Isaac H. Bruce-Vanderpuije – “What photography is not, and why it needs appreciation”
A personal memoir based on a collective interview
with Ghanaian photographer Isaac H. Bruce-Vanderpuije
As Nuku Studio, a Ghana-based organization for photography, prepares its first festival (see the press release here), it also presents the outcomes of a collective interview that took place as part of the Nuku Studio workshop in 2016. Workshop participants and facilitators visited Deo Gratias Studio in Jamestown and had the chance to speak with Isaac H. Bruce-Vanderpuije about his history and views on photography. Everyone prepared and asked questions. From the answers the following narrative was constructed while attempting to keep quotes and Mr. Vanderpuije’s voice intact. The last question that was asked “Would it be possible to make a portrait of you with your favourite camera”, and Mr. Vanderpuije’s answer “Why Not” led to the photographs with this article.
Questions asked by Brooks Anne Robinson, Francis Kokoroko, Gerard Nartey, Nii Obodai, and Seton Nicholas.
Transcription and edit of interview by Andrea Stultiens.
“My father established this photographic studio, Deo Gratias, in the year 1922. He did well in the way he was able to employ people to work with him. And then he also trained other people to become photographers. He was very good. And I am not saying so because he was my father. Other studios that sprang up during his time are no more. So I can say that Deo Gratias Studio is the oldest photographic studio in Ghana today. I realized that my father was able to do well in photography. It was all right for him in the sense that he could acquire what he wanted to acquire. I realized that there is something there in photography, that if I would take it up, it would help me in the future… I tried my best to study or learn so that I qualify, as other people who go into other fields. I felt o.k., not only at that time, but up till now, I feel proud to be a photographer.
I was born in photography. Day in day out, I experienced something in photography around me. So during my schooling days I started to have a keen interest. From the beginning my father didn’t teach me photography, but because of the interest that I had, I started to watch people he was working with; how they took pictures, how they developed films… So with time I became used to processing black and white films. I went to the extent that I tried myself on the camera, and then in the evenings entered into the dark room… Mixed the chemicals and tried to process my own films to see what would come out of it. I tried that on my own because I did not want to damage other people’s films.
During those days, the Ghanaian population was not as big as today. That was during the colonial era. People were working hard to survive. The little money that you had could get you many things that you wanted. So Gold Coasters, to put it like that, before Ghana, were very happy with themselves. You would realize that in the weekends; drinking spots, dancing halls all over the country and in the city, were full with people enjoying themselves. At that time criminality was not so high. I can say that people did not think about criminality. You could walk from here to Achimota, let’s say eight kilometers, at any time during the day or during the night without anybody disturbing you at all. It was a good time. On Sundays people would dress nicely. You know, Ghanaians have taste! They would put on the best dress they have to church. And then after church service, they would go to popular studios where they knew they could get very good pictures. If I can compare pictures taken during those days and now, we don’t come near. You must have photographers who take time to work on pictures. If I say they worked on pictures; they did retouching. Actually, when you have a picture, you can’t say ‘oh, this is a picture’ and put it aside. What you see on paper convinces you to look at it for a number of seconds before you put it aside. But today if you get a picture in your hands you just say ‘oh this is a picture’ and you put it down.
My father was a master photographer. He would take time to work on pictures by retouching the negatives and so. Because of that, the quality of pictures he produced was far ahead of the present day pictures. Today people don’t have time to work on one picture, to sit and retouch it for an hour or two. Everything must go fast to get your money. And the money you get today is not worth to sit and work on a picture for two hours. But during those days he knew that the money that he would get for the work could get him a lot of things. So he did that. I tried to do the same for some time but realized that it was of no use, and that I could not get what I wanted.
The value of the photos changed. During those days, if you get a picture in your hand, you look at it as if the picture has been pasted in your palm. You look at how this thing was done. The picture was talking to you and you tried to find answers to what the picture was saying. Whether it was expensive to come for a portrait in the studio depended on how big the pictures were. Also, when we retouched and wasted hours on them, then you had to pay more. We would do that depending on the customers who came in. You had to weigh them. You could not do retouching for somebody who didn’t have the money to pay for it.
With time and my ambition I was able to achieve something. I continued to watch how people around my father worked, and how he was working. After my schooling I decided to work with him. Later, I had a government scholarship to travel outside to polish my knowledge in photography. I went through photography in Germany at the High School for Graphic and Book Art [Hoch Schule für Grafiek und Buch Kunst] in Leipzig. At the school we had this faculty for photography. We had a number of students who were mostly Germans. After two years in that faculty came a chap from Uganda. His first name was John. He also had a scholarship. That means I was the first African to be in that faculty. In the city there were exhibitions, and photographers came from all over the world to attend them during the five years I spent in the course.
When I came down [to Ghana from Germany], I was working for people with wealth, such as Ghana Tobacco Company, and Ghana Airways also. They were using my pictures for this and this and that. People appreciated the work that I came in to do.
Initially, I was promised a job at the Information Service and said “o.k. I can do this for some time. I’ve had this scholarship and when I go back I must serve my country.” But the Information Service made it clear to me that they couldn’t pay my salary. They asked me to stay at the Institute of Journalism to teach photojournalism there. I realized that the payment wasn’t so encouraging. I started thinking of what to do next and stayed at the Institute for Journalism for a very short period. I went on assignments for various press houses and had a job at Ghana Textile Printing [GTP] in Tema. They had a photo engraving section and needed someone to manage the department. I was interviewed and told them that I was a photographer and not a textile type of fellow, but that I felt that my knowledge for photography could help the factory to grow. I reminded them that they did textile designing. The designs had to be reproduced using photographic film that had to be brought down to Tema for processing and I said: “We can do that here easily”. They said “No, you need the machines, forget about that”. I replied “I am a photographer, and what you say that must be done I can do it, but it will take time because I will do it manually. Later, when we are successful and you want to bring in machinery we can push it.” Then they asked me “what do we need?” So I prepared a list; chemicals, films that we would need. I was there and all of a sudden the managing director called me: “Mr Vanderpuije, your request is in, so it’s now over to you.” I took the materials to the engraving section, put up the place properly, and then we started working on designs. We were able to produce the film that previously was imported to Ghana. At that time the factory was using hard cash to bring in these things. One way or the other I was able to save the company some foreign exchange, so they were happy. Later on, they asked me to go to Holland to see more of what I was doing here. I went for a short period, came down and we continued. I was at GTP until the we no go sit down  came in and in the whole country, problems started.
As time went on, I decided to come back to Deo Gratias. My father started saying that if I was not coming, then he would close the studio. I thought of it and said: “Let me forget Ghana Textile Printing and come home”. So I started again under supervision of my father. At times when I say this, people don’t understand it. He was a master photographer and I went outside and brought in new ideas, why should I come back? But this is a family sort of business. I came in and we started working again, although he was advanced in age. I was doing most things; going up and down, processing pictures. He then decided not to do the things he was doing again and that I continue.
Government was interested in photography at the time and, because of that, they were having Information Service in the civil service. I think they were thinking that if they trained photographers, they would come down to also manage the Information Service. Because of that I had the scholarship from the government.
My father trained a cousin of his to manage the photography department of the Information Service before independence. He stayed at a place where the government acquired the building to run the Information Service. This is a funny sort of thing. My father was working in the same building as a photographer. When the Information Service came in they said “If you have a photographer, you also have a photographic department. So it’s better if you are working with us.” My father said “oh, I have worked on my own for so many years. I am not prepared to go into a partnership to do work.”
A British fellow was leading the Ghana Information Service, Morris or Morrison [Roland James “Jimmy” Moxon]. He was later ‘enstooled’ as a chief at Aburi area. This chap tried to convince my father, and my father said “no”. This place was a family sort of building so this man started to say to family members that they should eject my father out of the house. My father didn’t say anything at all but started setting up the place that we sit in now as Deo Gratias Photographic Studio. Before that the studio was already in existence. Only we changed places to the present site.
Luckily for me, when I started coming into photography properly, it was the time we were preparing for our independence. So there were a lot of things to see and then shoot. I took a lot of pictures…
During Independence’s eve, at the old Parliamentary house, what we call polo grounds, where the Kwame Nkrumah museum is now, I was there when the British flag was being lowered down, and then when they came out to announce independence. I took some pictures and still have the negatives… Because of my sight, it would be difficult for me to find them at the moment.
I think that studio photography started to decline after our independence. The technique started changing. Before independence, you couldn’t call yourself a professional photographer if you hadn’t gone through apprenticeship or training. You had to be trained to operate the camera, to get good pictures. It was not like today when you have cameras that you have to see through, then press, the camera will start doing things for you, and you get results. At that time you had to learn how to set the aperture, look at the weather… With time, if you had the experience, you could just guess the speed. Or you had an exposure meter to point at objects or your surroundings for the meter to do it for you and then you set it on your camera.
My father was using a Rolleiflex. I also became used to the camera and used it all the time. It is very easy to operate and you can use it from different angles to get good results. You don’t have to have it close on your eye to view what you want to shoot. So if you are somewhere where there are many people, and you cannot focus, you raise up the Rolleiflex and see what you want to shoot.
Rolleiflex was a very good camera, one of the best cameras in the world. I think because of that the Chinese [Japanese] started copying the way the camera was built, and they started producing this Yashica. Yashica was also not bad, but the quality of Rolleiflex was far better. Because of the price… You know. Chinese materials are always a bit cheaper. So they had a market. Not only in Africa, but all over the world.
The technology has changed. There are cameras that are very simple to operate now and, because of that, we have a lot of people walking on the street calling themselves professional photographers, when they should not use the word professional with what they are doing. They go all over, they walk all over. Go to places like churches. Where you go for church might be far from where the studio is. Either you walk, or you pay for transportation before you get there. Because these chaps were going around, they stopped people from continuing from churches to go and pose for their picture. It’s a pity that my sight is that dim, otherwise I could have shown you some pictures taken in the studio and also outside the studio by professional photographers. And when you compare those pictures with those taken by the amateur chaps, you see a great difference.
We continued processing the black and white and we started also taking color pictures. My father was very good in photography. Because of that we were not working with readymade chemicals. We collected the various chemicals and mixed our own because we had big volumes of work. We were processing slides, transparencies. Those are very easy to process. If you buy and mix the chemicals you can do that yourself. We were also trying to print color pictures, but not on a commercial basis. If we had one or two of our own films, we would work on them, instead of sending them outside to be processed. That was the way we were doing things when color started coming up.
All along I was hoping that any of my children would get involved in photography. And, luckily for me, my daughter Kate has taken up that role. She is not a trained photographer, but she can operate the camera and get good pictures. She wants to bring what we have been doing here in the studio to another stage. I know that Deo Gratias will continue to be in existence for some time to come.
Photography is very important. If you understand photography then you realize what it can do in life. You know, you need photography to promote certain areas in our business life: if you go to the medical field, if you go to the press, if you go to… I don’t think people understand what photography means in our society. And it is time that people start to appreciate, especially here in Ghana, what photography is. People think that when you have a camera and press the button that that is what photography is, but it is not. Photography goes deeper.”
Nuku Studio would like to express its gratitude towards Isaac K. Bruce Vanderpuije and his daughter Kate Tamakloe for their trust and cooperation.
 A pidgin English expression for the strikes that started during that period.