A South African Boyhood, in Black and White

Posted January 16, 2018 9:34 p.m. EST

In 2014, years after he moved from South Africa to Australia, novelist J.M. Coetzee finally sold his own apartment in Cape Town. Soon after a researcher went through a cardboard box left behind in the vacated flat — and inside, to his astonishment, he discovered a welter of remarkable unpublished materials by the taciturn Nobel laureate. But they were not manuscripts. They were photographs: sheafs of yellowing prints that depicted “scenes from provincial life,” as his three volumes of autobiography are subtitled, as well as undeveloped negatives.

Before he turned to literature, it turns out, Coetzee was a committed teenage photographer — and his black-and-white impressions of his family, his school and daily life on his uncle’s farm are on view for the first time, in an exhibition at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town.

Coetzee had never showed the photographs to anyone; he was suspicious, when the exhibition was proposed, whether a writer’s early experiments with the camera had any importance at all. But the images, shot in 1955 and 1956, when the author was 15 and 16 years old, offer a crucial vista onto the formation of an author as restrained in his personal disclosures as in his prose. More than that, they give a new depth to his fiction, which owes as much to the arts of the lens as of the page.

The exhibition, which closes this weekend, was organized by the curator Farzanah Badsha and Hermann Wittenberg, the scholar who first found the images. Wittenberg provided me with digital reproductions of Coetzee’s early snaps, which had to suffice for me — I wasn’t able to make it to Cape Town for the show (and the beach). Nearly two dozen of the photographs in the exhibition are vintage prints; another 58 are newly printed from negatives abraded and speckled by time.

Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940. His family was not wealthy, and it would have been a considerable expense for young John to acquire his 35 mm Wega — a less expensive Italian clone of the lightweight Leica camera used by Henri Cartier-Bresson and other photographers he admired in Life magazine.

Soon he set up a darkroom in his family home in the suburbs of Cape Town. His mother, Vera, was a schoolteacher; John loved her deeply, and photographed her outside their tidy house, asleep on a sofa or reading with his younger brother, David.

John felt more alienated from his father, Zacharias (known as Jack or Zac), as the author elaborated in “Summertime” (2009), the third and most fictionalized of his autobiographical books. Jack appears in just one photograph, in which his son has captured him at his meekest. Jack’s shoulders are slumped forward, his arms crossed, while John’s maternal aunt Annie reproves him with an extended finger. Though the Coetzees were Afrikaners, they spoke English at home. John Coetzee also attended an English-language school, St. Joseph’s Marist College. In “Boyhood” (1997), the author describes the school as “a shrunken little world, a more or less benign prison in which he might as well be weaving baskets as going through the classroom routine.” During one lesson, Coetzee sneaked a photograph of his Afrikaans teacher, Father Alexis, “an intelligent man who finds teaching beneath him.”

The school did offer the relief of sport, especially cricket, with which the teenage John was obsessed. In “Diary of a Bad Year” (2007), Coetzee confesses (in the voice of an alter ego, the novelist Señor C) that “in childhood, almost as soon as I learned to throw a ball, cricket took a grip on me, not just as a game but as a ritual.... But one question baffled me from the beginning: how a creature of the kind I seemed to be — reserved, quiet, solitary — could ever become good at a game in which quite another character type seemed to excel: matter-of-fact, unreflective, pugnacious.”

If the writer-to-be found Cape Town stultifying, he was enraptured by the Karoo, the arid interior region of South Africa where his uncle had a farm, called Voëlfontein (or “Bird Fountain,” in Afrikaans). The pockmarked landscape of the Karoo played a central role in the young writer’s perceptions of nature, family and colonization. In “Boyhood” Coetzee writes: “He knows Voëlfontein best in summer, when it lies flattened under an even, blinding light that pours down from the sky.” It’s an impression compounded in one of his photographs, whose top half is occupied by an unbroken vault of cloud.

Coetzee’s photographs of Voëlfontein, even at this young age, exhibit the ambivalent stance toward the South African countryside that would animate his later fiction — one trapped between love for its expanses and shame at its historical inheritance. This parched landscape was where he would set two early novels: “In the Heart of the Country” (1977), his prismatic portrait of a murderous rural housewife, and “Life & Times of Michael K” (1983), his minimal, Kafkaesque fable of the apartheid state.

The most remarkable images in this juvenile archive depict two farmhands at Voëlfontein, named Ros and Freek, whom Coetzee describes in “Boyhood” with rapt admiration. The laborers are “coloured” — an apartheid-era designation for people of mixed African, European and Asian background — and as a child he struggles with the written and unwritten rules that keep them apart.

One day in 1955 or 1956 the Coetzees traveled to the beach with Ros and Freek, who had never seen the sea before. Coetzee does not mention this trip in “Boyhood,” but his numerous shots of the farmhands, shot in a powerful low contrast that recalls the willfully spare new world of his recent “The Childhood of Jesus” (2013), reflect the momentousness of the day for the men and the boy alike.

In one of his rare interviews, when asked about the literary influences on “In the Heart of the Country,” Coetzee responded: “There is, I think, a more fundamental influence: film and/or photography.” And beyond the underlying influence of the camera, photographs have played a part in many of his novels: from his debut, “Dusklands” (1974), narrated in part by an American government researcher who carries photographs of war atrocities in Vietnam, to “Disgrace” (1999), his brutal dissection of post-apartheid South Africa, in which a shamed English professor encounters a belittling portrait of himself in the student newspaper. Later, in “Slow Man” (2005), Coetzee made his main character a photographer — one disenchanted to learn that digital images “could be sucked into a machine and emerge from it doctored, untrue.”

In “Boyhood” and the subsequent autobiographies, Coetzee refers to himself only by the pronoun he. Even his decision to write under the name J.M. Coetzee — eliding the name “John,” and using a middle initial that he allowed to be misidentified for decades (it stands for Maxwell, not Michael) — drew a curtain around himself. Yet in his photographic self-portraits, now more than 60 years old, a similar authorial detachment is mixed with frankness, sincerity and even pride. We see the adolescent John in a wool vest and open-necked shirt, cheeks ruddy, eyes soulful and sad. He leans to one side and appears somewhat frail, yet he stares forth with an assurance beyond his years.

In another he poses as a moody teenager, gripped by a melancholy that can lead to genius or misfortune. The room is dark, and the young Coetzee lights his face from below. He gazes upward, expectant. Soon he will put down the camera; it will be two decades before he publishes a book. Every novel he will write will be a self-portrait.

Additional Information:

‘J.M. Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood’ runs through Jan. 20 at the Irma Stern Museum, Cape Town, South Africa; irmastern.co.za.