The Aqua Portrait Studio Collection: Airbrushed photographic portraits from the 1940’s to the 1990’s

“This archive comprises a collection of airbrushed photographic portraits, some completed, some which were works in progress, and some of their original source images. “

Information about this archive

This archive comprises a collection of airbrushed photographic portraits, some completed, some which were works in progress, and some of their original source images.

Yettie Saunderson, nee Wasserman, was an airbrush artist who owned the Aqua Portrait Studio in downtown Johannesburg from the 1950s to the late 1990s. When she closed up shop after almost fifty years, there were piles of airbrushed portraits that for some reason had never been collected. The collection includes, in addition, some vintage portraits of exceptional quality which she had collected or kept, and also a numbers of portraits by other artists, brought to Yettie over time to be improved upon, or re-done.  This collection is remarkable in that many of the portraits still have notes and instructions from clients, as well as the original small photographs, that were submitted to the artist. 

The technique of airbrushing photographic portraits originated in Chicago and was brought to South Africa in the 1930s. Airbrushed photographic portraiture studios proliferated in all the big cities, and there was an endless demand for the work across the sub-continent for the most part of the twentieth century, until the practice died out in the late 1990s.

 Throughout the apartheid years, across many communities, urban and rural, salesmen would travel with samples and solicit orders for portraits. In the case of the Aqua Portrait Studio the salesmen brought in work from the townships near Johannesburg as well as from the rural northern provinces and homelands.     

A major part of Yettie Saunderson’s work was wedding portraits.  For these and other double portraits, people usually submitted two separate original photographs that were placed side by side and printed together.  The two original photographs were most often taken in entirely different contexts and the resulting double portraits often have an arrestingly strange quality. The small original pictures, together with the finished portraits, tell haunting stories of families separated in time and in place. For couples and families compelled to live in a state of separation by apartheid and the migrant labour system, the wedding portraits assumed great significance. They gave couples a way of being seen together, indeed of “being” together, in one frame. The significance of these portraits, to women in particular, went beyond the symbolic, as the evidence of the “white wedding” provided by the portrait was sometimes accorded the status of a legal document, allowing a widow(for example) to keep her home.

This collection has been featured in several exhibitions over the years: Taking Pictures was curated in 1995 (Wits University, Posel Gallery); and The Portrait Racket (Origins Centre Gallery) curated in 2015, to coincide with a symposium at the Wits University Institute for Social and Economic Research in February, called Vernacular Photography – Africa and India: Collections, Preservation and Dialogue. In October 2016, it was shown in Cape Town, titled “Picture Perfect: Airbrushed Photographed Portraiture in South Africa in the 20th Century”, under the auspices of the Gordon Institute for Performing and Contemporary Art, augmented by work loaned by local communities and museums. It was the subject of a Masters Dissertation, by Ruth Sack: Picture Perfect: Airbrushed Photographed Portraiture in South Africa from1950 to the 1990’s.” (Wits University). It is an extraordinary, unique collection of vernacular photography in South Africa.

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