Farewell to George Hallett, a legendary lensman

By Ryland Fisher Time of article published Jul 4, 2020

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Cape Town - Displayed with pride in my front room are three framed black-and-white photographs taken by George Hallett, who passed away this week at the age of 78. 

The one was taken in District Six, before the removal of people when the area was declared for whites only under the Group Areas Act; the second is of a flock of birds in Bo-Kaap; the third is of the late former president Nelson Mandela. 

The photographs capture a few moments in the life of a remarkable photographer, who was more feted internationally than locally. George died peacefully in his sleep on Wednesday. He had been ill for many months. 

George was born in Hout Bay in 1942, and left South Africa in his early twenties to pursue a photographic career overseas. He lived in self-imposed exile in many cities in Europe, before returning to Cape Town in 1995. In that time, he had become, in my humble opinion, probably the best black-and-white portrait photographer ever in South Africa. 

Legendary lensman George Hallett deserves more recognition for his work. Picture: Mujahid Safodien/African News Agency(ANA)
The first time I encountered the name “George Hallett” was in the late 1970s when, as a teenager, I was introduced to a series of books called the African Writers Series. It featured some of the top writers on the continent and George had designed all the covers, including taking the pictures.

I would meet him around 1980, outside Newspaper House in Cape Town, with one of my mentors who also became my friend, Warren Ludski, who was then news editor of the Cape Herald, where I started my journalistic career. I was impressed by this man, who walked around with a small Leica camera around his neck. He told me that as a photographer, you must always be prepared to capture any moment on film. 

I was more impressed by his humility, especially after Warren told me who he was. I had been in the presence of greatness without knowing it. We would work together much later on my first book, Making the Media Work For You, for which George supplied all the photographs, and later on my second book, Race. 

George sat in on some of the interviews for Race, so that he could have a better idea of the kind of photograph required. He would later arrange to photograph the people I interviewed. Among others, he photographed Professor Carel Boshoff, the founder of white homeland Orania, under an Africana tree; cricketer Vincent Barnes, in the stands at Newlands Cricket ground; traditional leader Phathekile Holomisa, in a Xhosa outfit; he convinced Obed Zilwa and Leo de Souza to dress up in the way they did on their wedding day; and he captured Manenberg residents Kenny and Sielie Nolan in front of the infamous “Thug Life” graffiti, painted on one of the courts in the area. 

He decided that I should be captured in pensive mood. It is still one of my favourite pictures. 

We worked together many times and spent hours talking at his flat in Frederick Road, Claremont. George took a portrait of my family and helped to guide one of my daughters who expressed an interest in photography. 

Ironically, for someone who is known for his portrait photography, George arguably took two of the best news photographs ever of Nelson Mandela, both on the same day. The first picture, which has graced the pages of publications throughout the world, showed cleaners and other workers at Mandela’s Cape Town residence rejoicing as they welcomed the new president. 

The second photograph, which I have, shows Mandela talking on his cellphone.  In the original picture, a worker can be seen walking past in the background with something on her head. George felt that the picture worked better with Mandela alone because it was not his intention to create an image of a “privileged” man in a suit versus the worker. He wanted to capture Mandela in an unposed moment. 

George was always conscious of the potential power of his images and that is why he spent so much time in planning his portraits. I just wish that he received as much acknowledgement in South Africa as he did overseas. 

Rest in peace, my friend. 

* Ryland Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter @rylandfisher

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