The Thandabantu permanent exhibition at the Duggan-Cronin Gallery in Kimberley is a breathtaking display of early 20th Century photographs capturing the faces and lives of southern African peoples. It is, however, but a small part of the body of work that Alfred Duggan-Cronin left behind as his legacy.

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Duggan-Cronin’s photographic collection managed by Kimberley’s McGregor Museum numbers more than 7 000 priceless negatives.

This is the story of a Kimberley mine compound guard who bought a cheap box camera and became a South African photographic legend.

You see photographs of Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin and his travelling sidekick, Richard Madela, sitting around a fire at their tented bush camp deep in the wilderness and you just know that these men lived the kind of life for which the legendary adventurer-author Ernest Hemingway would have paid dearly.

They travelled the length and breadth of southern Africa to photograph its indigenous peoples, just in time to capture the age-old customs and traditions before the colonial migrant labour system changed them forever.

The Thandabantu exhibition at the Duggan-Cronin Gallery in Kimberley shows but a delicious fraction of his body of work gathered over 50 years of field trips. It is, truly, the most significant collection of southern African ethnographic photography in the world.

Duggan-Cronin, an Irishman from County Cork, came to work for the De Beers diamond mining company in Kimberley in 1897, starting as a compound guard and transferring later to the prison hospital.

After he bought his camera in 1904, his first human subjects were the mine workers. Obviously intrigued by where they all came from, he began to travel extensively all over the region, covering nearly 130 000 km in the 20 years between the two World Wars.

From 1930, Richard Madela began travelling on assignment with Duggan-Cronin, and is recognised as being key to winning over suspicious photographic subjects in far-flung rural places. In 1932, Duggan-Cronin resigned from De Beers and thus began their full-time forays.

Supported by Kimberley’s McGregor Museum, the South African government and the Carnegie Foundation, Duggan-Cronin’s photographs are priceless records of traditional settings, from the San of the Langeberg to deep Zululand, the people of Limpopo to the Pondo and Xhosa of the Eastern Cape. The two men travelled beyond the borders of South Africa to Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia in search of interesting faces and places.

Along the way, Duggan-Cronin picked up the nickname of 'Thandabantu' – Matabele for ‘someone who loves people’. The name is reflective of the care and respect he and Richard Madela showed their subjects at all times.

Unfortunately, Father Time did not show a similar respect for Duggan-Cronin’s massive legacy of photographs. The nitrate-based negatives were found to be potentially combustible and they were also starting to deteriorate.

Robert Hart of the McGregor Museum – who is now the custodian of this great collection – was sent to Paris to train under Anne Cartier-Bresson, one of the world’s leading photographic conservators. The collection has been saved and is now a timeless record of a distant, more romantic, era in southern Africa.

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