When photographer Jürgen Schadeberg died at the age of 89 on August 29 this year, his passing was marked by the inevitable and deserved obituaries in The New York Times, The Guardian, and German and South African papers. Many of these paid tribute to the German born photographer for the work that he had produced in South Africa during the period from 1950 – when he arrived in the country as a fresh faced 19-year-old to 1964, when he left, increasingly fearful of harassment by the security forces for his unshakeable curiousity in the turbulent daily life of the country under the apartheid regime.
From 1951–1959 Schadeberg was employed by Drum magazine. He became the de facto picture editor and produced the majority of the work for which he became known throughout his life. It was Schadeberg who famously took the picture of Dolly Rathebe in her bikini on a Johannesburg mine dump standing in for the segregated beaches of the coast. This photograph earned him an arrest under the Immorality Act. It was Schadeberg who captured the energy of his fellow Drum colleagues – Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, Todd Matshikiza, Bloke Modisane and Henry Nxumalo as they went about the business of bringing the intellectual and cultural life of the world of Sophiatown to readers. It was Schadeberg who captured the jazz musicians of the era during the brief period of what seemed like South Africa’s version of the Harlem Renaissance – Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Gwigwi Mrewbi and others were all captured by his lens. It was also Schadeberg who took what would become iconic photos of the young lions of the ANC in the 1950s – Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and the accused at the 1956 Treason Trial. While journalist Henry Nxumalo earned the moniker of Mr Drum for his dogged investigations into the reality of black life under apartheid and his written capturing of the sounds and thoughts of Sophiatown, it was his good friend and partner in crime Schadeberg who provided the images that accompanied his hungrily consumed stories. While working for Drum Schadeberg’s work ran the full gambit of the magazine’s content – from glamour shots, portraits and detective fiction to politics, lived reality and tragedy. While working as a freelancer after leaving Drum in 1959, Schadeberg captured the ancient dance rituals of the San in the Kalahari, the traditional horse races of Lesotho and its subsequent independence celebrations in 1966 and the mass funeral of the victims of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960.
Within the 14 years that he first lived and worked in South Africa, the circumstances in which he found himself in the early years of the enforced segregation of apartheid, combined with his natural curiousity and empathy for the life of black South Africans, allowed Schadeberg to capture enough significant and distinctive photographs to ensure his legacy for the rest of his life. The skills and knowledge that he enthusiastically passed on to the new generation of black South African social documentary photographers like Peter Magubane, Bob Gosani and Ernest Cole, only further helped to cement his role as the man who many referred to as the ‘godfather of South African photography.’
Schadeberg estimated that towards the end of his life his archive included over 200 000 negatives and a significant proportion of these were made up by the work he did in South Africa from 1950–1964 and then later from 1985, when he returned to the country until 2007 when he left to settle in various places in Europe.
There are however large series of works that were produced outside of South Africa and although they are less well-known or written about, an examination of this work reveals a continuation of some of the thematic concerns that Schadeberg produced in South Africa while also showing that he was certainly not only a significant photographer of South African life but more broadly an empathetic and humanitarian photographer of the lived realities of other people in other places as well.
In 2008 Hatje Cantz published the retrospective book Jürgen Schadeberg, which perhaps provides the best overview of the photographer’s more than a half a century of work. Beginning in South Africa it also extends to work he made during visits back to Berlin in the early 1960s when the Berlin Wall was being built; a singular and compassionate examination of the dying days of working class life in the Gorbals district of Glasgow in the late 1960s; photographs highlighting the class differences of London society in the heady days of 1967 and subsequent work in South Africa in the post-apartheid period. There were also the series of photos of post-independence Africa taken during a 1973 trip across the continent documenting the ordinary life of citizens of countries busy forming their own post-colonial identities.
In all of this work, there is a distinctive knack for the quiet observation of the ordinary that serves to celebrate while also asking viewers to think about the broader social realities that lurk outside the frames. These photographs ask you to applaud the ability of humans to make the best of difficult circumstances while not judging either their subjects or their audience. It’s a difficult line for any photographer to walk successfully but one which Schadeberg had a particular talent for navigating. You can see it in the first photo he ever took at the age of 12 in 1943. It’s of a group of Berlin residents in the neighbourhood where Schadeberg was raised by his bohemian, free spirited single mother – all trying to make the best of the grim circumstances that have brought them together in an air raid shelter. Some drink, some laugh, one man tries to lighten the mood by playing the accordion. They are crisply captured in a group portrait that celebrates their shared humanity while still placing them firmly in the circumstances of World War II Germany where they live. It’s a characteristic that similarly displayed in a plethora of subsequent photos from post-war Berlin to participants in the Semanta Santa religious celebrations of Spain in the 1970s and the teenagers hanging out on the street corners of Kliptown in the early 2000s. It’s in the smiles of the overworked pub drinkers of Glasgow and the uncertain faces of underpaid farm workers in the Winelands.
While his life and work were indelibly shaped by South Africa and he in turn indelibly helped to shape the visual archive of the country’s history in all its messy contradictions, Schadeberg was ultimately a keen and dedicated observer of history in the making, wherever he found it. With his passing, perhaps more of his other work will be looked at with the same respect and regard that has been given to his South African work and demonstrate that he was not only an ‘icon of South African photography,’ but an icon of photography. His work demonstrates his belief in the importance of the medium: ‘What I love about photography’ he says, ‘is that you take a photograph and five minutes later it’s history. It means you’re making history.’