by Christoph Rippe
It was probably in the year 1894 that a professional photographic studio opened at Mariannhill Monastery, near Pinetown. However, ever since the foundation of the mission settlement in 1882, it had been obvious that photography played a vital role in the self-representation of this particular South African offspring of the Catholic Reformed Cistercian Order [OCR, today OCSO], better known as Trappists: the community’s far-sighted founder, Fr. Franz Pfanner developed a still existing propaganda network, which even included a state-of-the-art printing press. Still, the photographic business had a slow start. Due to Natal’s humid climate, the Monastery’s photographers were only able to work with the necessary delicate chemicals to full extent in the early 1890s.
Additionally, in the beginning, the activities of the monastic community, their building operations and moulding of the environment, were the main attention of the camera. Trappist monks are a contemplative order and bound to a vow of silence and enclosure. Only with the arrival of the decision that a presence in the midst of a local people could not abstain from active involvement and conversion, the camera was pointed outwards, to portrait the local communities on and around the mission’s land (amaNganga – see St Wendolin’s: Prehistory). This decision for direct contact with people eventually led to the separation of Mariannhill from the Trappist order in 1909.
But the missionaries did not only make photographs around their monastery, but also at their mission stations, in the entire area of what is today KwaZulu-Natal: Centocow, near Creighton; Reichenau; Mariazell, near Matatiele; Lourdes; Kevelaer, and many more.
Mariannhill used photographs in its various journals – first translated into woodcuts – and later, from the 1890s onwards, as real photographic prints. Pictorial images could convey a message of need and success, as well as exoticism and adventure, much more effectively than could words alone ever achieve. Mariannhill was not unique in this sense, but the monastery’s photographers also understood it to use images in various other ways than the common publication in propaganda journals.
Typical for mission publications was the creation of a cycle of information, money and people: potential benefactors were informed why they should donate in the first place, and those who were already involved were kept informed how their donations contributed to the work of the mission.
Another objective of the photographs was to encourage vocations amongst young men and women, to join the ranks of missionaries and mission sisters by projecting exotic images of “a far away”, and by emphasizing the adventurous side of a mission experience that involved day-long safaris and exciting encounters with foreign people.
A third aspect of the cycle – in Mariannhill’s particular case – was the sale of images to international ethnological museums, to foster scientific knowledge, while at the same time photographs were sold locally. Visitors of the Monastery could have their photograph taken, but also purchase other photographs, which they could select from albums on display.
Eventually the photographic studio of Mariannhill was closed down at the beginning of the Second World War, and was never reactivated to the same extent.
It is possible that the old photographs, produced at Mariannhill’s studio have not only been circulating internationally, but might still have a very strong local presence in and around KwaZulu-Natal. The author is engaged in a research project that would benefit from tracing any such privately held photographs, which might have been handed down to descendents of the photographed. Collecting such private recollections would enable the writing of a fascinating part of a local photographic history.
Even if you own photographs that were not produced by the studio of Mariannhill Monastery, but may have been produced between the 1880s-1930s, and are from the same area, the author would highly appreciate any sharing and feedback on this matter.
Christoph Rippe is currently working on a doctoral thesis on the history of Mariannhill’s photographs. He can be contacted via email: christoph.rippe[at]gmx.com.