Arts and Culture

Hamburger writes book

Sean O' Toole

Newspaper posters continue to fascinate collectors, for their social commentary as much as for their wit.

Sunsational: Tabloid newspaper stories provide plenty of opportunities for mischievous  wording on posters.

When Ntokozo Tshabalala decorated his central Johannesburg flat a decade ago, he drew on a cheap resource: newspaper posters. 

Unlike the Radium Beerhall in Orange Grove, well known for its glass-framed collection of these unavoidably fleeting, often purposefully surreal epigrams, Tshabalala simply pasted his collection directly on to the grey interior walls of Milton Court.

Guy Tillim' s widely exhibited photograph of Ntokozo seated with his brother Vusi in front of his papered-over wall was taken in 2004, four years before Laurence Hamburger, a Johannesburg filmmaker, moved from bemused admiration to petty pilfering. 

Hamburger, who lives a few blocks south of the Radium on Louis Botha Avenue, has just published a book showcasing his collection of newspaper posters. 

Titled Frozen Chicken Train Wreck, the red clothbound book presents an uncaptioned selection of his posters, one per page, followed by an afterword. 

" All blacks are brilliant,"  reads the first headline, and Hamburger's book closes with the promissory quip: " Watch this space." 

Hamburger, who started his collection as a way of preserving these ephemeral objects, was first alerted to their ability to comment obliquely and mordantly on news — big or small — in the early 1990s. 

South African-born photographer Adam Broomberg is a part owner of London-based Chopped Liver Press, which co-published Hamburger' s book. He split with a girlfriend, but continued to live in the same house. 

One day an Afrikaans newspaper poster was added to the home' s décor: " Adam was not the first man,"  it declared.

Functioning both as a warning smoke signal and witty riposte, newspaper posters are the original tweet, says Ray Joseph, a veteran of many South African newsrooms. 

" Posters break all the rules of grammar,"  explained Joseph, pointing to their odd tenses and brazen punctuation.

Long a hallmark of the local newspaper trade, Joseph points to Leslie Sellers, former chief assistant editor of the Sunday Times, and his colleague, Joe Sutton, as past experts of the form. 

But, believes Joseph, it was the arrival in 2002 of the Daily Sun, the first of the local tabloids, that upped the game. 

" I would say the real consistently clever stuff came with the tabloids,"  said Joseph, discriminating between the Fleet Street-influenced wit of the Daily Voice and the exclamation-prone antics of the Daily Sun, which Joseph pegs at " the lower end of poster writing" .

For his part, Hamburger is interested in the way in which the posters memorialise local " shebeen English" . In compiling the book he hopes to inspire readers with an appreciation of the " tone and temperature"  of South African English: " There is a simplicity that is beautiful and raw."  

Hamburger is not alone in his fascination with newspaper posters. Painters Johannes Phokela, Ayanda Mabulu and Arlene Amaler-Raviv have variously used them as a potent substrate in their work. 

In his finely drawn and cleverly told new graphic novel, 5½ Tragi-Comic Picture Stories, Johannesburg illustrator Alastair Findlay presents a mordant love story that kicks off with the main protagonist repeatedly passing a series of posters for a fictional newspaper. 

" Corpse walks home" , reads one; " Horror in a plastic bag?" , another.

" All the headlines were actual ones, although some may have been paraphrased from memory,"  said Findlay. He is ambivalent about their purpose as analogue status updates. 

" On the upside, it' s a fabulous platform for clever wordplay that' s obviously designed to amuse and intrigue. On the downside, the bills can hit you like a cannonball when laden with bad news." 

Hamburger defends them as studiously honed objects that marry authorial cynicism with affection.

" I think that there has always been a certain kind of gallows humour with the way South Africans have dealt with their stuff,"  he said.

Curiously, in a book that exhibits words from all the well-known media properties, Hamburger' s book doesn' t include a single Mail & Guardian poster. This in itself is a headline in waiting.

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