As we have said before, sometimes portraits of ourselves show the world how we want to be seen. This is not a new idea.
Over a hundred years ago, as photography became more available, professional photographers began to set up little portrait studios in which anyone could have their picture taken. One no longer needed an oil painter or a sculptor to create one’s likeness.
Photography presented a grand way for people to construct both “old” and “new” identities for themselves: to show themselves to the world as they would like to be seen. Photographs could be sent home to families in rural areas, to show them what modern city life was like; or they could demonstrate one’s belief in traditions – even if one lived in the city.
Small studios like these arose in many parts of Africa. Many of them had their own props – backdrops, furniture – to create
the sense (or illusion) of a very different place. People also sometimes brought in their own special clothes or props, to show who they really were. These backdrops and clothes did not always go together – but that did not matter. It was all about constructing identity.
The photograph below was taken in about 1929; those on the opposite page were taken in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Some of the sitters in these photographs have particular objects next to them, or in their hands. Do you think they each specifically chose these for the photograph? Why these objects? What might the objects have been intended to suggest?
Now look at the modern and stylish young people in the three images on the next page. When you look at these, remember that fashion, music technology, and the media, were very different in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, it was cool to listen to long-playing vinyl records. People were unlikely to have a telephone. Information about what the latest new trend was, was only to be found in the weekly and monthly magazines; and while there was radio, there was no television in South Africa. What current, cool device would you choose to hold, in a photo of you?