In 2014, years after he moved from South Africa to Australia, the novelist J.M. Coetzee finally sold his own apartment in Cape Town. Soon after a researcher went through a cardboard box left behind in the vacated flat — and inside, to his astonishment, he discovered a welter of remarkable unpublished materials by the taciturn Nobel laureate. But they were not manuscripts. They were photographs: sheafs of yellowing prints that depicted “scenes from provincial life,” as his three volumes of autobiography are subtitled, as well as undeveloped negatives.

Before he turned to literature, it turns out, Mr. Coetzee was a committed teenage photographer — and his black-and-white impressions of his family, his school and daily life on his uncle’s farm are on view for the first time, in an exhibition at the Irma Stern Museum in Cape Town. Mr. Coetzee had never showed the photographs to anyone; he was suspicious, when the exhibition was proposed, whether a writer’s early experiments with the camera had any importance at all. But the images, shot in 1955 and 1956, when the author was 15 and 16 years old, offer a crucial vista onto the formation of an author as restrained in his personal disclosures as in his prose. More than that, they give a new depth to his fiction, which owes as much to the arts of the lens as of the page. Read more