Article Art, Politics & Protest

A South African photographer: pictures of art, politics and protest

The legacy of Paul Alberts, photographer, publisher and writer is an enduring one.

Four years ago I walked into the lounge of a friend’s house for a first visit, stopped in my tracks and stared. A gallery of black and white photographs on the brick walls stared back at me.

I recognised most of the faces in the photos: well-known and loved South African artists, writers and photographers. But I had never seen these photos before and the power and beauty of these images will stay with me forever, such is their magic. Each portrait was signed by the personality depicted and by the photographer, Paul Alberts – a name I had never come across before.

With my interest piqued, I started digging. I needed to take a peek into the life of Paul Alberts and, like Shakespeare, ask: What manner of man is this?

Who was Paul Alberts?

Paul Alberts (1946–2010) was a prolific South African photographer, writer and publisher. And he is remembered not just for his substantial body of work, but also for his indomitable approach to life and unique character.

Alberts’ body of work documented not only the arts, but he also in his later years achieved widespread recognition, in South Africa and abroad, as one of South Africa’s leading social-political documentary photographers. His reflections on what were important in his life at a given point in time clearly emerged in his body of work.

Leaving behind a legacy

The focus of Alberts’ portfolio of work changed over the years and is a testimony to his own reflections on the work environment of creative society, politics, South African history, the plight of children and the aged, and his own questioning approach towards life in general.

In the early years he worked as a journalist on various South African newspapers, including a stint as editor of the arts page in Die Burger. His interest in both photography and the arts at that time gave impetus to him capturing on film the movers and shakers of that time in the country, especially during the 70s and 80s.

This then was the period in his life when he created the legacy he left us of the hauntingly beautiful portraits of much loved local artists, writers, actors, the photographer Peter Magubane and even a government minister from the apartheid era, Magnus Malan, the then Minister of Defence. Alberts managed to unerringly capture the essence of the mood and character of his subjects. I later established that most of these photos were published in his book, In Camera: Portraits of South African Artists (1979, HAUM, Cape Town.)

His further photography, writing, establishing of his own publishing house and participation in major exhibitions represented a robust and sustained growth phase in his career. Alberts had seven photographic books published in his lifetime and his work (together with other photographers or with his photos used as illustration) was also published in a further nine books. These works include Children of the Flats (1980, Reijger Publishers, Cape Town), The Borders of Apartheid (1983, The Gallery Press, Cape Town), Some evidence of things seen: Children of South Africa (1977, Open Hand Press, Rivonia) and Faces of Age (2005, Kraal Publishers, Brandfort).

Alberts furthermore contributed to a number of major photography exhibitions, including some of which were shown in major US cities, as well as in the UK and Europe.

In March 2002, Paul Alberts was awarded a Medal of Honour by the South African Academy of Science and Arts for his work as social documentary photographer.

In 2003, the War Museum in Bloemfontein assigned him to edit and compile a major exhibition, Suffering of War, which depicted the suffering of both Boer and British soldiers, as well as citizens, animals and the countryside during the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902). This exhibition was staged in various cities in South Africa, Europe and the Far East during 2005 and 2006. It also formed part of the South African government’s celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the country’s democracy.

Alberts , together with his wife Charmaine, also undertook a large project to assist 3,000 marginalised people living in small rural towns in the Free State province, as well as inmates of jails, to obtain ID photos in order to secure their identity documents.

But back to those arresting black and white portraits on the walls and the years when art played a major role in Alberts’ life.

Celebrities remember Alberts

My friend, Christo Rademeyer, who became a close friend of Alberts in his later life and had the greatest admiration and respect for him, just happened to buy a copy of Alberts’ photo journal, In Camera, in 2007. He became so fascinated by these photos that he drove more than 400 km from Pretoria to the little village of Brandfort in the Free State province where Paul lived, to ask him to sign his copy. It was the beginning of a strong and enduring friendship.

In 2008, Alberts decided to select about 30 of the photos, which he still had on film, as part of creating a collection, print three sets on quality acid-free paper, A3 size, sign the photos and approach each celebrity to also sign their respective photos. Rademeyer became the man who subsequently travelled the length and breadth of South Africa to take these originals to the celebrities for signature and leave them each with their own signed portrait as a gift from Alberts. In gratitude, Rademeyer received a full set of these signed portraits from Alberts as a gift. And these are the photos hanging on the brick walls in Rademeyer’s house in Pretoria.

Here was a story that needed to be told so I approached a few of the personalities depicted in the photos. They all generously agreed to share their memories of working with Paul Alberts and what was happening in their lives when the photos were taken.

André P Brink

Alberts photographed the late André P Brink (1935–2015) in 1973, showing a young and urbane looking Brink, formally attired in a dark suit and flowery tie, with a pair of dark-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. Brink projects a studious look, staring pensively into the distance and holding a document between long, sensitive fingers.

This is a fitting portrait of a man internationally renowned as a literary heavyweight: author, translator, academic and critic. Brink was shortlisted twice for the Booker Prize, in 1976 for An Instant in the Wind and in 1978 for Rumours of Rain, as well as for the Nobel Prize for literature several times since 1979. His novels were translated into more than 30 languages, including Japanese, isiXhosa and Vietnamese.

Alberts’ photo of Brink was published in the latter’s controversial book, Kennis van die Aand (the first Afrikaans novel to be banned by the apartheid government in 1974 and only unbanned in 1982 after a court case) – later translated into English as Looking on Darkness. It tells the story of black actor, Joseph Malan, awaiting execution for the murder of his white lover.

But what had Brink to say about Alberts and the photo?

“Paul caught me unawares and revealed a vulnerability of which one is not always aware. I had just returned from my second long stay in Paris and was very unsure whether I was coming or going: full of new ideas. And uncertain if anything will work out although I was determined to come and live in South Africa, this time because I wánted to be here – therefore out of choice and not because I had to.

“This was also at the start of my career in the theatre, as director at Pact (Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal), determined to try out all sorts of new things. Also to approach my writing in a new way. And Kennis van die Aand was the first result of this new approach. It was the beginning of the most tumultuous and exciting year of my life. When Christo brought me the photo it was like the sudden opening of a window on a part of my past which I had almost forgotten.”

Of Alberts’ photo journal, In Camera – first published in Afrikaans – in which this photo is also published, Brink said: “I think this was actually the first Afrikaans photo journal of its kind. Portraits of artists as people; it reveals what goes on behind the masks people tend to wear and succeeds in capturing a person’s life in one single moment.”

What does he remember about Paul Alberts? “His tremendous ability to visualise. Before, I lived via words but thanks to Paul I started giving prominence to visual aspects, also in my writing. I also remember his appreciation of women, the way he understood them so well.”

And where is this photo now, I asked Brink. “The photo is in a special drawer of my desk where I keep my most treasured visual memories.”

Mimi Coertse

Paul Alberts shared in the career highlights of many South African celebrities.

His evocative photo of the South African-born, internationally famous opera singer, Mimi Coertse, taken in 1976, shows Mimi in all her formidable glory inside the Vienna State Opera, with the bright lights of the opera house encircling her like the star she is. In an elegant dark outfit, three strings of pearls sparkling around her neck, pearl earrings, numerous bangles and a huge ring on her right hand – dramatically clasped to her breast – Alberts’ photo captures all the resplendent gravitas one would expect from a photo of “our Mimi”, as she is known the world over.

“This photo appeared on the front page of Die Huisgenoot magazine of 24 February 1978 as well as in other publications,” says Mimi, during a visit to her house in Pretoria early one evening.

Mimi offers tea; we end up quaffing her favourite drink, champagne. She chases the dogs outside and starts reminiscing. “Paul toured with me through Europe in 1976 to take photos of me in the cities where I performed; also in Vienna, where he took this specific photo.” To this day the Viennese people just love Mimi. She tells of a dinner she and Paul enjoyed in a restaurant in Vienna. ”As we walked into the restaurant, Drei Husaren, where I often ate when I stayed in the city, all the people in the restaurant stood up and clapped their hands – Paul has never forgotten this.”

Talking about the photo brings forth many memories for Mimi and she laughingly tells a story about a funny incident that happened one evening while performing the lead role in Norma. She was singing a very dramatic high note with two small children, a brother and sister, performing on stage with her. They saw her stomach quivering from the exertion of singing the aria and started giggling.

“I had to give both of them an impromptu cuff on the ear to stop the giggling and continued singing with the audience none the wiser. During the interval I was, however, summoned by the children’s mother and expected a severe reprimand for daring to discipline her offspring. To my great relief she asked if I would please come and stay with them for a month and teach the children how to behave!”

Years later, when performing in Vienna again, a young man with a bouquet of drooping flowers waited for her backstage and said: “Good evening, Aunt Mimi” The disconcerted opera singer made it clear to him that only her family is allowed to call her Aunt Mimi. But he chirped back: “If you felt free to slap me I am surely allowed to call you Aunt!” It was none other than the young man she had to discipline many years ago.

Such are the memories awakened by a cherished photo taken by a consummate photographer.

Marius Weyers

The 1981 photo shows a handsome young actor, Marius Weyers, taken in the Space Theatre in Cape Town during final rehearsals for Dimetos, a play written by Athol Fugard and directed by Dieter Reible. The bearded actor is wearing tight blue jeans and a white shirt, sitting with his arms crossed and his right hand gesticulating expressively to emphasise a point: a superb study in concentration and focus. The portrait at the same time reveals a glimpse of there being a very private person concealed behind the public persona.

Marius mentions that he was very grateful to receive this photo via Christo. This was shortly after he had heard that Paul was ill. “Paul was such an exceptional person and a unique talent. I only have four photos in my home, very special ones. Paul’s photo hangs in the most prominent place. As one walks in the front door, it is immediately obvious: Aaaa, thát is a Paul Alberts!”

Where did he meet Paul and what did he think of him?

“Paul had the ability to take photos in a very unobtrusive way. He took photos during rehearsals but also during breaks and these photos wonderfully captured the nature of our work and the personalities of the actors themselves.

“I met Paul in the 60s in Pretoria. We spent many hours together. He was an intense and exciting conversationalist and a caring person. I still have the image in my head of Paul with his camera in the dusty roads of Mamre, running after protest marchers and looking to capture the best possible photo. He took me along and it was a day I will never forget.”

Pieter-Dirk Uys

Pieter-Dirk Uys, the South African satirist, has a somewhat moody look on his face in the photo taken in 1975. But there is also something tongue in cheek about his stare, which says that this is all a pose, not to be taken seriously. He is, after all, a comedian, especially well known for his portrayal of Tannie Evita, the fictitious female South African ambassador to the non-existent country of Bapetikosweti, poking fun at the black homelands created by the South African government during the apartheid years.

Pieter-Dirk sends an email all the way from Darling, a small hamlet in the Western Cape province. “In those years I was involved in the Space Theatre as writer, actor, mopper of floors and this, that and the other, with Brian Astbury as leader of our gang. Paul then took this photo for an article he was writing for Die Burger. We spent lots of time together with our cheap box wine (Tassenberg) and talked about everything: politics, the country, the language – but always with humour. And he was such an attractive Paul Newman-type character. Butch Cassidy. We all wanted to be his Sundance Kid.”

How did he experience Paul as a human being and as a photographer?

“His portrayal was always brutally honest, without beating about the bush. He was very angry about the South African political situation. But his anger was never stronger than his compassion.

“I was so upset and shocked to learn how ill Paul was. I knew this but did not know the details of his suffering. I cannot believe that I did not phone him to thank him for the photo which Christo delivered to me. I want to use this opportunity to do so. Thank you Paul – I drink a glass of Tassies in memory of you.”

Where is this photo now? “The photo is a part of my life – possibly the best portrayal of what I was in those years: a bit sloppy and crazy, trendy in a dishevelled way and also not, artistic, skinny and with hair. And with a million ideas to make the world a better and nicer place. Things which I shared with Paul and Brian.”

Tributes upon Paul Alberts’ death

There were many tributes from far and wide for Alberts after his death from cancer on 18 November 2010, both for his work and who he was as a person. But the Mail and Guardian article written by journalist Matthew Burbidge resonated with me and below I share a few quotes from it.

Charmaine Alberts remembers him as a fearless fighter for the underdog and was quoted as saying: “He couldn’t handle it that people bullied people who could not stand up for themselves.”

David Goldblatt, described by some as South Africa’s most famous photographer, said: “We shared a lot. He was also an extraordinarily passionate and compassionate person. Both of these qualities got him into a lot of trouble and led him to do a lot of good things. … He liked to believe the best of people.”

Equally renowned South African photojournalist, Cloete Breytenbach, is quoted as follows: “He was a very honest man, an honest photographer. He contributed a hell of a lot to the history of this country. He was very convinced in what he was doing. He had no hidden agenda.”

Frik Jacobs, a retired director of the War Museum in Bloemfontein, met Alberts when he approached him seeking permission to access the museum’s large photographic collection dealing with the Anglo-Boer War. ”I remember him in his studio, sitting with a photograph. He was enhancing a print of a small girl in a concentration camp – she was on the point of dying. He was working on [the image of] her toe and there were tears running down his face. He was emotionally touched by his subject. It was more than a job; it was a calling.”

This is my tribute to a remarkable man and his legacy. Paul Alberts was one of a kind.

Photo credit: Cecile Walkenshaw

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