In the 1950s, in South Africa, owning a camera was very
rare. Most people who had a camera were probably professional photographers; cameras were not available to everyone, as they are now.
Many people in South Africa would not have been able to afford a professional photographer. But almost every adult had some form of identity document. For black people, laws were passed that required people to carry the notorious and racist “dompas” or passbook, which always contained a portrait photograph – for official identification and control.
At the time, colour photography was expensive. So a whole new industry sprang up: that of the airbrushed photographic portrait. The airbrush artist or colourist would work with whatever photograph of the client’s face was available. This would be reprinted as an enlargement. The enlargement would be coloured – and also embellished – with the airbrush. Sometimes two small portrait photographs would be enlarged and printed on the same photographic card, creating a portrait of two people seemingly standing side by side.
This way, one could alter one’s appearance. For people who had always wanted a western-style
wedding (whether for reasons of fashion or due to
social pressure), the airbrushed enlargement was a way of making this fantasy come true. This technique could even “bring together” couples separated in real life – separated by the migrant labour system, for example, or even by the death of one partner.
Do such portraits still exist in your family? If you have such a portrait in the family, look at it and think about the members of the family in the image, and about how they presented themselves to the world.