Snapshots of different times, same place

By Jan Cronje Time of article published Jan 31, 2015

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FROM businessmen in smart suits to ladies in tulle, as they hit the chalk line drawn on the pavement, the camera snapped and the image was captured for eternity.

And today, more than half a century after many of these pictures were shot, they maintain a curious intimacy.

They’re the pictures most of our parents or grandparents have stashed away somewhere, black and white prints of them going about their business on a city street somewhere around the country.

Today, UCT’s Centre for Curating the Archive opens an exciting new exhibition of these photographs, offering a glimpse of the daily lives of Capetonians from the 1940s to the late 1970s.

The 150 mainly black and white photos were taken by Movie Snaps, a well-known photography studio that operated for decades on the Grand Parade, along with a smaller branch at Muizenberg beach.

Curator Dr Siona O’Connell, lecturer in Visual and Art History at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, said because early cameras had no autofocus or auto shoot, there was no chance of the photographer having time to fiddle with apertures and shutter speeds for each individual picture.

To make it easier, “he would draw a chalk line on the pavement, then set the aperture and shutter speed according to the light conditions of that spot at the time of day”.

“When the subject crossed that line, (he would) simply press the button without fumbling to get the correct exposure.”

The photographer would then hand his subject a numbered ticket in the hope that he or she would return later to buy the photograph.

O’Connell said the studio printed all the pictures, then filed them in long steel trays.

Some were put in the shop’s front windows for passersby to admire.

If someone recognised themselves, or liked the look of a photo, they could buy it.

The price, before the introduction of rands in 1961, was “two and six” – two shillings and sixpence.

For O’Connell, the pictures in the exhibition offer a different perspective of daily life in the city during the dark days of apartheid, a far cry from the better-known images of mass protest that epitomised those decades.

“The idea first took root when I stumbled across these images during my doctoral thesis that looked at restorative justice and District Six.”

But the journey began with just one of those pictures – of her and her grandmother.

“I was taken aback by looking at this image that showed a woman of purpose, immaculately attired and confident – everything that apartheid legislated her not to be.”

l Movie Snaps, Cape Town Remembers Differently opens today at 11am at the District Six Homecoming Centre at 25A Buitenkant Street, Cape Town. From tomorrow it will be open daily from 9.30am to 3.30pm, and runs until February 28. Entrance is free.

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