Photographs that grab you by the history and the heart: Ranjith Kally

kally2An elderly woman sits on the floor separating small stones from lentils. There’s an irrevocable sense of lyricism in her pose, her focus, which makes this mundane activity one of solemn importance. This  photograph by Ranjith Kally of his mother, Rajwanthia Kally, taken in 1947, is a starting point to this astonishingly beautiful anthology of his photographs.

Oddly, Kally’s is not a name immediately recognised by many South Africans.  One of South Africa’s more prolific photographers, Kwa-Zulu Natal-born Kally earned his critical stripes as a photographer through Drum magazine and has been an important South African Indian photographic voice, for the past 40 odd years. A retrospective exhibition in 2004 at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg brought him to the ken of gallery going audiences, but sadly, in the 11 years since, he has not been feted as extravagantly on the gallery or photobook circuit as he deserves to be, by dint of the quality of his work and its historical importance.

In traversing these photographs framed as they are in this elegantly crafted book, you get to see the South African historical trajectory with a different nuance and a very specific depth of focus. Kally’s photographic technique is dense with detail, stark in its iconic nature and has the power to hold you tight and prevent you from turning the page.

The good thing and also the challenge of a photobook is that the order of the images are cast in stone, as it were. Yes, you could rip out all the pages and reorder them, but why would you? The editor’s decision to order the works thus is more unbreakable than that of the gallery curator. Here, generally, chronology is adhered to, and your eyes will devour and your heart will be nourished from one image to the next, the sense of beauty, the celebration of the extraordinary in Kally’s work, which digresses smoothly between posed portraits and photojournalistic shots.

Several images are printed as double page spreads, which is a bit of a Catch-22 in a book of this nature: while you get to appreciate the landscape image much bigger than it would be reproduced across just one folio, you lose something of its sense of moment in the binding.

Kally’s compositional skills knock you in the solar plexus and the gut in virtually every image, and embeds itself in your sensibilities, but it’s not an obvious knock on the head or kick in the stomach: it’s about where your eye is encouraged to logically settle first, and how it skirts with and skitters through the rest of the composition, enabling you eventually to take it all in. And then, to read the caption, which gives you a succinct understanding the historical import of the thing.

From sardine fishers and Tin Town poverty to the activism of people like Fatima Meer and Monty Naicker, to forays into relationships forbidden by apartheid and people like Papwa Sewgolum whose golfing talent challenged the country’s rules, to portraits of Chief Albert Luthuli and Alan Paton, the images engage you and thrust you into the complicated heart of South African stories, astonishing in the telling, that open new passages into preconceived understandings of how things were. There’s humour and sadness, celebration and observation here in balanced yet rich measure.

The photograph of Ma Luthuli and Gadija Christopher Gool, two doyennes of South African struggle politics, who both celebrated their centenary in 1996, is arguably one of the strongest reasons to own this book.  More than a double page spread of two old ladies, it is about the shifts and currents of history in their eyes, and the gentle fondness and deep respect the photographer offers them.

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  • Memory Against Forgetting: A Photographic Journey Through South Africa’s History 1946-2010 (Quivertree Publications, Cape Town 2014) is by Ranjith Kally, with essays by Kalim Rajab. It is designed Libby Doyle and edited by Brandon de Kock. ISBN : 978-0-992216-93-1
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