One night in 1955, five years after he had arrived in South Africa from Berlin, Jürgen Schadeberg walked into a Sophiatown dancehall with his Rolleiflex camera. He was 24 and had a head full of jazz (“I played Louis Armstrong in the air raid shelter when the Russians fired heavy artillery into Berlin,” he once told me).
Now 83, Schadeberg – who in April was garlanded with the 2014 Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award, an important honour presented annually to a photographer of global repute by the International Centre for Photography in New York – remembers the scene vividly.
“There weren’t really clubs in Sophiatown as such,” he explains from his Spanish home in the coastal city of Valencia. “There was this place, which was originally an old corner shop. The windows were covered with cardboard. They made a little stage with old pieces of wood. This is where people went and danced.”
Amid the melee of bodies moving around the room that night, he spotted one particular couple dancing. The woman wore a beret and two-piece suit, her partner a flat cap and beige boiler suit. Schadeberg moved closer, but not so close that he would lose the exuberant context: the locked embrace of a nearby couple, a lone female dancer receding into the shadows. Click.
Dance is a recurring theme in his work. It not only defined his Drum magazine years, but also appears throughout the bullishly inquisitive social documentary he has continued producing during his nomadic years after leaving South Africa: first in 1964, then again in 2007 after 22 years in Johannesburg.
In his native Germany, a country he ditched at 19 for South Africa, never to return as a resident, he has repeatedly found evidence of joy lurking beneath the stern Teutonic character. In the early 1980s, for example, he photographed a group of New Wave kids in jeans, leathers and mohawks lurching ecstatically in an East Berlin park during an open-air concert.
Dance, as Schadeberg’s many photos show, is rebellion. But it can also be a way to signal belonging. A decade before his curious observation of the mohawks, he hung out with a group of recent immigrants to Germany, some of them Korean women in coy skirts, receiving lessons in ballroom dancing. More recently, now working in radiant colour, he has photographed the multigenerational dancers who gather at Clärchen’s Ballhaus, a grand 1920s dance hall in Berlin’s trendy Mitte neighbourhood.
But, on balance, it is Schadeberg’s pictures from 1950s Johannesburg that are his finest achievement.
Jo’burg was a city infected by music. At various times and places, Schadeberg photographed oldies living it up at a retirement home bash, a ballroom dancer apparently capable of defying gravity, and lovers smooching while slow-dancing at a house party.
Like the Frenchman Robert Doisneau, whose famous 1945 Times Square kiss sealed the end of World War II, Schadeberg has a keen eye for human intimacy. The gruff German is really a romantic at heart. He is also more of an observer than a voyeur; his pictures of dancers and lovers never feel invasive. Look at what I happened to see, his pictures say. Ain’t that cute.
Another dance picture from Schadeberg’s first stint in Jo’burg (1950-1964) captures the distinctive American character of the mining town at the start of its post-war boom. Taken in 1958, it shows a young white couple lethargically dancing at the Rand Easter Show. Rock ‘n roll is all the rage. He wears a snug suit and has a ducktail hairdo; she sports Capri pants and exudes an air of indifference. Both have cigs wedged between unsmiling lips. A gorgeous snapshot of an era.
For my money, Schadeberg’s shot of the black couple carousing in a makeshift Sophiatown dancehall represents his defining moment. It shows him as an observant looker capable of recognising pleasure, however fleeting or pensive its mood, for what it is.
There are many photos of dance. Why is this one special? Possibly because of the way it speaks to other, similar photos. In 1963, the Malian photographer Malick Sidibé was hanging out at Happy Club in his native Bamako when he saw a barefoot couple in stylish Western clothes dancing together. Sidibé saw an opportunity.
Where Sidibé’s photo captures Bamako’s post-independence joie de vivre, Schadeberg’s photo does something completely different. Township Shuffle, as he named his photo, distils into a single frame all the “appalling loneliness and desolation” that writer Lewis Nkosi identified as an essential part of the wild and excessive Jo’burg lifestyle under apartheid.
A detail: the couple in Township Shuffle have their eyes pinched shut. Lost in music and rhythm, they refuse the political savagery destroying their neighbourhood. Their indifference, if one can call it this, is less an exhibition of political will than it is a retreat to a place of internal exile that is impervious to the inquiries of the camera and proscriptions of state ideology. This is how many ordinary people coped under apartheid.
Both Township Shuffle and Schadeberg’s photo of the Rand East Show rockers appear in The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, curator Okwui Enwezor’s ambitious visual history of life in apartheid South Africa. This exhibition, currently on view at Museum Africa in Johannesburg, is a sprawling, often sombre elegy to a sullied historical period. It includes abundant sternness, an equal quantity of misery, and widespread evidence of apartheid’s impoverishment of the spirit.
Schadeberg’s photos, along with the after-dark photos of Gopal Naransamy and Billy Monk, offer a moment to breathe, even to smile. It seems like a guilty pleasure.
Apartheid South Africa made and shaped Schadeberg as a professional, despite an on-again, off-again relationship with his adopted homeland. Born in Berlin in 1931, Schadeberg received his initial training as a photographer in his birth city. While still in his teens, he moved to Hamburg where he apprenticed with the Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
His arrival in Johannesburg coincided with two opposing histories: the flourishing of an urban black metropolitan culture, and the implementation of an all-encompassing legal framework for racial separation by the newly elected National Party.
Schadeberg, who joined Drum magazine in 1951 as a freelancer, later becoming the monthly magazine’s chief photographer and art director, excelled at recording both these events.
His archive includes important photos of the 1955 demolition of Sophiatown and the 1956 Treason Trial, as well as plentiful portraits of the ANC’s top brass. But, at the same time, he took time out to observe life on the streets, and photograph his pals, Young Turks whose lives are still the subject of nostalgic return and mythmaking. In a word, he kept himself busy. But this is all known history.
“I am still typecast as a Drum photographer,” sighs the photographer at one point during our chat.
Schadeberg left Drum in 1959 –and didn’t stop working. That same year, now freelancing for the Sunday Times, he accompanied palaeoanthropologist Phillip Tobias on a field trip to study the San in the Kalahari Desert. The photographs he produced on this trip, particularly those of Bushman men and women congregated around the fire at night, are extraordinary.
With the minimum of contrivance, Schadeberg recorded bodies communing and rhythmically letting go. Eyes are routinely shut. Ritual and pleasure are interlaced. Like the Sophiatown dancers he photographed four years earlier, these rural people are journeying to that other place known only to the imagination.
For those who haven’t already made the trip to Museum Africa, look out for Schadeberg’s Kalahari pictures. They are no bigger than postcards, but offer a visual abundance. As printed documents they are also wonderful examples of a receding craft. Though possibly a strange tangent on a show with many scenes of urban revelry and bitter peri-urban conflict, Schadeberg’s Kalahari pictures nonetheless draw attention to an important theme, one that is constantly replayed in this ambitious exhibition: the idea of internal exile.
It is there, plain to see, in Santu Mofokeng’s claustrophobic 1986 essay of primly dressed aunties and uncles, their eyes shut, lost in religious ecstasy, as they journey on trains between Soweto and central Jo’burg. It is also strangely visible in Cedric Nunn’s superb 1987 portrait of a mother seated on a bed with a blanket covering her – mourning the death of her son.
There is a direct connection between Mofokeng and Schadeberg. In official biographies of local photography, it is Bob Gosani, Peter Magubane and Ernest Cole who are named as Schadeberg’s understudies at Drum. But in the mid-1980s, while working as a freelance news photographer, Mofokeng commuted by train and taxi from Soweto to Monaghan Farm, north of Lanseria Airport.
It was here, at a property acquired by Drum publisher Jim Bailey in the 1950s, that Schadeberg tracked down his photo archive, and where Mofokeng assisted him at the start of his long-term project to secure, organise, exhibit and publish his Drum archive.
Schadeberg remembers the peculiar speech at the launch of his first book of Drum photographs in 1987, The Fifties People of South Africa. Almost a decade after first telling me the story, he revisits it again. “I organised a very big launch at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg,” he says. He asked Bailey to speak at the book launch.
A dab hand at mimicry, Schadeberg puts on a pukka English accent, pretending to be Bailey: “I’d be delighted.” The speech, which took Bailey three days to write, confounded the photographer.
“I couldn’t quite understand what he was talking about because he spoke about the Drum writers in Johannesburg, the writers in Ghana, Nigeria and East Africa, and then the Cape Town ones too. When he finished 20 minutes later he had not mentioned a single photographer – and the book was a photo book.”
Schadeberg has actively been publishing books since the 1982 release of The Kalahari Bushmen Dance, a valuable compilation of his 1959 photos from his field trip with Tobias. Many of these books have tended to focus on his Drum work, including Nelson Mandela and the Rise of the ANC (1990) and the very collectable Sof’town Blues (1994). Voices from the Land (2005), a study of rural poverty, ventured into new territory, but lacked the crisp modernist verve of his earlier editorial work. His latest, South Africa: Six Decades (2013), rehearses a familiar vein.
“I make a living by selling prints,” offers Schadeberg. “That is the only way I can survive and pay the rent. It goes well from time to time, but it is generally really touch and go. What helps is books, because you can send them to auction houses and collectors.”
If this sounds calculated, it is – but also in keeping with Schadeberg’s independent ethos. For much of his career he has worked as a freelancer. It takes street smarts to survive.
When he moved to London in 1964, he briefly worked as editor of the magazine Camera Owner, before resuming his freelance career. The Swinging Sixties made little impression on him.
“It was terribly boring,” offers Schadeberg in his typically direct manner. “You saw the youth walking down King’s Road in their silly little fashion uniforms. They were very naive, I found, especially coming from South Africa, especially having seen the fight against apartheid.”
Despite his indifference, Schadeberg did produce some important work. He photographed Mick Jagger in 1966, when the Rolling Stones were still loose-limbed and an unstable proposition. In 1968 he took a trip to Scotland and produced a gritty essay on working-class Glasgow. He unmasked right-wingers in Germany and photographed a Jewish family returning to Frankfurt. He also taught throughout the 1970s at the Central School of Art and Design in London.
The 1970s were, perhaps, the undoing of Schadeberg. He continued working, paid the rent, and along the way met his future wife, Claudia Horvath, with whom he started a film production company. But at the edge of his field of vision, things in photography were changing. His stern modernist conception of photography, which had blown into early 1950s Jo’burg like a spring thunderstorm, was suddenly out of date.
One of the more enjoyable things about interviewing Schadeberg over the years has been to hear him rail against new trends in photography. “Tom Wolfe once said contemporary photography is imagination without skill,” he tells me, repeating a mistake he made in 2005 when he told me the same thing. It was playwright Tom Stoppard, in his 1972 radio play Artist Descending a Staircase, who wrote: “Imagination without skill gives us contemporary art.”
It doesn’t really matter who said it. A lot of contemporary photography, thinks Schadeberg, needs to justify itself verbally. “I don’t need to justify my pictures,” he says without any shift in tone. “Take it or leave it. You either like them or you don’t.”
It’s a no-fuss approach that has served him well as an enduring professional.