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One of the finest photographic museums in the world is right here in Joburg. It even has one of just three examples of the first negatives ever made.
PICTURES can paint a thousand words, as the saying goes. Photographs can capture a moment in time to revisit later, and they can tell stories to the viewer who may not even have been there.

Golden Rectaflex camera. Late 40sGolden Rectaflex camera. Late 40sJoburg’s Bensusan Museum of Photography documents the rich history of photography, in the form of antique equipment, original photos, and books that date back to the 1800s. It also houses some of the best global photographic collections.

Housed on the top floor of Museum Africa – at 121 Bree Street, Newtown – this exhibition space is also unusual in that it has a photo gallery that concentrates on contemporary collections, says Diana Wall, the curator of collections at Museum Africa.

The uniqueness of the museum lies in the fact that there are only three such museums in the world, she adds. It houses a variety of cameras, printing plates, books and magazines, original photos as well as other artefacts dating back to the first negative ever made.

Not many people preserve heritage, but the Bensusan Museum of Photography does, she says. “We preserve objects and photographs.”

While technology advances at a rapid rate in the outside world, visitors to the museum can take a break from the pace and journey into the past, where they can learn about the start of this modern form of art.

Arthur Bensusan
The museum was established in 1968 by Dr Arthur Bensusan, an amateur photographer and one-time Johannesburg mayor who donated his entire 30-year collection of 400 antique cameras, 5 000 photographs and 2 000 photographic books, some of which date back to 1860.

No. 4 folding Kodak camera. 1890No. 4 folding Kodak camera. 1890In November 1968, he was quoted by the Rand Daily Mail newspaper as saying: “The museum will illustrate the history of photography and the history of South Africa as seen through the eye of the camera.”

Part of his original collection is a camera that once belonged to Winston Churchill, as well as what may well be the first official war photograph, a Crimean War scene taken in 1854. Also at the museum are several spy cameras from the 1800s, which are disguised to look like watches, books and binoculars.

Apart from its vast collection of cameras and books, the museum is also home to cuttings, pamphlets and journals, which match the historical value of the books. One of the displays traces the timeline of the development of cinematography. The first pictures shown, it says, thousands of years ago, were shadow puppets projected on to a wall with light. This was common in China at the time.

Then, in the 1700s, the magic lantern was invented. It worked when paintings were moved through a box that contained a light, usually a candle or an oil lamp. The images were then reflected on to a screen. Travelling magic lantern showmen appeared in Europe in the early 1800s.

This was developed into magic lantern slides, where strips of pictures were slid through the lantern, giving a sense of movement and action. By 1865 photographic transparencies, which were coloured by hand, were being developed.

19th Century photograph albums19th Century photograph albumsOne of the attractions at Bensusan is the first negative ever made, by William Henry Fox Talbot, who lived from 1800 to 1877. Talbot is credited with being the inventor of photography, and the museum acquired the negative, which is several centimetres in size, in 1970. It is of the oriel window in Lacock Abbey in England.

The City bought the negative for R860, according to The Star newspaper in October 1970, from Bensusan. There are only three other such negatives in the world – two in Britain and one in Russia.

Camera obscura
On the top of Museum Africa is a camera obscura, which gives a bird’s eye view of Newtown. The camera obscura – which operates in a similar fashion to a periscope – gives a 360° view of what is happening outside the building.

It was custom built in 2001 for the Bensusan at a cost of about R200 000. There are only five others in the country.

Inside the building the image is projected on to a large round table and a metre or so above the table is a ring that moves, moving the mechanism that holds the mirror on the roof. As the ring moves so does the image on the table.

Attached to the Bensusan is a specialised photographic library filled with books and magazines on the work of photographers, their equipment and processes and techniques. The book collection is broad and includes reference works, how-to guides in many fields, and a large collection of the published work of photographers.

Among the most popular sections are those on portrait and wedding photography, wildlife photography, and the work of individual photographers, especially local ones.

This section boasts historical aspects that are still of interest to avid photographers, with books on the shelves illustrating quaint advertisements from a hundred years ago, and recipes for photographic developing solutions no longer commonly used.

A movie projectorA movie projectorFor instance, in the 1890s, the cyanotype process was commonly used by amateur photographers. It used light sensitive iron compounds rather than the more usual silver ones, and had the advantage of only needing water to fix the image. The disadvantage was that family photos were all bright blue. This process became very popular for reproducing plans and diagrams – which are still known as blueprints today.

Many photographic and art schools in Gauteng send their students to register at the photographic library. Among them are the Market Photo Workshop, Artists Proof Studio, Rosebank College, Vega, Becomo Art Centre in Kliptown, University of the Witwatersrand, Tshwane University of Technology and Vaal University of Technology.

The library is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, from 10am to 2pm, and on Wednesdays from 10am to 1pm, and 1.30pm to 4.30pm. To register as a borrower, an ID and proof of address is required.

The museum itself is open from Tuesdays to Sundays, from 9am to 5pm. It is closed on Christmas Day and the Day of Goodwill and entrance is free. Parking is available in Mary Fitzgerald Square right outside the museum, where there are car guards to keep a watchful eye.

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Joburg: arts, culture and heritage