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In Praise of Eccentrics

by Sean O'Toole / 07.08.2009

The man in the picture here is taking a picture of Lacock Abbey, former home of William Henry Fox Talbot. In official histories of Fox Talbot he is variously described as an English chemist, philosopher, classicist, Egyptologist, mathematician, philologist, linguist and archaeologist. All agree that he was a pioneer photographer.

The English National Trust, currently the keeper of his home, a former medieval abbey, are more expansive in their introduction to Fox Talbot: “A gentleman scholar of considerable means and social standing, he studied the arts and sciences and kept detailed notes of his endeavours. His experiments in the mid 1830s led him to discover the negative/positive photographic process.”

The Abbey

There is a point in all this.

In his elegant little essay, Of Weirdoes and Eccentrics, the essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer describes the eccentric as a distinctive presence, a donny, dotty, harmless creature of fancy, more often than not someone rich or psychologically powerful enough to live by their own laws.

The history of photography, despite the sternness with which it is so often narrated, knows many such individuals, men and women whose quirks have greatly impacted on the quasi-scientific act of capturing light.

William Henry Fox Talbot was an eccentric, so too the French aerial photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Nadar, founder with Jules Verne of The Society for the Encouragement of Aerial Locomotion by means of Heavier-than-Air Machines. Nadar’s exploits drifting over Paris in a balloon with his clunky camera were caricatured in a cartoon lithograph by Honore Daumier.

Photography being such a globalised craft, other names popup. In Japan there is Takuma Nakahira, founder of the influential avant-garde photo journal Provoke, lover of plants and destroyer of his own archive. On the African continent there is Samuel Fosso, who fled his native Cameroon for the Central African Republic, where he passed over working in his brother’s furniture-making business, pursuing instead a career as a studio passport photographer. His black and white self-portraits, camp set-ups made in the 1970s in his spare time, are now highly sought after.

Roger Ballen, Fragments, 2005

Closer home, South African photography has delivered up more than its fair share of eccentrics. Take Arthur David Bensusan, who was cast from the same mould as Fox Talbot. Born in South Africa’s unlovely economic capital, Johannesburg, in 1921, Bensusan was gifted with many talents: a qualified medical practitioner and minister of religion, this militarily schooled aerial photographer and member of the Royal Photographic Society was also briefly the Mayor of Johannesburg (1973-4). Today he is remembered for the collection of photographs he bequeathed the city, on view at Museum Africa.

If Bensusan is the prototype of the genteel eccentric, Santu Mofokeng and Roger Ballen are closer to Edith Sitwell’s description of the eccentric: “Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because the genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”

Fancy words, which you can put to the test – at least in Roger Ballen’s case – by visiting architect Jeremy Rose’s almost charming concrete rectangle in Auckland Park, otherwise known as the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery. It is currently hosting a selection of photos from Ballen’s new book, Boarding House. It’s not his best work, Bored House probably closer the truth, but there is no denying that Ballen is entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the South African crowd.
Roger Ballen, Boarding House, 2008

His photos are, by turns, compelling, weird, silly, beautiful, exploitative, boring, elegant, placeless, contrived, devastating. How many local photographers can you say that about? Added to which he has all the quirks of a full-blown eccentric. He is a geologist, philosopher, painter, photographer, world traveller, entrepreneur and more.

Anyway, fancy footwork aside, Roger Ballen’s Boarding House photos are on show at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery until August 22.

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  1. Graeme Feltham says:

    Only eccentrics who embody the words – if meaning is not a lump of funny dough, it must and will be a tyrant – must be lavished with goodies.
    The rest should be flogged all night and shot at dawn.

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