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PORTRAITS IN AFRICA: 1948-1953 (article first published : 2004-10-7)

Recently published by Sunbird Publishing, Portraits in Africa 1948-1953 presents in monograph form for the first time the exquisite work of cinematographer and photographer, Hector Acebes. Over 90 striking photographs, richly reproduced in duotone, document his travels through Africa from 1948 to 1953, offering a fresh look at people, cultures and experiences that have dramatically changed over the past 50 years.

Ed Marquand, director of the Hector Acebes Archive, and noted art historian Isolde Brielman provide valuable insight into the man behind the camera and his work.

In his brief, but concise biography, Ed Marquand describes how Acebes love for adventure and photography were evident at an early age: at 13 he ran away from home to sail around the world resulting in his father sending him to the strict New York Military Academy where he was able to practice his favourite hobby, photography. Although he studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it was his love of travel and photography which proved irresistible, and he commenced his long and productive career as a documentary and industrial filmmaker working on a feature film in Spain.

It was Africa which provided Acebes with the most compelling subjects for his photographs and film footage. He was fascinated by the vast African landscape, the people and the cultural diversity of this continent, which is clearly demonstrated in his photographs: dress, adornment, architectural elements and geographical features. The engineer’s precision and photographer’s eye are revealed in his images through striking composition, lighting, exposure and darkroom techniques. His great technical expertise enabled Acebes to capture shadow detail in darker skin tones in stark bright sunlight, rarely repeatedly posing or photographing subjects in the search for the perfect composition.

Isolde Brielman describes the various qualities of his work which distinguish his photography today. His choice of a Rolleiflex camera instead of the popular 35mm Leica, enabled Acebes to maintain eye contact with his subjects. He photographed from the waist with a slight upward tilt of the camera, resulting in his images appearing more dramatic and larger.

Acebes was committed to establishing a connection with his subjects, sometimes spending weeks at a time living with the communities and individuals appearing in his photographs, enabling him to capture the subjects as active individuals, thoughtfully presenting themselves, their faces, gestures and moods before the camera. For example, the unidentified woman photographed in Mali in a white lacy dress stares at the viewer with calm confidence making one wonder what she is thinking. Similarly the young unidentified girl also photographed in Mali, fixes her steady gaze directly at the viewer, questioning one directly.

Acebes’ African adventures took place during the period of European rule in Africa and he was acutely aware of the power dynamics involved in photography. Unlike foreign photographers whose work demonstrated the inequalities of the power relations between the photographers and their subjects during the colonial period, Acebes’ work mediated between the colonial world of objectification and the African practices of self representation. However, some of his images do portray the colonial perspectives as demonstrated in the anonymous profiles or full-frontal nudes.

It was Colombian artist and publisher, Diego Samper, who recognised the value of Acebes’s photographs and his legacy, resulting in the publication of this magnificent book. The photographs have been carefully chosen and beautifully presented, and should have wide appeal from photographers, artists, travellers to readers with a keen interest in African history.

Portraits in Africa 1948-1953 is beautifully bound in hardcover with a dust jacket, ISBN 1919938184. Retail price R299. - Rosemary Lethbridge




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