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The big picture: Jurgen Schadeberg’s portrait of singers in 1950s South Africa

Jurgen Schadeberg, whose death at the age of 89 was announced last week, grew up in wartime Germany before emigrating to South Africa in 1950. Though perhaps best known for his portraits of Nelson Mandela, he leaves behind several important bodies of work including an extensive series on the effects of apartheid on South Africa’s black communities.

When he first arrived there, Schadeberg was shocked by the extent of the apartheid laws. His status as an outsider gained him access to black communities that, he later recalled, were “becoming more and more dynamic on the cultural and political front, while the white world seemed isolated, stuck in its ways, so colonial and totally ignorant of the life of the blacks”.

In the mid-1950s, Schadeberg joined the staff of Drum magazine, which was aimed at a black readership, helping shape the magazine’s often hard-hitting editorials when he became artistic director. In 1955, he documented the forcible eviction of black families from Sophiatown, a racially mixed suburb of Johannesburg famous for its vibrant live music scene. He captured bulldozers demolishing houses and people wandering through the rubble with their few possessions or sitting, dazed and disconsolate, amid the ruins.

This portrait dates from the previous year and, in retrospect, can be read as a visual distillation of the energy and creativity of Sophiatown’s musical culture, which so threatened the white authorities. Like many of Schadeberg’s photographs, it is an artfully studied portrait in which his subjects – the Midnight Kids, a vocal harmony group from Western Township, Johannesburg – perform for his camera in an unnamed location in Sophiatown. Deftly lit, the shot shows the young men acting out a well-rehearsed routine, while the lead female singer seems more effortlessly immersed in the song they are singing, her white skirt a counterpoint to the prevailing monochrome textures.

Though not as well known as some of his other subjects, such as Miriam Makeba or Hugh Masekela, the young singers nevertheless evoke the joyous dynamism of a community in the face of unremitting oppression. One cannot but wonder what became of the Midnight Kids in the ensuing years of struggle.