Interview: Hermann Wittenberg on ‘J.M. Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood’

Image: J.M. Coetzee

Since his novel Life and Times of Michael K won the Booker Prize in 1983, J.M. Coetzee has attracted attention both on and off the page (he never turned up to collect either of his two Booker Prizes). In lieu of public appearances, Coetzee’s fictionalised memoirs such as Boyhood (1997) offer major trawling grounds for readers wishing to learn about his life. A new lens for viewing the adolescent years of that life is now available in J.M. Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood, an exhibition of photographs taken by Coetzee as a sixteen year old, many of which are being seen for the first time.  

The exhibition’s curator is Associate Professor Hermann Wittenberg, who works at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Shortly after editing Two Screenplays (2014), a cinematic adaption of Coetzee’s novels, Wittenberg received some of Coetzee’s old photographic equipment that had been in storage for decades, including aluminium canisters full of decaying 35mm film. 

“When I opened them up there was this typical vinegar smell from the film base decaying,” Wittenberg told Collage

“I had them digitalised in a photographic lab, and when I opened them on my computer it was just this amazing experience. It was like looking through a keyhole into the world of Boyhood.

The monochromatic photographs had been taken, in the 1950s, by the sixteen-year-old J.M. Coetzee. They were a serendipitous find. Of the 450 images discovered, Wittenberg estimated that “80 to 90 percent of them had never been seen before, except in their negative.”

“Seeing them printed out like this was quite a revelation certainly for me, and I think Coetzee was also surprised when I showed them to him.”

Long before he became a writer, Coetzee was an aspiring photographer.  As well as being an active member of his school’s photographic club, he read books on photography and tried to imitate photographs from Life magazine. His first camera was a mail-order “spy camera”, with which he took discreet photographs in the classroom. 

“He obviously was fascinated by the medium and what a camera could do. He must have saved up quite a bit of his pocket money because he then bought himself for £40 a more professional camera, a Wega.”

That Wega captured the pictures that now make up the exhibition. Wittenberg described the photographs as “quite inventive and experimental,” gesturing to a picture of a desk strewn with writing paraphernalia.

“A photograph like this is really audacious,” he said. “It’s against the light. The drama of this is the chiaroscuro, the sharp shadows cast by the pens. I think he’s making a statement here: ‘This is me. This is where I’m writing.’”

Image: J.M. Coetzee

In most of the photographs, Coetzee tends not to pose his subjects but to take them in a more natural manner. 

“He liked to catch the unposed moment, and in that he was very much influenced by the photography of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, trying to catch that moment where truth reveals itself.”

As well as capturing influential moments and people in his life, the collection shows some of Coetzee’s early literary interests. 

“Quite a few are scenes of writing. He photographs books, paper, sheet-music, magazines, newspapers. Persistently his eye is drawn to writing.” 

“Most remarkably, you’ll see at the exhibition a photograph of his bookshelf at the age of sixteen. You can see what he’s reading at the time.”

This bookshelf reflects an ambitious reading programme crowded with philosophers ranging from Plato to Kant. 

Like many of the others, Wittenberg pointed out that it captured “a moment also described in Boyhood where he says, ‘Ok, if I want to make a mark on the world, I’ve got to stop reading The Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton and children’s books, and start reading seriously.’ That bookshelf in a sense can be seen as a conscious decision to reorient himself and think of himself as a serious reader.”

Perhaps even more interesting are what Wittenberg calls the “deleted scenes”, moments undescribed in his memoirs. One of these deleted scenes shows a schoolmate grinning and brandishing his teacher’s cane, a symbol of authority.

“In Boyhood we get the sense that Coetzee’s quite an obedient and well-behaved boy. But here we see him horsing around with his friends, doing something very transgressive, taking the teacher’s cane and playing around with it.”

Coetzee’s photographs from the 1950s enrich the character described in his fictional memoirs. They provide a more complete picture of the novelist.

“The photographs in a sense give us windows,” Wittenberg said, “like looking through a peephole into a lost world of the past that is only partially accessible through Boyhood, and they also give us an insight into a complex boy growing up and seeing the world in a sense through his eyes.”

J.M. Coetzee: Photographs from Boyhood will be on display in the Ira Raymond Room, at the University of Adelaide, until 5 December 2018.

Daniel McLean 

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