Of mud, marble, and Africa

Of mud, marble, and Africa

For the JC October 1 2020

When a world traveller such as Sir Michael Palin says that “there’s hardly a corner of the planet untrod by Kaplan’s boots”, you know you’re in for a treat and a roller-coaster ride around the globe.

And Marion Kaplan’s big book of photo-journalism provides just that — hundreds of images taken over the past 60-plus years, taking in all seven continents and offering tantalising glimpses, in some cases, of worlds which no longer exist. There is wildlife and human life, the famous and the anonymous, all gathered in a unique compilation she has entitled Marble and Mud — from a line by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne that “life is made up of marble and mud”.

Kaplan’s story is surely unique: a self-taught, single female photographer, who travelled with a passion, taking pictures whenever and wherever she could. Many are assembled in this book, black-and-white as well as colour, with an accompanying text offering pithy and up-to-date sketches of regimes, from the proud to the ridiculous.

But the woman for whom the word “indefatigable” might have been coined is not finished yet. When she speaks to me from her home in France, Kaplan is bemoaning the cancellation of a visit to Alsace, but is determinedly planning a trip to the Arctic next year. Take that, pandemic.

Kaplan was born in London and is grateful for having “a very useful British passport” with which to travel. Her book tells the reader that her paternal grandmother was “born and raised in Lithuania”, but that her marriage to Kaplan’s grandfather, “the circumstances a mystery”, took place in London.

Kaplan, however, tells a slightly different story: she says that her parents met and married in Leipzig, in Germany, and arrived in London “because they came on an earlier train” — presumably meaning that they made it out of Germany before the outbreak of war.

At any rate, her “very musical” and cultured parents set up home in London, first in Kilburn’s Shoot-Up Hill and then in Brondesbury Park. Kaplan, an only child, describes herself as “a good Jewish girl”, but early on, because both her parents worked, was sent to a boarding school in Surrey, where weekly church attendance was the rule.

She didn’t like church much, but then neither did her fellow pupils. She wanted to be a journalist and had a couple of early jobs in London, one at a city newspaper and then at a company called Perry Press Productions. But Kaplan longed to travel, and because she had a cousin with a family in Johannesburg, her parents agreed she should go.

She first arrived in South Africa in 1956, beginning a decades-long love affair with the continent which has lasted all her life — it is the place in which Kaplan says she feels most at home, and returns to most often.

As she writes in Marble and Mud, “in the 1950s I was not a photographer, but had a pleasant job as editor of the house magazine of Central News Agency… editorial prerogative allowed me to choose the photos that appeared in the magazine’s pages”.

In March 1960 the notorious Sharpeville massacre took place — the killing of 69 Black South Africans and the wounding of 178 more, by police, in the face of a peaceful demonstration against South Africa’s draconian “pass laws”.

Kaplan asked the photographer Ian Berry for permission to use his Sharpeville photos in her magazine. The impact of Berry’s powerful images rocked Kaplan. She began travelling — in fact she spent eight years travelling around Africa — and wherever she went, took pictures, “gradually getting into serious photography”.

During the 60s Kaplan met and fell in love with the British journalist Eric Robins, who was based in Salisbury, Rhodesia — or Harare, Zimbabwe as it became. The pair were together for more than 35 years and Kaplan says she “fell into” photography because he worked for Time magazine and needed a photographer. “Thank goodness”, she says, “Time magazine approved of my photos.”

It is clear almost from what she does not say about Robins that theirs was an extraordinary and long-lasting relationship. In the book Kaplan praises him for his “constancy, concern, imagination, moral support and dry humour”; he died in 1997 but is an obvious constant presence in Kaplan’s life.

She describes him as “looking like an English major but with the soul of a gypsy” — and, in fact, he is the reason she lives today in France, because with the restless Robins she moved homes several times, first when he was kicked out of Rhodesia; then they spent several years living in the Algarve, in Portugal, before settling in France.

“Working for overseas magazines, what you had to do was ship film. So the first thing you had to do as a photographer was find the airport, so you could send your film to New York.” Her favourite film for black-and-white photography was Kodak Tri-X; she says she still has some rolls of it in her fridge, but the days when she would shlep “huge amounts of film” and the bodies of various cameras, together with the requisite number of changing lenses, are long gone. Even Kaplan works digitally these days, though not entirely.

Crisply spoken, Kaplan has little time for Israelis — she says many of them drove her crazy in Nairobi, “expecting me to do things for Israeli children. I said, no, why should I? If I’m going to do anything, it will be for African children”. And she also gives short shrift to any kind of “Jewish solidarity”, noting that the only time she had trouble as a young single woman travelling alone was in Morocco, from two Jewish jewellers.

Almost always, she chose not to discuss the fact that she is Jewish, particularly in Arab countries, but she found warm welcomes wherever she went. Kaplan’s magpie existence and a natural talent for languages has made her pick up Arabic, Swahili — a must in east Africa, she says, revealing that she even talks to her cat in Swahili — morsels of Farsi and of course European languages such as Portuguese and French. “When I travelled, I learned stock phrases for everywhere I went, from ‘where is the bathroom?’ to ‘where is the bus?’”

Author of many photojournalism books, including one about Portugal and another about Arab dhows, she has a long client list from National Geographic to the Reader’s Digest, the Guardian and the Observer. She claims she is slowing down, though it sounds unlikely. “I was never athletic except for being able to run with my cameras, that was always important. But age does catch up. I’m grateful to be mentally agile because I still need to write and talk and meet people — and I don’t have to run much these days.”

She is full of wonderful stories about the places she has visited, including one classic tale about being ready for any occasion — turning up for a job in regular photographer’s gear but having a slinky dress and a pair of high heels to hand, just in case. “Ah, yes”, she pounces, “that was during the Congo mercenaries. They were just awful people, but they were a story. I had to get my film out but it was across a dangerous border”. The resourceful Kaplan changed into dress and heels and walked across the border. “Nobody stopped me, they just stared”.

And Kaplan, as is evidenced from some of the early photos in the book which feature her, has one ironclad rule for getting a good picture of people. “Always smile.When you’re trying to get the picture, they won’t shoot you if you smile. And here I am, still, to tell the tale”.

Marble and Mud was published this week by MOHO Books

  • 16 October, 2020