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  • Instant AncestorsLooking into a Cache of South African Photographic Erratics
  • Steven C. Dubin (bio)

Boxes of old unlabeled photographs are commonly featured at flea markets worldwide. Some enterprising vendors dub them “instant ancestors,” hawking the prospect of acquiring fictive kin and ersatz genealogies to new publics. These traders peddle style over substance and invite their customers to conjure up backstories for signifiers that have lost their indexicality. In essence they stoke peoples’ penchant for nostalgia. As objects that are commonly imbued with strong sentiments (Barthes 1981), photos enable individuals to fabricate memories and to project their contemporary needs and concerns onto depreciated material.

This inquiry is based upon an unexpected archive: unclaimed material from a frame and photo developing shop in Johannesburg, South Africa. It expands upon numerous investigations into the visual economies and biographies of photographs. For example, Cohen (2014) and Feyder (2015) worked with caches of negatives that were found by chance or stored away for decades. In the first instance, the researcher’s primary interests lay with the ethical implications of image making and display. In the second, the goal was to reconnect members of the “source community” of a particular photographer’s work. The research strategies of both trumped performing a close analysis of the photos themselves.

Moreover, Haney (2013) investigated family-run studios in West Africa; the elite customers of these places have passed down portraits for generations, and the identities of both creator and subject thus remain discernible. Nimis (2013) similarly looked at networks of Yoruba studio photographers. Once again, knowing the source is critical to understanding aspects of the production side of image making, such as the contribution of distinctive professional styles and norms. While all these studies make important contributions to understanding African photography, the application of their insights is limited in the case of anonymous or semi-anonymous images, their creators, and their owners.

Other scholars have directed a great deal of attention to studio photographers such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe in Mali, and more recently to relative unknowns such as South Africa’s S.J. “Kitty” Moodley (Dubin 2014), Ronald Ngilima (Feyder 2015) and Daniel Morolong (McNulty 2014). Of special note are the opportunities that studios offered for flights of fantasy and aspirational self-fashioning, often under oppressive social conditions (see, e.g., Behrend 1998; Wendl 2001).

It is impossible to calculate the volume of unidentified photographs that survive in marketplaces, archives, household cupboards and drawers, in trash dumps—virtually anywhere, for that matter. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assert that they encompass a vast but under-researched field that exists beyond the focal boundaries that prior researchers of African photography have mapped. This investigation suggests some ways of going forward to understand such phenomena.


In 2014 I purchased over 800 personal photographs and documents from Ravi Lalla, the owner of Popular Picture Framers and General Dealer in Johannesburg. I had heard passing references a number of times to a photo shop that operated on the southeastern edge of the city. When I watched the documentary Jeppe on a Friday (Walsh and Lalloo 2012), Lalla’s appealing appearance as one of film’s featured subjects confirmed that the business continues to exist.

The first time I visited I was in awe of his shop, packed as it was with sample frames, kitschy artwork, thousands of chromolithographs of Biblical scenes, makarapa1 left over from the FIFA 2010 World Cup competition, African curios produced for the tourist market, and promotions for local products and services, such as cell phone carriers: “Yebo, Gogo! [Yes, Granny]” (Fig. 1).

Lalla has deep roots in this precinct that is known as Jeppestown, which once bustled with Indian-owned shops. This is where he was born and raised, and his father was one of dozens of tailors working in the vicinity. The buildings largely remain in [End Page 70] Indian hands, but many of them now house businesses run by a cross section of South Asians, as well as Africans from other countries, including Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Ghanaians. Lalla launched this business in 1978 along with three family members, but he is now sole proprietor. The shop is unlikely to...


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pp. 70-79
Launched on MUSE
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