A peek at the early life of JM Coetzee

Dr Hermann Wittenberg points to a picture of the train station captured by JM Coetzee

Details of writer JM Coetzee’s early life are now being thrown into even sharper relief by a trove of old photographs.

A box of camera equipment and spools – found at a flat where Coetzee once lived – was handed over to UCT lecturer, Dr Hermann Wittenberg, and upon closer inspection, they turned out to be photos Coetzee took of himself and his family in the 1950s, during his high school years at St Joseph’s Marist College.

These never-before-seen images have been enlarged and put on display at the Irma Stern Museum in Rosebank by curator, Farzanah Badsha.

They detail Coetzee’s life and include “selfies” he took with the help of a mirror and picture of his family who stayed in Plumstead at the time.

“His most beautiful book is called Boyhood, which is about him growing up in Cape Town.

When he wrote it, he didn’t have these photographs at hand.

“The photography is intimate and domestic, taken as a 16-year-old boy,” Dr Wittenberg said.

“Photography became a craze at school 50 years ago.

He saw an advertisement at the back of a magazine and saw something advertised called a spy camera and he bought that.

“He took photographs slyly of his teachers.”

Some photographs detail boys in school misbehaving by taking the teacher’s cane, and teachers guarding their faces from the camera, while others show the development of the area around him, such as the Liesbeeck River barrier being built and the train station.

Coetzee had some frustration with the limitations of a spy camera and eventually bought himself a Wega 35mm camera and a second-hand enlarger to develop prints in a dark room.

He belonged to a photographic club at school where they judged each other’s photography and he fared quite well in the photographic competitions.

According to Dr Wittenberg, photography is the first creative medium Coetzee pursued before trying his hand at writing, and this medium was used to capture his life experiences and relationship with his parents before turning to writing as a means of expression.

What is evident in the photographs is that Coetzee had a very close relationship with his mother, which is seen in his frequent photographs of her up close, while his father is only seen in two photographs.