‘Journey in the Heart of the Country’, by David Lurie
“The Karoo … is the eroded ruins of a world, the great lakes and its giant reptiles gone
but for a few bones and ripple marks … gone, in earthquake and fire, epochs of reptilian
life abolished, stone scorched and purged, and then sculpted clean and bare into noble
shapes, the tactics of the elemental artist spelt out in the fine sand of the watercourses, his signature clear in the cirrus clouds. You can see all this because the air is dry, distances
clear, and scarcely a shrub grows higher than your knees.”
Guy Butler, Karoo Morning
In 2016 I was done with the city and with Cape Town: the daily news reports of serial
looting which “almost brought the roof crashing down on everyone” (Steinberg) and
threatens to do so now; water shortages, drought forecasts, power outages and, of course,
disturbing levels of crime. I needed to get away. Why not go to where there was an even
more severe drought, in the heart of the country, the Karoo? In fact, to spend time in the
Karoo, a vast semi-desert region that extends across parts of the Western, Eastern and
Northern Cape (which I had never done), rather than driving through it on my way
somewhere else (which I had). The twenty-first-century hunter-gatherer on wheels.
‘Karoo’ means ‘Land of Thirst’ and it occupies nearly a third of the country. I went with
the idea of engaging with living evidence of global warming and climate change, drought
and disastrous misuse of land. I knew what I was looking for: barren, arid, exhausted,
depleted landscapes. It probably also reflected my mood at the time about South Africa,
the squandered opportunities, lost years and generations, betrayal of the government’s
own supporters and the entire electorate; a metaphor for a bleak and pessimistic future.
Having prepared myself with volumes of fiction and non-fiction reading matter, I needed
to just be there; imbibe the sounds, smells, vastness, emptiness, silence, light … and find
my own way, a more direct apprehension of the landscape as visual representation.
Of direct concern to the area and its inhabitants, the government was considering the
licensing of ‘fracking’ in the Karoo to international mining companies, despite the
outrage this provoked among informed authorities on the subject regarding the
environmental impact and potential contamination of the area’s limited water sources.
Government departments at the time were clearly keen to issue licenses even before the
commission of enquiry had concluded its work.
“Travelling through the quivering air of the Plains of Camdeboo,” writes Eve Palmer, “it
is almost impossible to believe that there was ever a time when the climate of this land
was different, when the Karoo was once a vast lake fed by a huge river, possibly larger
than the Nile, which meandered across the country from the north, spreading a great sea
of mud over the land. Here lived and died the millions of reptiles big and small which
lived in this remote muddy world, here they left their bones, and here in the course of
time the climate changed and the mud became shale, holding within it these bones,
themselves become like rock in hardness.”
She adds, “Some scientists today believe that 200 years ago our Plains were pure
grassland and that it is the white man and his sheep who have changed their face,” which
has destroyed the Karoo’s sensitive ecological balance, leading to increasing barrenness,
even threatening South Africa’s food security (and much else).
But the Karoo is also a land of secret beauty and an infinite variety of textures, colors,
and light, and ultimately vulnerable to further environmental destruction. And it’s pretty
obvious where we’re going from here. Though my images obviously don’t prove
anything, they do show the damage that has already been done over time, which gives us
little reason for hope. Solutions, after all, require leadership and collective will.
What I’m trying to do is not idealize or over-aestheticize the land, but rather create
images in the service of a particular message: of respect for the land, of the need to
cherish this great national resource that bears the scars of social, political and
environmental upheaval and degradation and use it for our collective good, to explore
concerns around our country’s place in a sustainable world.
Photography serves as both aesthetic reflection and a tool of investigation: it offers the
space to explore artistic and philosophical concerns about our individual and group
identity and about our place in the world, and the complex relationship South Africans
have with this foreboding landscape.
We are living in an age of environmental breakdown: is the world “sleepwalking into
catastrophe?” The effect on sub-Saharan Africa will be particularly severe,
notwithstanding the apparent, inexplicable indifference to climate-change issues in South
Africa. We need to be clear that the environment is not indifferent to human activity,
land-use changes and unsustainable agricultural practices, and that environmental
degradation is not inevitable.
Photography has always had a special relationship to landscape. Since appearances are
not merely deceptive but doomed to be incomplete, we need to spend time with them, and
to puzzle over the truths that they encrypt. We live in such an image-saturated culture that
it’s hard to get back to the kinds of slow looking that these expect. The images are
investigations or dissections of the landscape, they tell us something about what once was
and is no more.
Some of the images (diptychs) were never even there in the first place and were
spontaneously composed or constructed from the original ‘dissections’ to create
imaginary ‘possible worlds’ during the production and design phase of the book. And the
elements of chance and surprise are key ingredients at every stage of the process.
Ultimately the images are reminders of our own mortality, and the passing of time. Is this
all doom and gloom, too depressing and morbid for us fragile, sensitive beings? Maybe
we’re missing the point. The ancient philosophical and artistic practice of reflection on
mortality was not, and need not be, a downer, but rather an incentive to live life to the
fullest: life’s change agent, to create priority and meaning. To commit ourselves to a life
of purpose and urgency, the prospect of death can serve as a personal motivator or—
possibly, though I have my doubts—a driver of national and global efforts to
purposefully create a sustainable environment.
These images form the visual backdrop to my journey, creating a manifest universe and
inviting you inside, an unreliable memoir of my voyage, a personal account of my recall
of those times. They ask some uncomfortable questions about our future at a time when
political differences are ripping our country apart.
Guy Butler, Karoo Morning: An Autobiography 1918-1935. Cape Town: David Philip,
Jonny Steinberg, “History has treated white South Africans very well,” M & G, January
Eve Palmer, The Plains of Camdeboo. South Africa, Penguin Paperback, 2011.
'The Optical Unconscious: David Lurie’s Karoo Photographs’, by Professor Dirk Klopper
In the heart of the country
If, as Susan Sontag suggests, all photographs are memento mori, or
recollections of death, then a photographic collection of South Africa’s
Karoo regions is a collection of things that are themselves recollections
of death, for the Karoo encompasses a collection of things that recollect
not only earlier ways of life but also earlier forms of life. Like the
photographs in the book, the Karoo embalms moments that have passed
away, but unlike the photographs, the Karoo lacks self-consciousness
about its recollections. Every photograph in this book says I have
been here and seen this in a way that will never be seen again. Each
photograph is the trace of an unobserved but observant eye through
whose lens the viewer observes the trace of an absence. By participating
in the mortality, vulnerability and mutability of things, photographs testify,
says Sontag, “to time’s relentless melt.” Perhaps this is why they are
The Karoo’s landscape of rock and sedimentation contains some of
the oldest memories of not only southern Africa but also the Gondwana
supercontinent from which it was severed about 180 million years ago,
creating the escarpments that now define its topography. The Karoo
is not just in the heart of the country, it is the heart of the country,
familiar and strange, strikingly visible to the eye and disconcertingly
incomprehensible to the mind.
About the language of stone
There is a passage in Olive Schreiner’s novel of the Karoo, The Story of an
African Farm, where the young protagonists Waldo and Lyndall are talking
at the foot of a koppie (hillock). “Has it never seemed to you,” Waldo asks
Lyndall, “that the stones were talking?” Motioning to the rock shelter
behind them, he says that when he lies there with his sheep on hot days
it seems that the stones are speaking “of the old things, of the time when
the strange fishes and animals lived that are turned into stone now, and
the lakes were here; and then of the time when the little Bushmen lived
here.” The paintings on the rock face are “strange things,” he declares, but
to the Bushmen who produced them they were “beautiful.”
On painting and photography
Unlike the San artist’s rock paintings, which are undoubtedly the earliest
human attempt at visual representation in the Karoo, Lurie’s photographs
depict the lay of the land rather than the humans and animals that
inhabit it. They show the features and formations of the geography of
the Karoo: a basalt pass skirting a cliff face, the solitary stone posts that
line a remote country road, a deserted railway station crumbling into the
earth, the smooth surface of a bitumen road running through spans of
arid veld, the dry dam thirsting under an imperturbable sky.
Insofar as these photographs refer to events external to themselves
they lend credence to John Berger’s observation that photography has
no language of its own. Nevertheless, the framing of the event captured
in the photograph, the calibration of light, the point of focus, the editing
performed subsequently in the studio all indicate that there is undeniably
a process of composition entailed in the execution of the image. There
is a human subject who apprehends and constructs the image in
terms partly of how the eye has been schooled in what is arguably the
language of photography. Even photographers who are most concerned,
says Sontag, with mirroring reality, are haunted by imperatives of taste
and composition. The camera might capture reality, but the photographer
who produces the photographic image has already interpreted the reality
to be captured.
Berger claims that a photograph is not compositional in the same
way as a painting. Yet English landscape painting of the late-eighteenth
and early-nineteenth centuries is compositional in a photographic way,
with the artist striving to render a natural scene every bit as eidetically
as would a photographer, and there are photographs, such as the ones
Lurie has taken of the Karoo, that are painterly precisely on account of
the way in which light has been employed to achieve a transfiguration of
sorts, a vision of what the eye sees, a little revelation.
Choosing a moment of light for a photograph may be different
technically to mixing a color for a painting, but in both cases intuition
plays a role as decisive as calculation in arriving at the optimal realization
of illumination and color. Browsing through Lurie’s Karoo photographs,
what I am looking at, and cogitating over, are images that are at once
mechanical and imagined, and because imagined, they interpret rather
than mechanically record the world. Furthermore, I am reminded that
the mechanical is also present in painting, though the latter tends,
says Walter Benjamin, to suppress this on account of a “fetishistic,
fundamentally anti-technical notion” of art as the calling of a divinely
inspired artist. This view of art as divorced from the material world of
things, their contexts and processes of production, has been prejudicial
to a proper understanding of the poetics of photography.
The optical unconscious
Roland Barthes points out that the technology of the camera obscura
underlies perspective painting as much as it does photography. Where a
landscape painter uses the image produced by the device of the camera
to imagine the application of a brushstroke, a landscape photographer
adds to this device a light-sensitive surface capable of recording the
image. The painter mixes and applies paint; the photographer frames
the subject in the viewfinder of the camera, focuses, selects aperture,
shutter-speed, and light sensitivity to achieve the imagined effect, and
presses the shutter-release button.
There is no reason why instruments and techniques should be seen
to detract from the enchantment of art. For Benjamin, whose thinking
seems to waver between the materialist and the mystical, the mystery of
the camera resides in the fact that it produces, in the briefest span of time,
“a picture of the invisible surrounding world that appears as alive and real
as nature itself.” Though the surrounding world is present to the eye, it is
invisible insofar as the eye is selective in what it apprehends, even when
it looks directly at something. Nature is not seen in its plenitude, though
appears so in the photograph. The nature that speaks to the camera is
different from the nature that speaks to the eye, because, as Benjamin
puts it, “instead of a space worked through by a human consciousness
there appears one which is affected unconsciously.”
Photography, says Benjamin, discloses an “optical unconscious” in the
same way that psychoanalysis discloses an “instinctual unconscious.” Like
the unconscious, photography deals with “structural qualities,” uncovering
in the material world “pictorial words which live in the smallest things,
perceptible yet covert enough to find shelter in daydreams.”
Benjamin employs the language of the invisible and the mysterious
to designate a world of nature unavailable, in its plenitude, to the human
eye, but one that is seemingly captured by the eye of the camera as it
mechanically records the image formed at any given moment by the
refracted light that passes through its lens. The landscape photograph
cannot actually disclose the plenitude of nature but, in capturing all that
the lens of the camera is capable of assimilating, gestures to this plenitude
by providing more detail than can be discerned by the human eye.
Lurie’s photographs of the Karoo, many of which seem to reflect on the
enigma of photographic capture, draw attention to the act of exclusion that
makes a perception possible. This exclusion arises as much from within
the frame of the photograph as it does from what lies outside it, haunting
what we see of the perceptible world of sand, stone, shrub, and sky with
a sense of something lost, a primal reality that is potentially present but
nevertheless eludes us.
At the limit of meaning
Reflections on the theory of photography converge around the notion of
death, as if photographs were constitutively memento mori. At issue in
the writings of Benjamin, Berger, Sontag, and Barthes is the transience
of the moment of photographic capture, which makes the photograph
a sign not of a presence but of an absence. Yet the transience of the
photographic image, the fact that the thing photographed is no longer
available in the same way, is only one of the forms of absence the
photograph deals with. The image as such is constituted by absence,
by an act of framing that excludes what is not captured in the frame. In
addition, absence resides within the frame, where what is present both
discloses something and conceals, or renders elusive, its significance.
Finally, there is the absence of the photographer who composes the
picture, claims it as his own, but is not visibly present in it. If Lurie
is necessarily excluded from the image he produces, his trace is
nevertheless visible in its stylistics.
A lover’s gaze
While the photographic image seems to capture what it focuses on, the
thing is evoked rather than captured. As a representation, the image
stands in for the thing. If this is true of the photographic image in
general, it is especially evident in Lurie’s photographs, where the Karoo
is presented as both the most material of things in its crusty surface and
the most ethereal of things in its clarity of light. It is pellucid air as much
as it is solid rock, loose sand, and tenacious scrub.
The poetics of the photographic image is foreshadowed in Shelley’s
poem “To Jane: A Recollection,” written around the time that the
photographic image was developed by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the
early 1820s. The central metaphor of the poem is a pool of clear water
that reflects the surrounding forests and sky to produce an image that
is paradoxically purer in tone and atmosphere than the earth above. The
pool is described as an eye that looks with love upon the trees that flank
it, and the trees reciprocate by yielding to the gaze of the pool, disclosing
in intimate detail every lineament of leaf and branch. Such disclosure
is possible only because all motion, all life, all breath of air has been
momentarily arrested, stilling the eye of the pool to receive into itself,
into its depthless depths, the compliant forest and infinite sky.
In a similar way the forbidding landscape of the Karoo yields to the still
and receptive eye of Lurie’s camera, which opens up to what is disclosed
and delivers an image that transmutes and sublimes the thing observed,
the thing rendered not objectively so much as innocently. This is what the
eye of the camera sees, devoid of grand statements, showing nothing
spectacular, yet offering something beautiful and true in the lines and
textures of the photograph, in the muted palette and the ambient light.
What the eye has chanced upon is a road disappearing into the
distance with dry stalks of patchy veld grass bending to the wind in the
foreground; a dam with ruffled surface of water glimmering under an
impassive sky, another run dry with clay bed cracked like cobbled paving;
rims of purple mountains that embrace an empty plain; the eviscerated
skin of an impala become hard leather in the sun; the crow’s nest untidily
assembled on a telephone pole; the blockhouse, the graveyard, the
Writing the ineffable
The geological sense of a prehistoric landscape of primary physical
features and fossilised relics identified by Schreiner has proven to be an
enduring figure in South African literature of the strange familiarity of the
Karoo, how it evokes and confounds memory in its insistence on what
is older than modernity, older than antiquity, ancient in its evidence of
pre-human time, the evolution from fish to reptile to mammal. From this
point of view, the Karoo is a graveyard, and photographing its summer
rainfall areas, as Lurie has done, in winter, when its granular plains and
scatterings of rock are reiterated to the edge of vision, is to seek to
capture its skeletal formation, its transitory sap reduced to bare life.
It is as a bleak wilderness that the Karoo captivated early English
South African poets, with the settler Thomas Pringle describing it as
an “emptiness, howling and drear,” and Francis Carey Slater, writing
a century later, seeing in it a “desolate, stone-freckled waste.” If the
defining feature of the Karoo for earlier poets was its inhospitality to
human habitation, it is nevertheless the very desolation that, for Pringle,
brings the solitary pilgrim to god and, for Slater, brings the lonely
aesthete closer to beauty.
Pringle’s poetic persona is led into the wilderness by a Bushman
guide at a time when the memory of eighteenth-century Cape frontier
wars against San resistance would still have been fresh, and in the
course of which the paleolithic communities that inhabited the Karoo
were either decimated by trekboer commandoes in numbers that would
today be regarded as genocidal, or forced to retreat ever deeper into
Bushmanland. (Penn) Having been expelled from the Karoo escarpments
and its arid plains, a ghostlike Bushman returns to conduct the settler
poet into a locality that has already been irretrievably lost to history.
While Slater does not refer explicitly to the geological history of the
region, he renders the landscape as a figurative sea of endless grass
and shrub, a monotony broken only by rocky outcrops jutting from the
plain like barren islands. Slater is nowhere explicit that he has in mind
the Karoo’s geological history as an inland sea. If this is not on his mind,
his depiction is all the more trenchant in describing the unconscious of
the land, its hidden past.
Schreiner’s apprehension of an ancient Karoo landscape, derived
from nineteenth-century geology and paleontology, is taken up in the
writings of Guy Butler in the mid-twentieth century. If Schreiner is
attentive to the voice of the land apprehended through the intimate
presence of stone, Butler, like Pringle and Slater before him, is
transported by the enormity of the Karoo’s visual appeal. The topography
assails him as the “eroded ruins of a world,” displaying signs of the
expanses of water and giant reptiles that have disappeared forever, a
few bones and ripple marks testifying to the abolishment of epochs of
life in earthquake and fire, with stone having been scorched, purged and
sculpted “clean and bare into noble shapes.”
To return to the dust
In a sense, the literary descriptions of the Karoo provided by Pringle,
Slater, and Butler both exceed and fall short of the representative power
of the visual image. While more is said about the landscape in words
than the visual image desires to say, that which is said is additional to the
landscape itself, a compound of received cultural associations, and could
thus be seen to detract from what is delivered to the innocence of the
gaze, such as the photograph purports to capture.
If there were a modern South African novel that is as iconic of the
Karoo as Schreiner’s novel has been, and as imagist as its predecessor
is celebrated as being, it would be JM Coetzee’s In the Heart of the
consists in the inability of language to make Magda, the first-person
narrator, a spinster daughter of the colonies, feel at home in the world.
This prompts her to seek, beyond language, a life unmediated by words:
“these stones, these bushes, this sky experienced and known without
question; and a quiet return to the dust.” Magda wishes to be one with
the land, to know the land as it knows itself, but is simultaneously aware
that this would be a form of death. She knows that there is no language
of the land beyond human language, that it is only the human who is in
language, and that to become the land would be to renounce not only
language but also the self.
Literary evocations of the Karoo necessarily employ the language
of the tongue, palate, and teeth. The question is whether the aesthetic
of the photograph, the visual language of a photograph by Lurie, for
example, comes closer than Magda can to an experience and knowledge
of the stones, bushes, and sky of the Karoo. If, rather than employing
monologues about the Karoo, Magda were to have taken photographs of
it, daguerreotypes, would she have been able to overcome her loneliness
in the midst of the stone desert? Magda seeks an undifferentiated
experience and knowledge of the land; the fact that she is unable to
achieve her desire means either that the photographic image is not
identical to what it represents, or that the photographic cannot be
translated into the prosaic.
The road not taken
Lurie’s photograph of his journey north from Prince Albert shows a broad
gravel road in the foreground, its fork in the middle distance, and on
either side of the road a scrubby, stony plain terminating at a thin line of
purple mountains in the far distance, where dark clouds move in from
the right, and the setting sun, which lies outside the frame, is suggested
by the light that suffuses this area of sky. The subject of the photograph
is a road in an arid plain seemingly in the middle of nowhere. But the
granular surface of the road is well travelled, and in the distance, where
the road forks, there are two signboards. Barely discernible, sitting at
the base of the sign pointing left, is a figure rendered anonymous by
the distance, a solitary individual in an unspeakable landscape where
Country. Similarly set on a Karoo farm, the primary crisis of the novel
the very words on the signboards fall on the ear like inscrutable stone:
Kruidfontein, Leeu Gamka, Fraserburg; Seekoegat.
In a place that seems nowhere, a country road running through
an undifferentiated plain, the town names on the distant signboards
nevertheless enable us to locate the precise spot on the map. If we were
in a vehicle travelling on this road, the R353, we would mostly likely take
the left fork, drive through Kruidfontein and Leeu Gamka, ascend the
Nuweveld Mountains, and arrive at Fraserburg. But we may be prompted,
before ascending the Nuweveld Mountains, to take a left turn onto the
road that goes to Merweville in the Koup district, that desolate expanse of
Great Karoo that lies between the Nuweveld Mountains to the north and
the Swartberg Mountains to the south. The town is unlikely to be significant
except to the few inhabitants who live there, or to those who have relatives
in the area, like the Coetzee family who own the farm Voëlfontein.
The Koup district is the fictional setting of two novels written by JM
Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country and Life & Times of Michael K, and
the farm itself features in the trilogy of autobiographical fictions that
make up Scenes from Provincial Life. Coetzee visited the farm as a boy,
and he claims to have loved it more than he loved anything else—every
stone of it, every bush, every blade of grass, every bird that gave the
farm its name. He felt he belonged to the farm but knew that he did not.
Even the uncle and his siblings who claimed the farm as their own were
interlopers, he thinks, unlike the laborers on the land and the sheep
shearers who pass through it on seasonal migrations, as their Khoikhoi
ancestor had done, nomadic pastoralists following rain and green pasture.
Ultimately, though, in his secret heart, the boy knew that the farm
belonged to no one. It is greater than any of them, he muses, existing
from eternity to eternity. (Coetzee, 2012)
The land of thirst
If a road, even one devoid of traffic, denotes movement, a body of water,
even when the water is absent from the dam that would hold it, denotes
repose. Lurie’s photograph of the empty dam on Cranemere farm, home
of the Palmer family, which lies on the road between Graaff-Reinet and
Pearston in the Camdeboo district, is evocative for reasons akin to his
photograph of the road running north from Prince Albert. There is the
image itself, which, given the angle, shows the cracked brown mud of the
empty dam stretching from the bottom border of the photograph all the
way up, occupying about four-fifths of the space, to where distant purple
mountains brace lowering thunderclouds contained within the upper border.
The tracks impressed on the mud of the bare bed of the empty dam
accentuate its emptiness, and the measuring stick that juts up from the
bottom border of the photograph calculates this emptiness in numerical
terms. Created by the original owner in the early nineteenth century from
a spring on the farm, the dam on Cranemere, spreading like a lake in the
desert in wet seasons, now contains no water at all. The desert lake, the
farm and its history are portrayed in Eve Palmer’s memoir The Plains of
Camdeboo, which describes not only her life on the farm where she was
born, but also those of the five generations of Palmers who have owned
and developed the farm, as well as the inhabitants before them, the San
and the Khoikhoi, and the inhabitants before them, the mammals and
reptiles and fish stretching back into the depths of the past.
The farm houses a small museum with fossils, skeletal remains and
paleolithic relics, and there are no doubt family photograph albums in the
main residence, a rambling Victorian sanctuary from the unforgiving sun,
full of old, solid settler furniture and heirlooms.
A semiotics of seeing
In many of the photographs in the book there is evidence of human
activity in the seemingly empty land: the dam on Cranemere farm, the
Anglo-Boer War British blockhouse on the N1 to Prince Albert, the
stonework on the road to Bosch Luys Kloof Nature Reserve, the Dutch
Reformed Church in Graaff-Reinet. But there are also photographs that
have only the landscape as subject, like the narrow gully ascending the
mountainside at Sewe Weeks Poort, where there is no trace at all of
the human. The semiotic of these photographs is different to those with
evidence of human activity, more difficult to situate visually beyond the
geology of contour, the texture of detail, and the quality of light.
But in terms of the nonvisual, those spectral presences that inhabit
the stark landscapes of the photographs, what we see with the mind’s
eye is the palaeontology of fossilised life forms and the anthropology
of pre-modern human life. And in the mind’s eye there is always, even
on the brightest day, a memory of the celestial universe of things in
the clear night sky, where what we observe is already in the distant
past, having occurred perhaps 25,000 years ago, as in the image of a
black hole in the middle of the Milky Way captured in June 2018 by
the MeerKat radio telescope located southwest of Vanwyksvlei, in the
Regarding the motherland
There is a photograph of the fissured rock bed of the dry Tankwa River
that looks rather like the grey matter of brain tissue, though its fissures
are more regular and geometric, and the material is hard rock rather than
soft tissue. The rock bed comprises sediment deposited ages ago and
overlaid by younger sediment that has subsequently eroded, leaving the
earlier now compacted sediment of fine-grained shale exposed to the
atmosphere, then peeled and cracked by the heat of the sun. Exposed
sediment such as this attracts geologists to the area. Rather than having
to rely on instrumentation, they are able to observe directly what the old
It is not the rock bed of the dry Tankwa River so much as the
photograph of it that reminisces about old things, extinct creatures such
as the therapsids, mammal-like reptiles that lived 250 million years
ago, or vanquished human communities such as the San, whose rock
paintings extend back to the time of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hittite
empires of the Mesopotamian world.
The historical archive describes how, in the eighteenth century, the
lands occupied by the Khoisan were conquered region by region as
Dutch trekboers moved inland, occupying the mountainous escarpments
to which the Khoisan had retreated—the Bokkeveld, the Roggeveld, the
Nuweveld, the Swartberge, the Sneeuberge—and settling in the plains
the Khoisan had once freely crossed: the Hantam, the Tanqua, the Koup,
the Camdeboo. (Penn)
These are the very regions captured in Lurie’s photographs. The
elegiac quality of the images derives partly from the exposed and
vulnerable terrain, and partly from the nuanced light that transfigures its
surfaces. But it also derives from what we know of the Karoo as a place
of ecological and anthropological memory, of things that came before. This
memory is alluded to in the geological folds that flank the Sewe Weeks
Poort, the stony ground of Williston that contains previously unrecorded
life forms, the escarpments that shelter the rock surfaces used for rock
paintings. The photographs are melancholic, capturing in the semi-arid
landscapes of the Karoo traces of the absences of departed things.
Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image” from Image—Music—Text. Trans. Stephen Heath.
New York: Hill & Wang, 1977.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New
York: Hill & Wang, 1981.
Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography” Screen 13.1, 1972: 5-26.
John Berger, “Understanding a Photograph” Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of
Things. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Guy Butler, Karoo Morning: An Autobiography 1918-1935. Cape Town: David Philip, 1977.
JM Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1978.
JM Coetzee, “The Poetics of Reciprocity” Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Ed.
David Attwell. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard, 1992.
JM Coetzee, Scenes from Provincial Life. London & New York: Penguin, 2012.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836). Essays and Lectures. New York: The Library of
Eve Palmer, The Plains of Camdeboo. London: Collins, 1966.
Nigel Penn, The Forgotten Frontier: Colonist and Khoisan on the Cape’s Northern Frontier
in the 18th Century. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Thomas Pringle, “Afar in the Desert” (1834). Poems Illustrative of South Africa. Ed. JR
Wahl. Cape Town: Struik, 1970.
Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm (1883). London & New York: Penguin, 2008.
Francis Carey Slater, “The Karoo.” The Karoo and Other Poems. Edinburgh & London:
Anne Solomon, “Rock Art in Southern Africa.” Scientific American, 1 January 2005. www.
Susan Sontag, On Photography. London & New York: Penguin, 1977
‘Vertical Man, Horizontal World’, by Ashraf Jamal
Barren-dry-depleted-empty … the descriptors leap from David Lurie’s mouth as if from a
Gatling gun. The Karoo is a swamp turned into a desert, he resumes, but then, in these end
times drought-hunger-thirst has fast become our familiar. The Karoo is not the only place of thirst. That said, it remains a stark correlative for dread.
Lurie’s abandoned settlements affirm this fear as do his photographs of tarred roads with
their weirdly skewed signage cutting through an endless plain. Charles Baudelaire’s shrill
plea – ANYWHERE BUT HERE – captures the human need to escape this dread, for the
Karoo, typically, is a place one passes through at great speed, not a terrain where one
And yet, it is precisely here in this least arable of zones that Lurie has fixed his eye. Why? Isit because he wishes to bind us to that we most fear? Because he believes that nullity
cannot be vaulted? Or, perversely, because he sees a stricken beauty in a geography most
South Africans choose to ignore or repress?
All of these questions are valid. However, photographs are not lessons, though many
mistakenly believe them to be so. In the case of Lurie, it is not the photographer’s intention
that matters – whatever that intention might be – but the power of imagery to trigger the
conclusions we arrive at. My own reading centres not on the harshness of the environs Lurie captures but, more significantly, on the ghosting of failed promises which the images evoke.
This is because a pathos clings to Lurie’s images, a pathos arrested, hobbled, crushed. It is
not only an arid geography that we are witnessing, but the aridity built into human desire
which cannot and will not be appeased.
Lurie is no romantic who captures ruin as a nostalgic sign of loss, but a photographer who
reminds us of the mortality of things, people, places. For him, ruin is not the aftermath of a
failed dream, ruin is built into the condition of life itself. For it is Lurie’s refusal to censor and doctor the vision which forcefully returns us to a realisation that photography, as a medium, has always instinctively and mechanically harboured drought-hunger-thirst. As a machine for looking it has always been desiccated. Posthumous, photography traffics in death. It is therefore the morbidity of photography rather than its assumed vivacity which is its greater tell. Susan Sontag concurs. ‘All photographs are memento mori’, she writes. ‘To take a photograph is to participate in another person (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt’.
Lurie’s photographs of the Karoo are stark reminders of this remorseless fact. Nothing is
truly fixed, neither a human being or the land he inhabits and which inhabits him. At best,
then, a photograph exists as a trace, cipher or probe, which, paradoxically, must refuse the
truth that a photographer, or viewer, believes to have been appropriated or taken.
To assume, therefore, that Lurie’s photographs are the ghoulish reflections of a pre-existent
truth is to miss the mark. Rather, what Lurie has ‘taken’ in this suite is, curiously, an
enlivened meditation on the immanence that is death and dying. It is not the desolation of
place that solely moves him, but the desolation of humankind – present in the works as a
trace – without which there can be no record. The human, in its very absence, is therefore
the photographs’ principle focus. For it is the fragility of humankind, its ‘mutability’, which, in arrested instants, Lurie has given us.
Everywhere one looks one finds human remains – a stretch of wire, a road-sign, a disused
building, a liquidated railway artery – a human life remaindered. I am not dismissing the
equally palpable presence of nature, but seeking to prise open the psychic dread which, in
my view, surfaces like a toxic undrinkable bilge. For in Lurie’s thirst-stricken photographs it is the illusion of human power over the earth that is cut to shreds, the presence of the human – as a civilising trope – which is perceived as being no different to the gutted remains of a roadside carcass.
John Berger, Landscapes, New York: Verso, 2018.
Ashraf Jamal, In the World, Milan: Skira, 2017.
Susan Sontag, On Photography, London: Penguin Books, 1971.
‘Sense of Place, Sense of Humanity’, by Professor Loretta Feris
‘Sense of place’ is the term conceived to express the relationship of human beings with place.
It is a term that captures simultaneously identity and relationships; that which is unique to a
place and the relationship we have with that place because of its distinctive identity. This
relationship is expressed in tangible and intangible ways, expressing our emotional
connections and our spiritual, cultural, or heritage relationship to place. Sense of place not
only speaks to our own identity with place, it also narrates our strong emotional bonds of
attachment to that specific place: the physical formations, the rocks, the rivers, the color of
the sand, the quality of light, the feel of the wind, the sounds and smells in a desolate
landscape or in a city filled with skyscrapers. Sense of place is, after all, not the domain of
rural areas only.
Before he started on his journey, Lurie discussed with me the possibility of contributing a
narration on the sense of place of the Karoo. It created an opportunity for me, as a child of the
Karoo and a descendant of the Korana and the Griqua, to reflect on what the Karoo means to
me. I was born and raised on the border of the Kalahari in the small town of Keimoes in the
Northern Cape, where my father was a farmer, but not a landowner. His attachment to and
love for the land remain an almost palpable memory. My early childhood recollection of him
is rising before dawn to head for the smallholding (given on long lease to black farmers by
the then-government) where he grew grapes, or preparing to drive 100-odd kilometers to a
leased farm where he lived his dream of being a sheep farmer. Farming and the land were in
his blood. In fact, he poured blood, sweat and tears into land that he was never destined to
own under an apartheid regime. In the area where we lived he was known for his exceptional
skills in the agricultural sector and the ability to transform fertile land into commercially
viable entities; many white farmers sought his expertise. We eventually acquired ownership
of the smallholding, but by then my father had passed away.
For many black people, land is a symbol of all that was denied to us under apartheid: not only
our equality, freedom, and dignity, but also the ability to participate in and benefit from the
economy and wealth of this country, the ability to fully live our dreams and passions, and the
ability to leave a lasting legacy of that at which we are exceptional. Apartheid stripped black
people not only of their human rights and their humanity, but also of their hopes. My father
died never knowing freedom. For him and many others who died during the apartheid era,
land ownership remained a coveted but unattainable dream. We should therefore understand
current debates on land and landownership in the context of this loss and dispossession. Some
of the failed efforts at restoring land to black farmers are also testament to a historical and
cultural connection that was lost. Research tells us of the importance of generational farming,
which involves the gradual transfer of management of key business decisions over a long
period, often starting when the successor is still young. The little I know about farming
practices I learned through observing and doing. When black people lost their land, they also
lost the transfer of skills—and that will take generations to rebuild.
In the end my father’s legacy to me is his passion for the land of his ancestors. I have never
quite been seduced by the ocean, beaches and green forests. I share my father’s thirst for
wide-open spaces, the rugged mountains, the veld and the red sand dunes. My sense of place
is the ‘niks’ (meaning ‘nothingness’) of the Karoo.
Sense of place in the Karoo is encapsulated in its iconic ‘niks’. Much of the Karoo consists of
vast landscapes that embody the notion of open and untouched space. This identity is
intertwined with people’s relationships with it as a biophysical space, as well as the practices,
culture, and traditions associated with the Karoo as a place of living, a place of livelihood for
its inhabitants and a place to visit and commune with nature. I was hoping that Lurie would
capture this and indeed he has done so. The title of this work, Land of Thirst, is the name
given by the Khoe people, the ancient inhabitants of the Karoo. The original Khoi word for
Karoo was ‘Karusa’—dry, barren, thirsty land, and this is the landscape captured here.
Land of Thirst portrays humanity’s relationship with the Karoo: the roads we carved, the
homes we built, the communities we established. It shows that the impact we have had on the
Karoo and on its environment through our actions is changing the climate of the Earth. The
images depict that which we have abandoned and forgotten and how we have left ourselves
behind, weaving our bodily remains into the earth of the Karoo, the sepulcher for our human
bodies. In some respects the images go beyond capturing our sense of the Karoo. Yes, Lurie
portrays the complexity of humanity’s relationship with the Karoo, but he also presents the
imprints of the manifold human values, beliefs, practices, and emotions that passed through
the Karoo over time. The Karoo carries our human footprint, both the ravages and also the
reverence. The Karoo holds within it, and reflects, the journey we have walked for thousands
of years. Perhaps this is less about our sense of place and more aptly about the Karoo’s ‘sense
As one observes the tragedy of ecosystem distress, depicted in many of the images, one
wonders whether the Karoo experiences a sense of loss in the same way that humans do when
places are transformed in ways that erode their sense of belonging. Glenn Albrecht calls it
‘solastalgia.’ He describes how the lived experience of negative environmental change
manifests as an attack on one’s sense of place. It is, he explains, the homesickness you have
when you are still located within your home environment yet faced with severe
environmental degradation that impacts on your identity, way of life, culture, and heritage; in
other words, on your sense of place. In looking at Lurie’s magnificent images, one muses on
the Karoo’s solastalgia in the face of humanity’s profound impact on its ecosystem. Maybe,
through these images, we will be awakened to the Karoo’s sense of humanity and work
towards its positive restoration.
Loretta Feris is professor of environmental law at the University of Cape Town,
currently holding the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation.
Norah Keating, “Legacy, Aging and Succession in Farm Families” in Cheryl Albers (ed) Sociology of Families:
Bruce Nanzer, “Measuring Sense of Place: A Scale for Michigan” 26 (3) Administrative Theory and Praxis,
RB Riley, “Attachment to the Ordinary Landscape”. In: I Altman, SM Low (eds) “Place Attachment. Human
Behavior and Environment (Advances in Theory and Research)” 1992.
“Culture and Heritage of Vanwyksdorp and the Klein Karoo.” www.vanwyksdorp.com
Glenn Albrecht et al, “Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change” (15) Australasian Psychiatry