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Alf Kumalo: An appreciation

I last saw Alf a couple of months ago, and, as usual, he had his camera with him. He was dressed up for an on-camera interview, and looked fabulous. I had only my mobile phone with me, and as I tut-tutted, peering at the back of my phone screen at the unsatisfying images, Alf offered to let me use the camera that he always carried, no matter where he went.

It was vintage Kumalo: polite, unassuming, gentle, generous.

This was a guy who had done it all, from hanging out with Muhammad Ali while shooting Rumble in the Jungle (before turning down an offer to be Ali's personal photographer) to capturing Oliver Tambo ringside at a boxing match and then later at his treason trial in 1954.

He was particularly close to Nelson Mandela. He became Mandela's de facto official photographer when Nelson was in jail, chronicling the lives of his wife Winnie and the children Madiba could not watch grow up. "There were very few people with cameras but thank God we captured many events that have recorded the history of both the struggle and the peace and democracy," said Bra Alf.

He grew up between the then-happening areas of Alexandra and Evaton, in the Vaal, with Sofiatown featuring large later on. And so Alf was naturally the quintessential Jozi guy, to the soles of his Florsheim shoes. A natty dresser, he was renowned for his sharp suits and preferred the more stylish days of yore: "The 50s was quite joyful, people dressed up very well and people were very particular. When they dressed in suits they would wear hats as well even, as they were driving."

He also loved the music of that era, and hung with Miriam Makeba and other greats. It was Alf who shot by far the best image of a young Hugh Masekela playing a trumpet that Louis Armstrong sent him.

Alf's collection of images is legendary, as was his disorganisation. I recall him inviting me into his darkroom cubicle at The Star, when he was still there, and reaching into that cubicle to show some vintage negative. From a mass of coiled rolls of film, he would extract the exact image and launch into a long story about what had happened around that shot.

He was a great raconteur, with an astonishing memory of the major and minor events of his life. He enriched many a young photographer's life, and was always supportive and full of advice.

One thing that sticks with me, and guided me early on, was that Alf refused to use the camera's light meter, and insisted on his own judgment for adjusting for the light. His exposures were always perfect.

Hamba Kahle, Bra Alf. Shoot us a great image of the pearly gates, just to complete the set.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.

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