The Photography and New Media Collections are amongst the ‘youngest’ of Iziko South African National Gallery’s permanent collections’ departments. Photography as a new department was set up in 1965, with the presentation by the Cape Tercentenary Foundation of a portfolio of 135 prints by Albert Newall. Obstacles to its earlier acceptance lay in ambivalence about its status as an art as well as reluctance to establish a new area of collecting without ample funds to do so. Nonetheless, the introduction of a Photographic Collection took place relatively early, given that the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, said to be the first western European museum for modern art to collect photography, did so under Willem Sandberg only slightly earlier, in 1958.
South Africa has had a very strong and vibrant tradition in so-called ‘documentary photography’, with photographers acceding to the imperative of dealing with social and political subject matter, but much of this work was denied local audiences and could only be acquired once prohibitions had been lifted in the 1990s. However, during the 1980s and 90s the National Gallery’s acquisition budget was severely restricted, and between 1997 and 2003 was removed altogether, limiting the acquisition of South African photography and preventing the acquisition of work by international practitioners, including those on our own continent. In spite of this, a small but broadly representative Photography Collection was built up, containing work realised in the ‘documentary’ genre as well as more experimental photography which emerged after the reconnection with global culture denied by apartheid. The introduction of postmodernist critical discourse, together with internal events such as the TRC Hearings, brought about a questioning of many aspects of ‘documentary’ photography, including the issue of representation and the concept of the photographic document as evidentiary truth. The reassertion of alternative modes of expression, which rejected the orthodoxy of documentary realism and expanded photography's technical and aesthetic boundaries, had largely been marginalised during the apartheid years. Examples of this work have been represented in the Gallery’s Photographic Collection from the 1990s.
The collection has been augmented by welcome donations, such as the presentation of 50 photographic prints by Arthur Rothstein in 1976 by the US Government. In addition, individual photographers have supported the Gallery with extraordinary generosity: in 1981, Paul Alberts presented 76 photographic prints and, in 1986, David Goldblatt presented 182 prints of his work. More recently, Struan Robertson donated 505 prints and his entire archive of negatives in 2003. Without such open-handedness, the Photographic Collection of the Iziko Department of Art Collections would be infinitely poorer.
Between 2002 and 2005, we were fortunate to have been awarded funding for acquisitions by both the National Lotteries Board and the Department of Arts and Culture, which directly benefited the Photography and New Media Collections. From NLB funding, we were able to acquire 17 rare Ernest Cole photographic prints. DAC funds provided the means to purchase work by Alf Kumalo as well as photography and new media relating to HIV/Aids.
While funding constraints have limited the acquisition of work, the National Gallery has pursued a vigorous exhibitions programme as a means to provide visitors the opportunity to experience photography in all its expressions. The first photographic exhibition was held in 1975, Jansje Wissema’s Cape Town, and thereafter photographic exhibitions were held virtually annually, but it was from the 1990s that the programme gained momentum. In addition to travelling exhibitions by award-winning photographers and artists producing lens-based work, such as Berni Searle, Guy Tillim, Kathryn Smith, Pieter Hugo and Nontsikelelo Veleko, ISANG has curated and hosted numerous exhibitions devoted to photography. Some highlights include:
- In 1992, Photographs from Drum Magazine; Vumani: All Our Children, featuring photographs by members of the Afrapix Collective; and Sequences, Series, Sites: Photographs by Neville Dubow 1971-1992;
- From the Bridge to the Catacombs Club: Photographs by Billy Monk and David Wise in 1993. Also in 1993, Through a Lens Darkly: SA National Gallery Photographic Commission. In 1990, 16 photographers were invited to submit project proposals, with the intention of awarding R8,000 for a single commission. The submissions were of such a high quality that an additional R40,000 was raised and altogether 6 commissions allocated.
- In 1995, Positive Lives: Responses to HIV. A portable version of the South African component, by Gideon Mendel, was translated into the 11 official languages and was used extensively in community centres in the Western Cape, North Western Province and Gauteng, as well as travelling to Bamako and Dakar;
- Again in 1995, the project People’s Portaits, which was organized in collaboration with the Mail and Guardian and involved the distribution of 9,000 entry forms. It toured nationally and was shown at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival;
- In 1996, the Jurgen Schadeberg Retrospective;
- In 1997, PhotoSynthesis was created on an invitation from the National Arts Festival to curate an exhibition of contemporary South African work that reflected the diverse trends and discourses characterising photography of the 1990s. 35 photographers were selected on the basis of submissions of work.
- In 1998, Eye Africa: African Photography 1887-1998. The exhibition was curated and realised by Revue Noire in partnership with the South African National Gallery, the William Fehr Collection, La Pinacoteca de Estado de São Paulo and La Européenne de la Photographie (Paris);
- In 1999, Lines of Sight: Perspectives on South African Photography. This exhibition was curated by both National Gallery and guest curators: Marilyn Martin, Cedric Nunn, Emile Maurice, Michael Godby, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Geoff Grundlingh and Kathleen Grundlingh. It was featured on the Bamako Biennale, Mali, in 2001. Also in 1999, Structures: Photographs by David Goldblatt
- Re-imagining the Self: Photography after Apartheid. This was curated on invitation from Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, as the South African component of the exhibition Porträt Afrika, one of the first international attempts to present a comprehensive exhibition showcasing the development and use of photography across the African continent.
- In 2001, a retrospective, Narrative, Rituals and Graven Images: A photographic commentary by Omar Badsha; Also Inferno & Paradiso, curated by Alfredo Jaar, which showcased work by eighteen of the world’s most acknowledged photojournalists, including prominent South African photographers such as Peter Magubane and Themba Hadebe; and Surviving the Lens: Photographic studies of south and east African people, 1870 – 1920;
- The Decade of Democracy: South African Art 1994-2004, which included a large component of South African photography was exhibited in 2004;
- In 2006, Invoice: Photographs by Santu Mofokeng, a survey of this photographer’s work; also Life and Soul, an exhibition of portraits of women by Karina Turok, and Second to None, which strongly featured photography by and about women, in commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March.
- Zeitgenössische Fotokunst Aus Südafrika (Contemporary Art Photography from South Africa), was curated in 2007 on invitation from the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (NBK), Berlin. The exhibition travelled to Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Galerie der Stadt Sindelfingen and Museum Bochum, and was exhibited at ISANG in 2008 as Reality check: Contemporary South African Photography; also Ernest Cole: Chronicler in the House of Bondage, an exhibition of works in the SANG collection.
- In 2008, Stephen Shore: Colouring American Photography
- In 2009, The Tropics: Views from the Middle of the Globe, again featured a significant component of both South African and international photography.
- 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective, included numerous photos; and Borders, the 8th edition of the African Photo Biennale from the Bamako Encounters was exclusively multi-media and photography; Roger Ballen and Boarding House were all shown in 2010
- The exhibitions Ernest Cole: Photographer, featuring work held in the collections of the Hasselblad Foundation, Sweden, The Indian in Drum magazine in the 1950s, and Ranjith Kally: Through the lens of Durban’s veteran photographer were all mounted in 2011.
While today our Photography Collection is still relatively small, it is growing rapidly. Funding remains limited, but between 2009 and 2011 purchases of photographs exceeded 40% of all artworks acquired by the Gallery. This reflects the strength of South African photography nationally and internationally, the growing production of lens-based work by artists, especially in relation to performance, and the emphasis on redress: the imperative to grow a Photography Collection that is fully representative of all its practitioners, including emerging young photographers.