During the dark art school years I was there in body but, clearly, only hovering somewhere about myself in spirit – the amnesia of the walking wounded. When I meet up with close friends from that time I am often amazed when I hear their stories. Most of the time I can remember absolutely nothing about the tales they tell me, in which I took part. It’s a little disconcerting.
I went through the motions and somehow graduated from one art school and went on to study at another. I graduated from that one too, not sure how. My heart was not in it. Being at a left-wing university in the South Africa of the 1970’s was a tough call for a person with PTSD. They were turbulent times. Vast numbers of the populace were in a state of trauma. Those of us with an awareness of the inhumanity of the prevailing political system were under pressure to make that known in the art that we made.
I wasn’t really up to the task, being depressed most of the time. This wasn’t at all helped by an unhealthy lifestyle and self-medication with the zeitgeist’s non-pharmaceutical recreational escapes. But my great friend, the fine art photographer Michael Wyeth, prompter of memories, reminds me sometimes of a project that we did together. What I remember is a collection of hundreds of slides that we had assembled, all black and white images, which kept falling out of the slide tray in the most irritating way and being out of sequence. What he remembers is that we twice showed the work to an enthusiastic audience at the main university campus. We aimed to make a statement against the violence and insanity of the time and Michael tells me that we succeeded.
The public is in need of experiences that are not just voyeuristic. Our society is in a mess of losing its spiritual center… Artists should be the oxygen of society. The function of the artist in a disturbed society is to give awareness of the universe, to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.
Michael still has some of the slides; the images below come from that collection. They in no way reflect the quality of the photographers’ original work, being forty-year-old slides re-photographed using a 1986 projector. We had David Goldblatt’s permission to use his work at the time. We aren’t able to identify the origin of some of the work.
Dark times indeed, but, ironically, the photographic darkroom became a pool of light. I was introduced to the metaphysical photography of Minor White and Eugen Herrigel’s 1953 book, ‘Zen In The Art Of Archery’. Both revealed another way of seeing or understanding the world and planted a seed that would later grow into an appreciation of inner stillness through yoga, homeopathy and Buddhist meditation. My mind was still too fogged to make the link with what had happened the night of the accident, when I was told to ‘Put your hands in your lap, turn your palms up, close your eyes, and listen to your breathing.’ Michael remained focused on photography and Buddhism and became the fine photographer that he is today.
The photograph reflects a moment that is happening out in the world, and also one that is happening in the minds of the photographer and the viewer. The fact that the moment is fleeting and will never get repeated adds to its appeal. A photograph acknowledges this transience. The best ones attach meaning to it.
David Butow, ‘Seeing Buddha: A Photographic Journey’
A press photograph of UCT student protesters being beaten by police in Cape Town, June 1972The following two images are from David Goldblatt’s ‘On The Mines’, published 1973