Postcards from Zambia (3)

4. Mass tools

In the 1920s and 30s, democracy and media reproduction emerged together, and photography and cinema were key mass media tools. In 1925, Ernest Leitz Optische Werke in Germany released Oscar Barnak’s lightweight 35mm still camera, called the Leica I, which used standard cinematic film but with a frame size of 36 x 24mm. With Dr Max Berek’s lens on the Leica, quick and quality photography became easier for newspapers and amateurs, and created opportunities for photojournalists like Henri Cartier-Bresson (Jeffrey, 243).

Bicycle store, Mwachisopola, ZambiaBicycle Store in Mwachisopola.

A year earlier, in 1924, Northern Rhodesia came under the control of the Colonial Office as a Protectorate and became a ‘black dependency’ (Roberts, 195). In the last years of the British South African Company’s occupation, vast copper deposits were being found in the Copperbelt and, by the 1930s, four large copper mines had been established (185-6).

Back in Europe, with mass democratic movements and the introduction of Leica’s 35mm still camera, documentary photography arrived for the masses with Life magazine and Picture Post in the 1930s, and so did auteur photography, with Brassai’s Paris by Night (1933) and Bill Brandt’s A Night in London (1938) (Bate, 47).

This new mode of taking pictures - documentary photography - encompassed two approaches: the neutral objectives of John Thomson and August Sander, and the subjective capturing of a fleeting moment (53) of Henri Cartier-Bresson, both floating between art and journalism (56). Documentary photography has a point of view (60), constructs a representation of reality (61) and tries to make the spectator an eyewitness (59).

The technique was taken up with gusto. Germany was at the forefront in the early 1930s where there were photography and art magazines. Many talented exponents emigrated to Britain and France, or to USA, in time, but others remained and were murdered by Hitler’s regime.
Some exiles became famous in their adopted countries. Robert Friedmann fled to Berlin from Hungary to become a journalist and eventually became world famous as war photographer Robert Capa, fleeing to Paris when Hitler moved to eradicate Germany’s distinguished journalists after 1933.

5. Theory and practice

German writer and critic Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), perhaps the most important treatise on photography and its place in the world. Much debate had hitherto been about whether photography is art; the question should have been about the ‘real significance of photography in its impact on art and culture’ (Bate, 27).
The answer is huge, and increasingly so. Before photography, the painting had to be owned or visited; even in Benjamin’s time, a picture of a painting could be in a book, newspaper or magazine, but it was still largely invisible to the masses. Now, art is visible to the masses and can be seen on the television, the web or on a mobile phone. ‘Its authority is lost’ [and in] ‘its place there is a language of images’ (Berger, 33).

At the interface of this philosophical discussion were the enormous strides achieved in the mechanics and techniques of the craft at the time, and it is at this time that photography’s greatest milestone coincided with Zambia’s economic ascendancy.

Although colour film had been developed in 1935, it was not widely available until after the war (Jeffrey, 245), by which time, as the result of demand for copper during the Second World War, the Copperbelt had become the largest copper producer in the world (Roberts, 186). Black and white film however remained the medium of documentary photography until the late 1970s (Bate, 63). These were truly decisive moments in the history of both worlds.

For the next two decades, the country’s development continued apace, and so did that of photography in Europe.

In 1947, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David ‘Chim’ Seymour formed the Magnum cooperative, in Paris, which continues to be a leading photographic agency today. Many of the world’s leading photographers work or have worked there, including the social documentarian Sebastião Salgado and the war photographers James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress.

The iconic photographic book The Americans was published in 1958. It is a compendium of documentary photographs taken by Robert Frank across America, capturing the USA as it was in 1956-7.
But this was a dark time for Zambia: the faltering Northern Rhodesia African National Congress revived under economic stress and falling employment; Kenneth Kaunda, Simon Kapwepwe and Sikota Wina had rebelled against a new constitution based on a minority vote for Northern Rhodesia and formed the Zambia African National Congress, which was banned in 1959 and Kaunda and others were jailed. They were later released in 1960.

34-second slideshow

Cover of Postcards from Zambia Charcola sellers, Chisamba Outlets on public roads Eugene boils water on charcoal outside his hotel kitchen Fish, Nalusenga Fancy footwork Roadside trade, Chisamba A women's focus group on vitamin A in maize, in full discussion, Mkushi Everyone experiences the taste and texture of bio-fortified maize, Mkushi Community leaders take the matter seriously, Mkushi Schoolteachers join in and prepare mealie meal, chicken and rape, Mkushi And this really does turnout to be quite a feast, Chalata School, Mkushi Moribund rice mill, Mansa Livingstone Railway Museum St Theresa Catholic Cathedral, Livingstone Cleanliness Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, Choma

Peter Langmead

Lusaka, 2013

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