Apartheid shot in black and white

Reviewed by Jeanne Wright

ACCLAIMED fine art photographer and commercials film director Ian Difford is showing a retrospective portfolio of images which he took during the apartheid era.

Difford was educated at Grey High School and went on to study photography at the Port Elizabeth Technikon where he succeeded Robert Brooks to become head of the photographic school in 1981.

He held three one man shows here in Port Elizabeth between 1973 and 1979, and then moved to Johannesburg where he ran his own business before joining the Picture Tree Television Company as a freelance executive art director.

One of South Africa’s most stylish and skilled stills photographers, he specialises in food photography.

The images on this exhibition were taken when he was in his 20s, during a 10-year period from 1971 to 1984, just before the state of emergency was declared.

He says that, at the time, he was preoccupied with composition, format, subject matter and the creation of perfect images and that what he was photographing was simply material that interested him.

He regarded himself then as politically “naive”, so it was only recently when sifting through some of the 5000 negatives that he had stored, many of them unprinted, that he realised that he had a unique record of a particular time and place which mirrored the dichotomies of apartheid in his city.

The debate over whether photography is art has raged for nearly a century but, as critic John Berger expressed it, (the photograph) “bears witness to human choice exercised in a given situation”.

Difford does believe that the photograph is a unique vehicle which can isolate and perpetuate a moment in time.

Black and white photography is a demanding genre. It requires that the photographer subsumes the familiar aspects of a colourful world and represents what he sees in a series of lights and shadows which describe the subject matter.

It also needs a master’s eye to recognise and capture visual opportunities which encapsulate moments in time. Difford also has that rare ability to know the difference between the pictorial equivalent of investigative reporting and the aesthetic criteria which define fine art images.

The images portray things which will be familiar to Port Elizabethans – daily visual incidents from inner city and township life, the beachfront, the polyglot mixture of races and the mish-mash of civic architecture and township shacks.

The prints – which are technically sophisticated in that they are unique silver prints hand printed from the uncropped original negatives by master printer Dennis da Silva – are an important and revealing document in the chronology of the city’s history.

More than that, the photographer’s command of his subjects and mastery of his process makes this an exhibition not to be missed.

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