Along with an exhibition, photographer Reiner Leist’s new book of photographs "Another Country" explores signature portraiture.
Reiner Leist’s new book of photographs, Another Country, shares the same title as the English-language translation of Karel Schoeman’s 1984 Afrikaans novel ‘n Ander Land. The latter book tells the story of a consumptive Dutch traveller, Versluis, who travels to Bloemfontein in search of remedy.
It first appeared in translation in 1991, when Leist was 27. Unlike Versluis, Leist was in rude health at the time and not bound to a single geographic location during his six-year sojourn in South Africa.
During that time he tenaciously set about meeting and photographing just about every member of the struggle.
Aside from activists Helen Joseph and Amina Cachalia, Leist in 1991 photographed Desmond Tutu inside his Bishopscourt residence and Albertina and Walter Sisulu outside their Orlando West home.
A year later he produced a warm portrait of a round-faced Chis Hani seated in front of the South African Communist Party flag, and the year after that he photographed Nelson Mandela.
The latter portrait, an austere black-and-white study of a veteran politician on the verge of beatification, appears on the cover of Leist’s new book. Black and white is undeniably Leist’s metier, the new colour portraits that complement his people studies from two decades ago far less impressive.
He often struggles to tame our sharp local daylight. Many of his colour photos, some of the same subjects he met in the early 1990s, are weighted by a fatal dullness, often the outcome of the dun hues of the workplaces he visited to make his recent photos.
Amongst the more striking portraits in a book filled with studies of our political and artistic aristocracy are Leist’s studies of ordinary South Africans. Women like Glory Badirileng Maebela, who he photographed seated outside her home suckling her twins Thereso Evens and Nnete Yvonne in rural Mpumalanga in 1992.
The portrait originally appeared on the cover of his 1996 book, Blue Portraits, which similar to Another Country forged a close link between image and text. Both books feature extensive interviews with their portrait subjects, Leist differentiating his new book by allowing his portrait subjects to look back from now to then.
“When the babies were young they grew well, but my son Thereso is suffering because we have no money to send him to college,” Maebela told Leist in 2010, a year after he set about tracking down the many people he photographed in the early 1990s.
Her narrative of heartache and non-achievement recurs throughout the book, as does the common consensus that our politicians are corrupt and the biggest measurable gain since 1994 is the basic freedom to go where one pleases.
Not everyone Leist attempted to track down is with us anymore, amongst them Hani, Sisulu, Mandela and a thin-framed white man named Denis Brookstein, formerly a museum guard of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Leist, who is currently showing some of the portraits appearing in his new book at the same museum, photographed Brookstein in 1991. His portrait, which includes an ornately framed renaissance painting as backdrop, shares some similarities with that of Mandela.
Brookstein also wears a black tie, greyish suit and shiny black work shoes. But it is not the old museum guard’s formal wardrobe – a vestige of a waning formality – that is striking so much as the strange mixture of indifference and shock in his look. “What do you want from me?” his face asks.
By all accounts Brookstein was no Roger Barlow, the daydreaming museum guard played with such panache by Christopher Walken in The Maiden Heist, merely a city employee earning a wage. “After he left he never put his foot here again in the gallery,” Fannie Malatjie, a security supervisor at the museum, told Leist in 2010.
‘Old photographs of oneself’
Unlike his dead mentor, Brookstein, Malatjie, who also sat for a portrait, eschews formality. He does not wear a suit and tie to work. But some things remain the same, even across the divide of then and now: Malatjie has the same burnished black shoes and communicates a similarly marked devotion to guarding culture as Brookstein in his portrait.
The central conceit of Leist’s book is the intentional juxtapositioning of people from a receding past alongside those from the nearly synchronous present. Sometimes, as in his portraits of Brookstein and Malatjie, the bureaucracy of place determines who now occupies the chair of authority.
But Leist’s book is not singularly about freedom’s gains; it is also a study of aging, which photography, more so than any other art form, records with such precision. “There is always something melancholic about looking at old photographs of oneself,” artist William Kentridge told Leist in 2010 after seeing a portrait of himself taken in his Johannesburg studio in 1992.
“All of those thousands of possibilities have narrowed down to one outcome, which is you at this moment.” Kentridge’s interview, which like all the interviews in this book is presented as one long stream-of-consciousness outpouring, reiterates the familiarity and strangeness inherent in all portraits.
“I am much more distant to the man … who bears a faint resemblance to myself,” he is quoted. “I look at him as someone from the era before my hair went grey, he must have been very young.”
In his 1998 novel Verliesfontein, Schoeman – echoing English novelist LP Hartley –– conjures a beautiful sentence that proposes a thought while asking a question at the same time: “The past is another country; where is the road that leads there?” One answer, at least the one offered by Leist in his book, is photography.
Another Country accompanies an exhibition, showing at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until July 13.