Just another white farmer?

Just another white farmer?

What can be gained from looking at a single photograph in isolation from other, more detailed information? And does having more detailed information make a difference to what is ‘seen‘, to what the eye of the viewer observes in an interpretational sense?

Behold the photograph of a white man, specifically a photograph of his head and shoulders. He is rather gaunt of face. His hair is cut short. He is balding although not actually bald, and his moustache can only be described as scratty and sparse. He is wearing a collar and tie and a jacket which may or may not belong to a suit but is certainly quite a formal one. However, the carelessness of the fit of his tie and shirt-collar suggests he was not over-occupied with his appearance. He is not an ‘attractive’ person in the conventional understanding of this. He looks thin and beaky and almost startled or inquiring in the way his head is tilted when looking at the camera. His lips are slightly parted, so perhaps he had just spoken or was about to speak. From the state of his moustache and the style of his clothes, a date for when the photograph was taken of perhaps the 1940s or 50s or even the 60s comes to mind. These observations are to focus on what Roland Barthes refers to as the ‘studium’ aspects, the study of who, what, where, in what ways, people and things are placed and organised within the frame of the photograph. But Barthes is much more concerned with what he calls the ‘punctum‘ aspect, whatever it is about or in the photograph that immediately grabs the attention of the observer. This is what when we look at it that jumps out and in effect says look at THIS. When I look at it, the punctum is that wretchedly ill-fitting collar and tie and the thin neck and that this man seems to have shrunk within his clothes, which perhaps fitted him better at an earlier point. The net effect as I look at it is of a kind of vulnerability. A younger and bigger man exists as a kind of palimpsest within the collar and tie, and of whom only this hint remains.

The photograph is of poor quality in terms of pixel size, because it was copied from a website, concerned with 1820 Settler families in the Eastern Cape, one of quite a number of family history and genealogical sites where it appears, and it was perhaps originally copied from a newspaper or something similar. Looked at in this context, some brief information comes with the photograph, or rather the reproduction of something that was originally a photograph. The photograph is of Mark Elliott Pringle, one of the Pringles of Baviaansriver in the Eastern Cape. 1820 Settlers, the core group of the Pringles were known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the richest farmers in the Eastern Cape and perhaps in the whole of South Africa, not least because of many astute investments they made as well as the farming lands they occupied. His dates are given as born in 1880 and died in 1962.

Mark Elliott Pringle was a white settler farmer in the Eastern Cape, of a well-to-do background, but a practical manager of his own farm and other family land. Such men have not had a good press because frequently seen as red-necks of an ingrained racist disposition which translated into racist practices in their dealings with their workers and others. Certainly many were such. Was this particular man like this? All the signs are that the appropriate answer to this question is, yes but, no but. Yes he was a white man, a white farmer, of his time and his voluminous diary provides much evidence of an instrumental and often a dismissive approach to workers on his farm. No, he not only kept a diary but was involved in charitable fundraising and church events that brought him into kindly contact with people from the black and coloured elite, and he also worried and fretted about racial violence and its escalation in the latter part of his life after 1948. All the signs are, from what he writes and how he writes it in his diary, that in the last decade of his life he had a severe breakdown because of this. After 1948 and after Sharpeville haunted him.

The photograph was come across quite a while after the Mark Elliot Pringle diaries in the Cory library were worked on. To what extent is the vulnerability of the ageing and rather gaunt man something ‘Anyone’ looking at it can see in this representation of him, and to what extent does it derive from things known about him from other sources? Over to you, readers and lookers.

But whatever, the written sources certainly add to what is ‘seen’ in this photograph. Was Mark Elliott Pringle just another white settler farmer, with all that this conjures up? Perhaps, but perhaps not. And for more information about his diaries, including his breakdown over racial violence, please click here.


Last updated:  25 January 2019