Poet laureate of South Africa’s landscapes

Business Day Live | Sue Grant-Marshall:



Obie Oberholzer’s iconic pictures of South Africa’s hauntingly beautiful, evocative landscapes and vibrant people have moved the BBC’s John Simpson to describe him as the “master painter” of our country.

Out of Line: As a boy, Oberholzer photographed the Leaning Tower of Pisa so that it seemed straight and the other buildings were leaning. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

The acclaimed journalist believes that photography is the true modern South African art form, “as it is in America,” and that only the camera can do justice to our faces and our unforgettable country.

Simpson penned these words in the latest book by Obie, as he’s known to everyone, in which he focuses his lens on our ancient, prehistoric Karoo landmass.

Simpson also calls him our “poet laureate” and whereas he doesn’t mean that literally, the photographer does indeed write powerfully — and amusingly — in Karoo: Long Time Passing.

The eccentric Oberholzer’s sense of humour and sharp wit infuse our conversion.

He sums up photography in one word, “viewpoint”. They call it “perspective” at Wits art school, before explaining why he has at last embraced the Karoo after 40 years of driving through it.

“It’s a difficult area to photograph,” says bushy-moustached Oberholzer. “The Karoo landscapes don’t come easy. It can be broody, pale and distant.

“But with a combination of age and experience, I felt I could attack this colossus that I’ve been having a love affair with for so long,” says the 66-year-old Oberholzer. “Every man has his own Karoo,” he adds after a pause.

Oberholzer took his book’s starting point at the latitude of 23 degrees East and longitude 32 South which intersect near Victoria West. From there he’s divided the Karoo into four.

Each section has a map so you can instantly see the area he’s covering in that particular part of his coffee-table style — “I prefer wine-table style” — production.

He doesn’t do “coffee table”, which even a cursory glance at the cover will confirm, for on it a long, flat road streaks into a glowering, gloomy distance where moody clouds hang.

Now that their two sons are grown, he took Lynn, his wife of 40 years, on a five-month trip during which they covered 15,000km.



Long Time Passing

  • TITLE: Karoo: Long Time Passing
  • AUTHOR: Obie Oberholzer
  • PUBLISHER: Jacana


He’s travelled alone most of his life, traversing Africa from top to bottom in a little car he emptied of everything, save the driver’s seat, so he could live out of it.

His only companion then was a sense of humour — “something you need in Africa”.

The retired Rhodes University professor of photography enjoys engaging with locals and uses their stories in his books.

Undoubtedly that’s how he found a woman with a skinned porcupine ready for roasting in Karoo. Not to mention the farmer whose office contains a mounted prize ram, skulls, a fossil and the poster of a woman with the world’s biggest boobs.

Naturally there are sweeping Karoo scenes, of ancient rock, vast empty plains, towering sunsets and strange cloud formations, shot through Oberholzer’s often, but not always, quirky lens. His photographs create an intense longing to be there.

One image belongs in a frame, of an abandoned farmhouse, lying beneath the fire-damaged slopes of snowcapped Mannetjiesberg Peak near Uniondale, caught in a shaft of sunlight.

“All the other components of the picture are desaturated. I’ve tried to create a stark beauty in that bleakness.”

He captures, uniquely, the endlessly photographed Owl House at Nieu Bethesda. We see too a graveyard of windmills, a battered old metal typewriter and a thatcher who air-cures his Spanish-style hams.

Not for Oberholzer the captionless picture. Indeed, he writes ministories for each depiction, and starts the book with several hundred words of his pertinent prose.

“I’ve been criticised for my writing by a certain section of the photographic fraternity who think that this should just be about the pictures.”

Oberholzer has had 35 one-man exhibitions in various South African galleries and 12 internationally. Yet he’s never been signed to a gallery, nor won any awards for his work.

“People who are serious about art think that I am a joker,” he says, unconcerned.

Yet he doesn’t think of himself as an artist, “but a traveller, a storyteller”.

His camera fulfills a function and he quotes a famous war photographer he admires, Don McCullin, who told Oberholzer when the South African was on an assignment in France: “I use my camera like a toothbrush. It does the job.”

It was the self-deprecating Oberholzer who introduced the innovative concept of painting with light — “I just call it torching” to South Africa in the late 1970s.

He sweeps powerful “hunting torches” across a subject while his camera is set on a long exposure. He could run the exposure for an hour when he used film.

“Today with the much more sensitive digital, I only have about 30 seconds in which to sweep my torch across images to make them more animate.”

Oberholzer now gives courses, teaching how to paint with light, “although I didn’t coin that phrase. Younger guys who copied me did that.”

He grew up on a farm near Pretoria, the son of a German-born American who ensured he was doing art by the age of four. Later on he was taught by Walter Battiss, of Fook Island fame.

Oberholzer’s unusual view of the world emerged when his mother, who imbued him with wanderlust, gave him a camera and took him to Pisa, Italy, when he was eight.

He lined up the Leaning Tower so it stood straight and all the other buildings were crooked.

He told his farm-school headmaster there’d been a huge earthquake in Europe that had left only one unaffected tower. “He believed me, as he didn’t know where Pisa was. It shows you why I am not very educated,” says the man who graduated top of his masters class in Munich at the second-oldest photographic school in the world.

Oberholzer has bathed Karoo in a light that will make you smile, sing, breathe deeply, think meaningfully. Get it before it becomes Africana, goes out of print and exacts a price many thousands more than the original.


Read this and other great art-icles at source: http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/entertainment/2014/01/21/poet-laureate-of-south-africas-landscapes