The Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) will present Picture Perfect: A social history of hand-coloured photographic portraiture in 20th century South Africa with curators Ruth Sack and Lisa Espi on Thursday, 1 October at 17:30 in Hiddingh Hall. This Great Texts / Big Questions presentation opens The Portrait Racket exhibition, which closes on Sunday, 4 October.

The practice of airbrushed photographic portraiture was brought to South Africa from Chicago in the nineteen-thirties and became a widespread and flourishing business for the greater part of the 20th century. Practitioners referred to it as “the portrait racket” (for reasons which will become clear to visitors of the exhibition.)

Across many communities, rural and urban, all over the country, clients would entrust to travelling salesmen their precious personal photographs to be taken to the artist’s studio far away, where they would be enlarged, printed in black and white, and then coloured in. That people were prepared to surrender identity documents for many months is evidence of how few images of themselves they owned, and how important these portraits were to them. 

The starting point for the project was a specific case study of a studio that produced these enlarged and airbrushed portraits. Yettie Saunderson, a relative of the two curators, owned the Aqua Portrait Studio in Johannesburg for almost fifty years. Her customers came from the townships near Johannesburg and villages in Limpopo. Her studio was a meeting place of very different worlds. A large part of her business involved creating wedding portraits, usually of weddings that had not in fact taken place, or if they had, not with the western trappings that she depicted.

In their research Sack and Espi follow the physical path some of these photographs took between the rural villages and urban townships on the one hand, and the artists’ studios on the other, and back again. Images include photographs of these portraits in situ, airbrushed photographic portraits from studios in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban, as well as original small photographs upon which these were based. Also included are ephemera such as notes and instructions between clients, salesmen, photographic printer and artist.

The Great Texts / Big Questions presentation and The Portrait Racket exhibition examines how this practice of portraiture arose in South Africa, and the technical, physical process involved in its production.

The curators will address reasons for the significance of the practice in the context of South Africa, and what lay behind the conventions and visual tropes, which became standard in the genre.

The presentation looks at these images both in terms of their place in an intimate familial context, as representations or commemorations of family; and at how they functioned in political terms, as currency in questions of property, gender and status. It explores how, within different contexts and communities, the genre took on very different meanings and kinds of significance.

The exhibition first opened in March 2015 at the Origins Centre and is scheduled to travel to different parts of the country. In each region in which it appears, special research will take place and it will be augmented by local examples of the genre.

The presentation, followed by a Q & A session, will take place at Hiddingh Hall, University of Cape Town (UCT) Hiddingh Campus, Orange Street, Cape Town on Thursday, 1 October 2015.

Refreshments will be served from 17:00. No booking is necessary and all are welcome.

Download The Portrait Racket audio recording

Venue: Hiddingh Hall

Address: UCT Hiddingh Campus, 31-37 Orange Street, Cape Town, 8001, South Africa