‘… or perhaps it is because all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion; which is to teach us not to be afraid of dying’. The words, from Michel de Montaigne’s ‘To philosophize is to learn how to die’, a chapter from How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing, encourages us to believe not to be afraid in the face of the inevitable.
But death is not the only inevitability we experience, there are others, less grave, yet equally momentous. We struggle, it is what we do. We remain perplexed in the face of far greater currencies than death, but what Montaigne asks of us – swaddled within a comfort blanket, perhaps – is that we are prepared for death. Who can say? At 4am, my android tells me of a thirty eight year-old policewoman, struck down by COVID, who slipped into a coma. Her battery had died, she was uncontactable, until her sister asked the neighbours to break down the door of her flat in Tygervalley.
The dead far outnumber the living, Nietzsche reminds us, and yet we all baulk in the shadow of Death’s scythe. It cuts life to shreds with devastating aplomb and casual ease. But who can say what death – or rather, dying – is? Will the mind save us? Montaigne died a cruelly painful death. As for Nietzsche? Was he truly remiss? Unconscious? And does his death, finally, matter? Must a life be examined by how it concludes?
But what does one make of a life so avidly awake, unmoved by the seductive maw of social media, locked into and onto the mainframe we forget supports us – Life? The South African photographer, George Hallett, is dead. Was he prepared? Is preparedness ever all? Or did Hallett realise that ripeness, in fact, is never all? I am told that he was cared for in his last months and moments by his dear friend Rashid Lombard, the equally well-known photographer and Jazz guru. I thought and thought of speaking with Lombard whom I remember well, in the belief that that personal record of Hallett’s death could be useful. But then I thought of the policewoman alone in her flat, alone on her death bed, and decided that such an intimate knowledge, caught telephonically, at a remove, is not the point.
Photography, the late Susan Sontag reminds us, is memento mori. Photography – Hallett’s art – carries its own peculiar death, and its own peculiar life. I did not care to impose upon Lombard’s grief, knowing that I, who knew Hallett slightly, could never speak well enough on death’s behalf. Perhaps, I thought, perhaps there is another way to speak of death and dying? Cruel, ignominious, tragic, graceful, death has many faces, none of which the living can understand. Better, then, to speak of living, of lives lived, lives created and recreated.
And so, I chose to call two friends, a photographer and an artist, whom I felt comfortable speaking to, who knew Hallett well. Both, independently of the other, laughed, chuckled, as they recalled a figure from another era, ribald, wild, filterless, akimbo upon a drunken boat, possessed with a astute ability to capture the thrill and bliss of a perceived moment in a still image.
Hallett’s photographs, the one said, were ‘elegant, austere, stylish’. It is the last descriptor that stays with me – style … stylish. One looks at the world in the way one does. In Hallett’s case that look was licked from top to toe with an uncanny capacity to register beauty, zest, pleasure. This is because Hallett never succumbed to historical record, he never allowed his images to fall victim to the Idea of what a moment means. Gifted with the ultimate calling card by Pallo Jordan – to be the ANC’s official photographer – Hallett chose to capture the political party as a living organism. His were never mere political records – photographic versions of political statuary – but energetic captures of human detail.
Hallett’s images require ‘slow appreciation’, my photographer friend tells me. When I looked at Hallett’s photographs, exhibited at a retrospective at the Iziko National Gallery, it was this slow appreciation I recalled. Neither incidental nor monumental, they seemed to occupy a greyish area somewhere in between, a place filled with the inchoate textures of life. It is, after all, photographs of this ilk that remain when all is said and done, these moments, bodied forth, which embody us. Hallett loved the whole process, he was a natural photographer. In Hallett’s case this fusion makes sense. Intemperate, often scathing in his lament that his audience could not see what he was doing, Hallett’s secret title for his retrospective was – ‘You think you know me, but you don’t’.
No one does truly know another, for all talk to the contrary. It is terribly ironic that photographs, which seem so declaratively present, rarely reach their mark. Broaching the question: What are we seeing? What are we looking at? One is rarely understood in life, let alone death. That Hallett became increasingly ‘paranoid’ and despairing in the face of a bankrupted cultural insight is unsurprising. Consumed by what we think a photograph should mean, we miss its life – its living force.
Hallett was ‘free, very kind’, my artist friend tells me, ‘he was certainly never boring’. ‘It’s sad that people like him don’t exist anymore’. But of course, they do, there are just a lot less of them. The problem is generational, and cultural. ‘People are not so interesting anymore’, my artist friend resumes. ‘Maybe it’s the internet, that people no longer care, are too inhibited?’ Whatever the failing might be, one thing is certain – Hallett lived, he made his photographs count.
At 4am – or roughly thereabouts, when thought strikes me – I thought of the word gambolling, ‘to run or jump about playfully’. It is not a typical expression one might apply to the late George Hallett, a leading South African photojournalist, and yet this is the word that leapt to mind. It suggests restlessness, something fidgety which refuses the photographic image as neatly commemorative, stately, or portentous. It is not that Hallett lacked seriousness, it’s that he refused to be seduced by it.
A photograph of a woman racing to greet Nelson Mandela evokes an intoxicating glee, even delirium. There is music in Hallett’s photographs, a ‘boho’ coolness, the spirit of the eternal outlier. Hallett took pictures. My speculation is that Hallett wasn’t consumed by a need for veneration. Instead, it’s his calculated disinvestment in himself which makes his photographs all the more believable and worthwhile. They don’t feel set-up – despite talk of how artful they are. We don’t marvel at their ideological or political significance, we feel, instead, as though we’ve fallen down a rabbit hole, into a world just shy of sense, in which novel possibilities emerge.
I recall seeing Hallett at the Cavendish Mall in Cape Town, hard not to, with his coal-black Beatles mop and jangling jaunt. He invited me for a drink at his nearby flat. There was no time for pleasantries, he was keen to talk and look at photographs he’d taken. What struck me most was the range of interests, the variety of worlds. Hallett knew the 60s and 70s especially well, it was like a skin, a style, a way to live. For good reason, unless, like Marwood, the I in Withnail and I, you thought of the 70s as ‘the arena of the unwell’. But then Marwood, unlike Withnail, was no sentimentalist. He quit hippiedom to enter the business class, he was always a proto-Tory, with all the cynicism that tendency would grotesquely reveal. Withnail, however, while seemingly tragic, in fact holds fast to what is good in life – pleasure, hope, love – rather like Hallett.
I doubt that Hallett would have concerned himself with being missed, or, at his deepest core, lamented failing to achieve the stature he justly deserves. This is because he never allowed himself the vanity of believing that he – the photographer – was the be-and-end-all of the moments he recorded. He was there, yes, and when travelling through the retrospective at the Iziko National Gallery, one could reasonably assume he was everywhere, a George Orwell, down and out in Europe, part of the lost magic of District Six, with Dumile Feni, given access to the corridors of power. But everywhere – at a stately gathering, in a hippy commune – he, Hallett, was the same being, his eye alert to foibles and folly and zest and comedy.
It is the human condition – La Comédie humaine – which inspired him. There is nothing marmoreal or solemn about his photographs, not even existential dread has a role to play. These qualities, which love power and suffering, form the basis of bad history and dubious photographic record. These images are vainglorious, dour, horrific, or merely sad. Hallett’s, on the other hand, are sprightly, quirky, heart-warming, vivacious, endearing. Enduring. I look at a photograph of two women, one black one white, jawing and laughing on a Birmingham pavement in the early 1970s, the one with a broom in hand, and I see all of life caught in a brittle yet beatific grip.