It was the end of the summer, and I was driving along the south coast of South Africa. The international success of my previous exhibition of photography, “Sign of Life,” had left me in the enviable position of not having to work for a couple of years but, in truth, I was suffering from “second album syndrome,” and I felt bereft of any concrete ideas regarding a new visual narrative to follow up “Sign of Life.” I stayed the night in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, and the following morning over breakfast, I read a news report of a fatal shark attack on a 71-year-old Austrian tourist further up the coast in a small seaside hamlet called Port St. Johns.
In the background of the pictures that accompanied the news report stood a large bull seemingly oblivious to all the drama going on around him, and whilst it wasn’t the focus of the story, I was immediately struck by the graphic power of the huge beast standing on the wet sand with the shimmering cobalt Indian Ocean forming a backdrop. It was unexpected, absurd even, but I also found the scene strangely moving at the same time.
I decided I’d better drive further up the coast to investigate.
Port St. Johns sits in a deep rocky gorge where the Umzimvubu River spills out into the Indian Ocean. The community is made up primarily of a sub branch of the Xhosa tribe; the Pondo and the surrounding area is known as Pondoland.
The cattle herds of the Pondo people are more than just a source of labour and food, they’re inextricably interwoven into the fabric of Pondo existence. An elaborate vocabulary has evolved which the Pondo people employ to express their feelings, both about the value of their cattle, and their aesthetic responses to the grace and beauty of these animals. Cattle are milked, cherished and addressed by evocative metaphor in Pondo culture and, traditionally, they have been kept close to home after nightfall in a central byre or kraal surrounded by the huts of the people who care for them.
Released from the kraal at sunrise, the animals graze along this pristine coastal fringe of tumbling hills, bisected by many rivers and streams, with deep valleys and ravines that are buried in dark indigenous forest and on the horizon shimmers the cobalt blue of the Indian Ocean. During the heat of the afternoon, the animals make their way to one of the most shark infested beaches on earth to cool off in the gentle sea breeze.
Following a comprehensive survey of the locale with my assistants, we decided to work initially at the beach known locally as Second Beach due to the flat topography and its cove-like shape with steep grassy land features rising on either side. Cattle arrived at the beach spasmodically throughout the day thus requiring a number of exposure strategies.
From a technical point of view, Amapondo presented a number of issues firstly, in terms of the dynamic range; a number of compromises would need to be made that would involve decisions on over or under exposing certain elements of the composition or filling the subject with electronic flash. The area has some amazing cloud formations depending on the season, but often the sky would be a featureless blue for days on end. Some days, the cattle wouldn’t show or the beach would be full of tourists.
In Amapondo #2, we see a number of favourable circumstantial and compositional elements coming together to form one of the most memorable images in the Amapondo series. Dull morning light, low tide, a beautiful Nguni bull walking parallel to the beach and the position of the sun creating a perfect and full reflection on the wet sand. As an added bonus, the animal has a branch of ivy in its mouth, which adds to the slightly surreal nature of the image. A pop of artificial light from an Elinchrom softbox on an extension pole brings the subject to life whilst preserving the sky detail.
Equipment & Settings: Hasselblad H4D with a Super EBC Fujinon 150/3.2, A Nikon D3X with a Nikkor 85/1.4 and a Fujifilm XPRO 1 with a 35/1.4; ƒ10 at 1/950 — ISO 800.
This image is from Christopher Rimmer’s upcoming exhibition, “Amapondo,” which opens April 24 at Art Expo New York, Pier 94, 711 12th Ave., New York, New York. See more of Rimmer’s work on his website: www.christopherrimmer.com, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.