Cathy Prettejohn’s photographic images leave a gentle wake. They seem painterly. Floating against sun-bleached canvas horizons they speak through what’s left unseen. Her distinctive photographic style followed a bold decision to resign from teaching and rebrand herself as a fine art photographer. It was a return to her origins.
“My sister and I grew up on a farm near Dullstroom and later White River in South Africa. I guess I consider myself a farm girl at heart. We’re a very close family, and we spent many weekends and holidays in the Kruger National Park, which instilled in me my love and passion for the bush and nature. I went to boarding school at 13 and was drawn to the photographic club. I started experimenting with taking pictures and developing images in the school darkroom. My interest was ignited and continued from there.”
As much as she enjoyed it, photography was relegated to hobby status when she went on to college. Although “just a hobby”, it’s interesting that one of her immediate purchases as an Early Childhood Education student in Cape Town was a camera.
“My first SLR Minolta. At around the same time I stumbled on an edition of Life Magazine with a feature of black and white images of children. It was so natural and truly depicted the essence of childhood. It really grabbed me. I still have the magazine.”
During holidays in the Lowveld she spent time experimenting in the darkroom under the mentorship of Derek Ballot, a photographer in her hometown.
“He allowed me the opportunity to grow my interest and taught me to develop images. I was intrigued by black-and-white photography. I loved Ansel Adams and the grainy moody images one could create through the process of pushing and pulling 35mm film. It inspired me to set up a darkroom at home. I loved the whole process – buying bulk film and loading it myself, creating contact sheets and then selecting images to enlarge. I was – still am – continually interested in photographers and the images they take.”
Photography was to prove a faithful sidekick throughout her life, but somehow it never managed to insist on the lead role. That spot was taken by marriage, two sons, and her teaching career. Later, a move from Johannesburg back to White River with its outdoor lifestyle and quick access to the bush and Mozambique coast led to a shift in perspective.
“We love to travel and camping holidays into Africa with family and friends have let us experience remote locations and make incredible memories and of course, for me, it’s always been about viewing the world through a camera and chasing images.”
While working as a teacher her hobby was photographing children.
“Slowly through my reportage and spontaneous style, my work attracted a small following of people who wanted their children creatively captured on film. This led to a friend’s request that I photograph her wedding.”
One thing led to another and for a few years she was a wedding photographer alongside full-time teaching. “I loved the final design and layout using images of people as well as the location to create beautiful visual displays that were more than just a photo album of people.”
Photographing weddings was a change-maker. Although she was among the last to surrender her analog film and darkroom, she had to convert to digital for colour photography. “For a long time I resisted changing to digital for my black and white work. Now I only shoot digital, sadly.”
It was while shooting a wedding that she hit on what was to become her signature style.
“I was photographing at a venue with a stunning herd of Nguni Cattle. I took a few experimental images using a new technique. I was pleased with the result so I enlarged some to display at a friend’s gallery.” The prints sold well. “I realized I wanted to turn this into something full-time and I resigned from teaching.”
The bleached driftwood effect is now distinctive of Prettejohn’s work.
“I feel that by stripping the colour, or retaining subdued tones, the images are peaceful and remind me of being at one with nature away from modern influences. Simplicity is the essence.”
Her subject matter is rural life and the natural world. “The places and elements I photograph sing to my soul and create a deep sense of connectedness and peace within me. I photograph trees, wildlife, ethnic people, Nguni and Ankole cattle. I recently did a series of orchids and botanical succulents in my studio, both high-key and low-key. The sea is another soul-place for me. I love the photo opportunities it poses, like the fishermen and dhows that sail up the Mozambique coastline.”
“I’d like to try a bit of mixed media at some point, by combining sketching and photography. I sometimes think I should have followed my passion from the beginning and I wonder where I’d be now had I done that? But then, life and experiences do shape us. I wouldn’t have reached this point had I not started out with teaching, or had the opportunities that opened doors to my creative journey.”
Exhibitions: 2012 “Gently Wild”, Solo Exhibition, White River Gallery, 2015 Everard Reed Gallery group exhibition, 2017 – 2020 Editions Gallery.