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Interpreting a changing South Africa

The late 19th century was an important period in South African history, as the discovery of diamonds and later gold sparked tremendous growth in population and an influx of money to the region. Michael Kramp is investigating the photographic representation of South Africa’s development through this Mineral Revolution and the Boer Wars of 1880-81 and 1899-1902.

Kramp, associate professor of English, examines a period in South Africa starting in 1870, in which the country underwent ongoing industrialization and economic changes. His research focuses on a series of photographic albums and books, many of which were private collections, that illustrate a culture in transition—often a forced transition due to Britain’s imperial development—and the influence of photography on the formation of the apartheid system.

This transition, says Kramp, “overwhelmed and transformed South African culture. Vast amounts of European money, business interests and immigrants came in, and this pre-modern state became modern very quickly.”

The Mineral Revolution modernized diamond, gold and other mining industries in South Africa and radically reconfigured its geography, economy, labor relations, transportation structures and immigration patterns. The Boer Wars later decisively established British economic and imperial interests in the area while shaping modern military tactics.

By the time the Victorian Era ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, South Africa was the world’s largest producer of gold and diamonds and one of Britain’s most valuable colonial holdings.

The subjects chosen by photographers changed as the modern South African state emerged, says Kramp. Images from the 1880s highlighted the wealth of the mining industry and were used as recruitment devices to attract immigrant labor from Europe and elsewhere, he says.

“At first, they are images of men working hard to successfully mine the land, but then photography changed to more conventional ethnographic images of the British trying to objectify native South African people. As you get closer to the beginning of the Boer Wars, the images begin to portray the military buildup.”

Kramp’s current project is an extension of his prior study of 19th-century photography. During his ongoing research in London, he has come across the photographic collections, and he has spent the last six months trying to interpret these albums to determine what type of narrative the images create.

Most of the images have never been seen before and certainly they haven’t been discussed critically, he says.

“One of the great challenges to writing about photography is there is so much material. One of the first things we need to do is make these images available in some sort of critical anthology so more people can write about them.

“Photographs are so vastly reproduced; the biggest challenge is to make sense of the depth of the images I have and how they were used. There’s some important work to be done.”

Story by Rob Nichols

Posted on Tuesday, May 20, 2014

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