Remember when you were a child playing dress-up? How when you wore your parents’ clothes you believed you were an adult – and for those few minutes, before you were reprimanded, you thought you could skip the 18 or more years of being a kid.
You became exactly what you saw in the mirror and owned it with a child-like confidence.
This is what the portraits on display at the Origins Centre did for people in the past, they created the best self-imagined version of people.
The Portrait Racket showcases portraits of ordinary people in South African history in a time where, for most people, the only photographs they had were the identity photo in their passbook.
According to curators Ruth Sack and Lisa Espi: “Airbrushed photographic portraiture was a widespread, flourishing business in South Africa for the greater part of the twentieth century, from the 1930s to the 1990s. The people in the business referred to it as ‘the portrait racket’.”
It was an affordable way to have a colour picture taken. The technique was reportedly brought to South Africa by a Mr. Popov from Chicago who opened the first studio.
The studio salesmen went door-to-door and sold people the opportunity to have themselves remembered in a way that often differed from their circumstances.
The airbrush artists took a photo of you and one of your partner, enlarged them and put them alongside each other. The couple would then explain how they would want to be dressed up in the portrait, and usually that outfit portrayed a finer and more accomplished attire than the one they owned.
Whether it was a more tailored collar in one, or a more expensive wedding dress in another, most of the portraits told a better story than the reality. One of the stories was of an elderly woman requesting a wedding picture of her and her deceased husband based on a picture of him in his youth, since they never had one taken.
The exhibition includes a selection of completed airbrushed portraits and in some cases the original small photographs and the succinctly scrawled instructions that were submitted to the artists.
Take a timeline trip to the Origins Centre and read a few stories of the people who went to such lengths to redefine what their oppressive passbooks were in reality and turned it into something romantic.
Most of the portraits were retrieved from studios that closed down, where treasured images and documents were never collected. Some of these portraits could help others get reunited with their long-lost relatives.
The exhibition ends on March 31 and the display occupies one of the walls inside the building’s shop.