Ruth Rosengarten »



The series is block hung. Each individual component is a small photograph of the back of a photograph. The arrangement of the photographs here is random, and on the wall is approximately formal (or intuitive), rather than chronological (or narrative). The orientation of each image is in accordance with that of the original photograph that’s occluded from view. I continued to explore the relationship between the recto and verso side of these family photographs in another project, Dear Fusia, 2015-2016.










Text for exhibition Still, Life with Terry Kurgan at AOP Gallery, Johannesburg, May-June 2011.

Recently, I’ve been scanning old family photographs – sometimes creased and scuffed, often ambered by time and light – in an attempt to constitute a digital archive. I’ve thought about such photographs as time capsules: amulets against oblivion and loss, their particular arrest holding a vanished moment. As much as I myself am a profligate digital snapper of everyday life, I am (perhaps nostalgically) intrigued by the time when a single photograph staunchly or tenderly memorialised an event. Family members marshalled to pose and smile in speckled sunlight, a still life of fruit casually resplendent upon a table; a dog long dead lending its quirky humour to the scene.

It is a commonplace that our individual recollections are both sustained and constructed by family photographs. The older photos, those that precede our personal historical time, join one another to constitute small clusters of collective memory (and collective amnesia); the more recent ones in which we ourselves appear wanly from another time, serve as mnemonics: these stills become prompts and then, more securely, ‘memories.’

The reverse side of each photograph tells its own story. Where now, we pay scant attention to the reproducible materiality of digital prints, these old photographs are intriguing as physical objects. Their mottled surfaces are exquisite, painterly abstractions in shades of malt; the torn, map-shaped black blotches remnants and reminders of an earlier existence in an album. And the words, in scripts we no longer use; names, dates, dedications…

I began to draw from these photographs in a blind bid to understand something about their poise and formality, their distilled tenderness. They dated from different periods, but  such differences were flattened and negated by my use of a single drawing implement: the pencil. My first renderings were quick, faint and linear, as if I were abashed to be drawing so directly from a photographic source. As I worked, I became more interested in the suffused light and pools of shadow through which the images gained visibility.

As I try to capture something of the photograph, the affect I have invested in these images is itself put on standby. In concentrating on the surface rather than trying to dig out any meaning that might be buried within the photograph, I have found myself thinking repeatedly that a photo reveals nothing of the temporal substance it ostensibly captures. Offering itself as intractable surface, it tells us little of the mysteries of people’s passage through time and how it is that, now old or buried, the child gazes back at us from sepia in all innocence. I want to explore again what happens when that most direct of all forms of graphic capture – pencil on paper – meets the unyielding strangeness of the photograph.


RR.  May 2011

Installation at AOP Gallery, Johannesburg, May 2011.

installation shot, aop gallery, johannesburg, may 2011

installation shot, aop gallery, johannesburg, may 2011

Examples of individual works, printed on Hahnehmühle Photorag paper. Click on full screen icon for… full screen viewing of slide show.


For drawings, click here