Life, etc

Photography and the art of appreciation

By Greg Nicolson 24 July 2012

A new series of photography exhibitions has kicked off in a studio in Sandton, Johannesburg. The aim is to boost the art of photography in South Africa, while offering a unique insight into the artists’ world. GREG NICOLSON talks to the studio owner, Michael Meyersfeld. 

Michael Meyersfeld studio. If not for the sign in the car park, you wouldn’t guess from the bland surroundings that you were in the right place. Among the warehouses in an Eastgate business park, a turn from the M1, Johannesburg, another plaque directs you to a nondescript, mundane-looking building. 

Stairs lead to an office. Photos hang in frames around the room. Behind the front office is a studio. Light stands line the inner wall. Carefully packed prints and studio equipment tower towards the warehouse ceiling. An incomplete, three-walled room has been erected in the centre of the room. Its white walls follow a smooth radius to the floor. It’s pristine. 

But this is the studio of an award-winning photographer. Works by some of SA’s best-known photographers are hung from the walls. There’s Francki Burger, Bob Cnoops, Antoine de Ras, Pieter de Ras, Harry de Zitter, Buntu Fihla, Stephen Hobbs, Greg Marinovich*, Michael Meyersfeld, Marcus Neustetter and Santu Mofokeng. Collectively, their accolades and range of work would consume the remainder of this article.

Greg Marinovich – Trench

Meyersfeld, Neustetter, Cnoops and Hobbs conceived Backlight, an exhibition featuring six to 10 quality photographers, to be held in Meyersfeld’s studio every eight weeks. The idea was inspired partly by a lack of gallery options, partly by economics and partly by the desire to foster an appreciation for photography.

Seated at the edge of the studio space, Meyersfeld explains the concept of Backlight. They wanted a space where the public could come and know they’d see a high standard of work by different photographers without the gallery mark-ups. The aim is to “get photography as an art form out and on walls.”

Meyersfeld doesn’t touch his cup of tea as he talks about the medium in SA. He’s wearing a dark vest over his long-sleeved top, has thick-framed glasses, and his thinning hair is lined with grey. He’d like to return to fine art photography after his focus on advertising, he says. “The economics of it is what’s holding me back.”

Bob Cnoops – Venda Cow

Jacques Michau, curator at the Everard Read Gallery, one of the country’s most exclusive exhibiting spaces, says photography “is hugely underrated in South Africa and any exposure of the medium is great.” 

Why doesn’t the recognition exist? I ask Meyersfeld. Do we appreciate art less than other communities? “The answer is yes, but not because we’re naïve or stupid. If you live in London and you have the slightest inkling in art, even if you don’t, and you go to the Tate Modern.

“You walk through those passages and even if you don’t really care, understand or both, something rubs off. You have dinner two weeks later with somebody else and they chat about it. They’ve seen it and you pass a remark and something penetrates and you’re exposed. You have hundreds of galleries. It’s a different culture.”

Michael Meyersfeld – Sea Point Pool with Ship

New York has 400-500 galleries dealing exclusively in photography, he says. “Here, we have zip. It’s far more difficult to find a gallery that sells photography and not just their photographers.”

But trying to create an appreciation of the medium hasn’t been easy. The day before Backlight II opened, a retoucher was in the studio. He pointed to one of the photos and asked why he would buy it when he could purchase a Gregory Crewdson (a world-renowned photographer) for R25,000 which, in any case, was almost triple the price of the photo on the wall. But Meyersfeld showed him the list of auction sales he records each day. The last Crewdson was sold a week earlier at Sotheby’s for US$64,000.

“Unfortunately most people with a camera think they can take pictures. And yes, they can. (But) if you turn around to them and say, ‘Here’s a piece of paper. Can you write me a story?’ they look at you like there’s something missing. Well, taking a photograph is nothing different.”

Meyersfeld, Neustetter, Cnoops and Hobbs are collecting a catalogue of work they can sell for artists from Meyersfeld’s studio. “We need people to come here and buy,” he says. “We want to help out people who want to appreciate art… Our main aim is not to make money. Our main aim is to cover our costs.”

Panoramic view of the expo – Greg Nicolson (Daily Maverick)

Meyersfeld started collecting art as a teenager. Every month he would give a local dealer R100 and the dealer would pick from what came in. But not everyone’s ready to spend thousands on a photograph.

“What I say to people who query this is, if five of you go out to dinner it’s going to cost you R2,000, R2,500. So if you spend R5,000, it’s two dinner parties… If you look at one of these images and they really resonate with you and you think they’re amazing and you get up every morning and you go through the room where it is and you look at it and you love it, then it’s not money. I don’t think it’s a question of cost. It’s a question of appreciation of art.”

To give me a quick lesson in appreciation, Meyersfeld shows me his extensive files of fine art photographers – biographies, images and auction sales – and describes why he thinks art is essential.

“For the same reason that I think reading is essential, music is essential, going to the theatre is essential. It broadens your understanding. It makes you a far wider human being. As this grows so your understanding the appreciation of all the others get greater and your enjoyment of life gets greater.”

Meyersfeld’s assistant packs up his camera while we finish up the interview. He tightens straps around a yellow protective box that holds Meyersfeld’s camera. They’re ready to lock up the studio when I leave. 

It’s an experience one doesn’t have every day, but, if the Backlight crew have their way, this is about to change. The studio-cum-gallery is an insight into the world of the photographer, with images from some of the country’s best artists and a tour from a professional. DM

*Disclosure: Greg Marinovich works for Daily Maverick [Ed: when we can keep him in the country.]

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Main photo: Ambivalent Cop – photographic sculpture by Michael Meyersfeld



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