There are no noticeable signs of a grand enterprise in the photographs of Daniel “Kgomo” Morolong (1928 – 2012). The published photographs were, by all indications, taken in spaces which black people inhabited around a single town, East London during the 1950s and 70s. Back then, there could have been no more than 60 000 black people in East London’s two main black townships, Duncan Village and Mdantsane.
The photographs are realistic images of urban black people in familiar activities or formations, quite at ease, projecting, for the moment, no wilful messages concerning black oppression which can always be worked into photographs made in Africa. There are no images of people in the flux of big events, no inspired moves made with the material to conjure something beyond the real.
Morolong had to make his choices within the conditions of his time and place. The very idea of a real, practising photographer was new within the black communities of East London in the early period of his practice, and for a time he was pretty much the only photographer there. But the spirit of better things was alive. There was the still budding life of jazz and dance and urbanisation, a black urban culture that was in the process of shaping itself. This is what he wanted to document.
Committed to his craft and particular about his work, he went out of his way to have his own dark room to process his photographs. The later arrival and dominance of colour photography is said to have dampened his passion.
The photographs we see are in moderately contrasted tones of black and white, surprisingly luminous for the period in which they were made. They are candid, with no trickery in the compositions, the subjects just the right way in the frame, beaming, dauntless, often standing, doing something of their own. This life was there: a kind of self-made succession of liberties. Not that the suffering under the monstrosity of apartheid was not felt, especially in legislated apartheid’s heady first decades.
And Morolong included himself in the struggle even if he may not have been a hardcore activist. Importantly, he needed to exist close to his sensibilities, to perfect his craft as a photographer, as well as a ballroom dancer and a jazz player (he played the string bass and had taught himself to read staff notation). Morolong was an unprivileged diminutive man with a tremendous commitment to what he wanted to do.
This spirit of rising above one’s meagre conditions and making do with what one can, he wanted to celebrate in other people too. This is what his work shows. He chose not to document the suffering. His can be seen as an enterprise of negating through elision an undeserving reality.
What was more deserving in his mind was the inviolable will to exist in the people. There are the images of the convivial people at the beach, with the beautiful grey tones, sometimes with a hint of a metallic quality like some precious material. There is a grey-haired man broodily at his string bass in the street at night, with just enough light falling on him against the murky darkness in the background, and a scar – or a line of sweat? – running down the side of his face. There is the boxer posing in a stance on top of a bare wooden table, evoking the elevated floor of the boxing ring. A photograph can make its case on a single element, and in each of these three examples something definitive is recognisable: a dream material; sweat or scar, a mark of trial; and being true to form.
Morolong’s photographs were little known beyond his home town for most of his life, and only much later were they more widely seen and studied. There are yet many that we haven’t seen, which grace the walls of several homes, from a generation that has now all but stepped down.
We look back now and see his mark on the people who were thrown together in the place that came to be known as eSkom, the pet name for Duncan Village before Mdantsane came into existence, a name whose origins are elusive. From the days of its first inhabitants to the present day, eSkom has been proudly associated with the seeds of black style and the right kind of cleverness for black people who claim East London as their home. These are some of the values the township has demanded of us. Such is the spirit of the celebration of existence that is above all the living quality in Morolong’s photographs. We ought to celebrate his work for its own celebratory mark on our people through the people’s visual history of East London. – Mukurukuru Media