For the Best of 2012 In Print, see the December Issue of Artforum.

Left: Nelson Mandela with Alf Kumalo. Photo © Nelson Mandela. Right: Alf Kumalo being arrested at a boxing match in Johannesburg in May 1976. Photo courtesy Alf Kumalo Foundation and Photographic Museum.


ALF AND I met a long time ago, perhaps in 1968 during Edward Kennedy’s tour of South Africa. After that we saw each other occasionally, sometimes not for a year or two, but whenever we did it was with a warmth for each other that we seemed to share. I suspect that that was how Alf related with many other people, for he had such an openness and generosity that it was natural and easy to be that way with him.

To my regret, he and I never discussed his thoughts about photography and his own work. But watching him on a number of occasions at work and seeing the outcome, in photographs of acute observation, it is clear that he was a passionately dedicated chronicler of history. He seemed to be aware of the passing of every moment and of its possible historic importance. There was an unquenchable need for him, Alf Kumalo, to put it on film. He was never without his camera; he used it frequently and did, indeed—in photographs of enduring substance and sensitivity—hold much of our history.

It is legendary that for many years Alf’s negatives rode with him in his car. Having held the moment, he seemed to have none of the collector’s greed for possession and for anything so pedantic as filing. When we invited Alf to have an exhibition at the photography gallery in the Market Theatre in the early 1980s, he was happy to leave the selection of work to me (which effectively meant that I had to rummage through hundreds of prints and thousands of negatives in the trunk of the car).

Alf has left us a vast and invaluable body of work. A fitting tribute to this remarkable photographer and gentle man would be its proper preservation in the Alf Kumalo Archive of Photography.

David Goldblatt is a photographer living in Johannesburg.