Writing Art History Since 2002

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Ntsikana Gallery | Grahamstown

It is a slightly sickening, and at the same time a daunting task to write a review for an exhibition that would not exist were it not for a senseless act of brutality. Last year Andrew Meintjes was fatally shot during a robbery at his Braamfontein studio. That this act was visited upon a man who gave so much to photography in South Africa makes the task of reviewing his work even more difficult.The more I speak to those who knew him, the more I realise that the photographic images on display in this mini-retrospective, curated by the Goodman Gallery, represent a tiny part of the many skills this exceptionally gifted artist and inventor brought to the photographic community of South Africa.Meintjes’ Panfield camera was legendary among photographers, almost like a Holy Grail for users of large-format 4×5-inch cameras. He also designed and built a number of highly specialised gadgets for the photographic and film industries, and was active in assisting young photographers at the Market Photo Workshop. Speaking at the opening, Grahamstown photographer Obie Oberholzer, ably summed things up: “He gave always so much more than he took.”But what of his photographic work? By all accounts, Meintjes was a modest man. It is entirely probable that he did not see why anyone should be all that interested in his own images. The integrity with which he photographed is clearly in evidence in the way he engaged with Johannesburg. Meintjes photographed Jo’burg because he loved Jo’burg. This much is clear from this exhibition, which leaves one wishing for more: more of the series he had started on views of the Brixton Tower, and more of the views of Constitution Hill (of which only one view was offered on this exhibition).His series detailing buildings in and around Jeppe Street are subtly beguiling. Here are images that would not look out of place in a commercial architectural photographer’s portfolio, and yet anyone who knows the workings of a large format camera will realise that, despite the vogue for debunking Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment principle, once you’ve gone through all the hassle of setting up your camera on your tripod and composing your image, you think damned decisively about when you fire the shutter.One can assume that the image of the Johannesburg Sun building, with several cars waiting at a red light, was shot in a very decisive way. Meintjes set up his camera, and he waited. The lights changed, the cars moved on, and he waited some more, until the two bakkies pulled up, one with some men on the back protected by a wire mesh, the other with a mysterious load, all covered with black plastic. What could have been a simple documentation of a building becomes something more of a signifier of the character of inner city Johannesburg.These images of Jeppe Street aside, his images of Johannesburg are mysteriously devoid of people, and begin to resonate with the emptiness of Free State farm landscapes. His later work showcases a Zen-like sense of stillness, magnified by the minute detail of what a large format camera reveals. A panoramic image of Constitution Hill, although containing the figure of his partner, Lorna Ferguson, sitting on a flight of stairs reading a book, and the photographer’s own shadow, exemplifies this Zen-like stillness. This seems to lend his four early, square-format portraits of white Jo’burgers from the 1970s a sense of eerie quiet. Unsettling even, given our knowledge of the storms that were later to come to the city.Tim Hopwood

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