1990 - 1995

Jo Ractliffe


Jo Ractliffe writes:

I started photographing with my Diana camera in 1990, after losing all my photographic equipment in a burglary - initially, simply to continue photographing. But even after replacing my equipment, my 'archive' of Diana photographs continued to grow alongside my other work. Sometime later, I read a wonderful essay by Richard Avedon - Borrowed Dogs - where he talks about his family album pictures. He observes that in every photograph - and family photographs were important events - they were in front of a house or car that wasn't theirs, and always with a dog. In one year of pictures he counted 11 different dogs, none of which belonged to them. They had never owned dogs. He says that all the photographs in his family album were a fiction, a lie about who they were, but the truth about who they desired to be. That interested me and I started thinking about photography more critically - its different practices, different conventions, all in service to different interests and different 'truths'.

Diana was intended to raise questions about what we expect from photographs, particularly in relation to how history and memory have been constructed in South Africa through documentary photography, which privileged ideas of objectivity and truth. In Diana, both the subject matter - the incidental, the everyday of ordinary life - and the mode - seemingly random 'snaps' - challenged some of the conventional notions of how photographs should look and function. Ironically (one does not usually associate the snapshot with any degree of photographic skill), the Diana, with its fixed focus, plastic lens, light leaks and no exposure controls save 'sunny' and 'cloudy' dials, was not an easy camera to use. My first pictures were terrible and I had to rethink how I saw the world, also in photographic terms, and find a new approach to making images.

The installation contained 50 photographs (each 50 x 50cm) suspended back to back between sheets of glass. These 25 double-sided 'frames' were suspended from the ceiling in five rows, each one metre apart.

A second work, A Sunny Day (taken from an instruction in the 'manual' which says: "It is advisable to take pictures on sunny days"), explored the notion of the photograph as souvenir. Five 'postcard racks', each containing 12 'postcards' (cut-up postcard-size fragments of the larger images, screenprinted on the back with postcard demarcations), were installed on the gallery wall. Viewers were invited to take a postcard away with them - a souvenir, and literally a piece of, the exhibition. Individually, the postcard images were often indecipherable, nothing more than a wash of grey sky or piece of earth. But collectively, in the grid format, they made up a relatively coherent image, one that constantly shifted as exhibition viewers selected out a postcard and a new one took its place.

In 2004, a selection of 25 images from the 'Diana archive' was published in a portfolio by Warren Siebrits in a limited edition of 10. The images were quadtone pigment prints on cotton paper.