Cape Town - Gerald Shap is not as steady on his feet as he used to be, but then again, he has just turned 84.
But he doesn’t miss a thing, as his son Gary helps him into the very store he opened way back in 1958. It was a time when Brigitte Bardot was the curvaceous covergirl of the day and Elvis Presley was rocking the charts across the globe.
“My, my, it looks so big. It’s marvellous!” Gerald Shap says, as staff who have worked there for many years crowd around to greet him.
Richard Williams is there to greet him. Richard has been at this same store for 47 years, and Rose Bezuidenhout celebrates 30 years behind the counter.
There is a certain dignity in the way they greet him. He is hugely moved by the attention, and what he doesn't know is that it is only going to intensify over the next few days when son Gary and his crew at Cameraland pull out all the stops to pay tribute to a man who has done so much for photography and snappers across the country, as the founder of this Cape Town landmark and home to photographers for the past 59 years.
But 1958 was also a time of economic turmoil globally, where every effort had to be made to keep afloat.
Gerald Shap knew this too well when he opened a small chemist, Shap’s Central Pharmacy in a tiny section of the building that houses Cameraland to this day. Here he made concoctions that flew off the shelves, but he also took advantage of the fact that a previous tenant had sold cameras.
Gary takes up the story: “Customers would come regularly to inquire about cameras, and my dad didn’t know too much about cameras, but he knew that Kodak was down the road. He would tell them that he needed to go to his warehouse to see what he could find, go to Kodak and come back and say ‘look what I found for you!’, and that was how he started selling cameras from his pharmacy.”
The camera side of the business grew alongside the pharmacy until the 1970s, when the pharmacy moved out and the entire ground floor corner of the building became Shap’s Cameraland.
“My father built his business on customer ethos and the way he treated customers and staff, some of whom still work here, like Richard Williams, Rose Bezuidenhout and Christopher Davids. You may have bought your first camera here as a teenager in the 1970s and can come back today and get served by the same guy, that is rare,” says Gary.
Shap’s service ethic extended to his relationships with the big camera brands too, where he took great care of their sales representatives by offering them coffee and doughnuts in-between talk of the latest cameras and the changing world of photography. And change has been rapid and mind-blowing, both for professional photographers and amateur hobbyists.
"Photography has evolved from analogue to digital and today, mobile photography is a big part of both image and video capture. More photographs and videos are being taken than ever before and this can only be good for our industry as consumers desire to take better images leads them to inquire and invest in the right gear to help them do so " he says.
But while the mechanisms, the frames and technology may have changed, human nature has remained the same: our need to safely store and to be able to easily access our treasured memories of moments in our lives, remains a constant.
“My brother, sister and father live overseas and they are all here for the reunion, and while going through all these photographs together and the meaning they bring is indescribable. That whole idea that if the house is burning, it's a case of ‘grab all the photographs!’ is as true today as it ever has been. There is nothing that can replace a printed photograph and although you may have the bulk of your recent pics stored in the cloud, they tend to be forgotten unless printed as an enlargement or converted into one of our Cameraland Photobooks,” he says.
Gary gives his dad a tour around the new extended premises following its revamp five years ago. He shows the adjacent entrance that has a glass-covered time-capsule built into the floor. It was laid on January 1, 2000 and will only be opened on January 1, 2100. In it is that day’s edition of the Cape Argus, a tape, a CD and some books written in Yiddish, among other items, for future generations to try to make sense of a world undoubtedly much changed by then.
Gary is proud of the fact that the refurbishment did nothing to affect the charm of the building and its contextual space as a heritage building. Structural beams allowed for a third-floor rooftop garden, where movies are shown in summer, and where live events take place on First Thursday evenings when the CBD comes alive.
This space is ideal too for camera fundis to test the latest equipment. “You can’t buy charm, and we are trying to retain that charm by combining the old and the new, on four floors. We have a gallery that showcases photographs of up-and-coming Cape Town talent, a fully-fledged studio where modelling shoots take place, and on the second floor the production area where customers can discuss their printing requirements," says Gary.
“Gerald is in town this month and we wanted to firstly honour him for what he has done for photography throughout South Africa over all these years. We want to welcome all our customers to see and experience what Cameraland is today, and to see Gerald, who they may not have seen for many years, and to reminisce.
"We want it to be a celebration of friendships built up over many years, so people can bring in their old cameras gathering dust in cupboards, so we can have a look at them, give them a service, and maybe reignite their passion. We are also involved in a social development initiative through the Penda trust, so that old cameras could be donated to help someone else on their first steps into the creative world of photography,” he says.