhood and Slow Man. Like the memoir, these photographs are framed constructs, not necessarily the literal truth. Instead, the curators try to open up a dialogue between the memoir and specific moments in Coetzee’s life.

Those familiar with Boyhood will read the exhibition as a parallel visual chronicle of Coetzee’s life. Some of the images reinforce descriptions of places like the family farm or his alma mater St Joseph’s Marist College. Other images seem to depict events or circumstances that Coetzee chose not to include in the memoir.

Young Coetzee took pictures of school activities, domestic life, trains he rode and Cape Town scenery - things that made up his world and were of interest to him.

All are carefully composed, and many display Coetzee’s experimentation with lighting and capturing movement - yet there is an element of unplanned improvisation to most, and many exhibit a documentary feel. Many feature unposed subjects, as if the object of his fascination was unaware of his presence and several are blurry with tilting horizons, as if he didn’t even bring the camera up to eye level to snap the shot.

Wittenberg points out that at the time he took these photos, Coetzee was immersed in learning the craft, and had serious ambitions to master the camera.

“This interest in the technique is the same passion he later applied to language,” says Wittenberg. “He was always interested in images and photographers and their power over the human heart. You can track that through his books.”

While Coetzee continued taking photographs into adulthood, by the time his first novel Dusklands was published (1974), he was singularly focused on establishing himself as an author.

Still, that early interest in photography is discernible throughout his writing.

“It is interesting how you can trace the eye of the photographer in his prose. He is very attentive to how light works in a scene and how he frames the image, from which standpoint you observe the scene,” Wittenberg notes.

“Photographs are central to how he remembers the world.”

And a trip to the the Irma Stern Gallery to view JM Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood may just change how we see and remember one of South Africa’s finest writers.

The exhibition is open to the public until 20 January 2018, closed on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays.