This was another first for Port Elizabeth. By all accounts, the first photographic studio in South Africa was established in Port Elizabeth. The first publicly announced photographic process, was the Daguerreotype process. It was introduced worldwide in 1839. For the following nearly twenty years, it was the most commonly used photographic processes internationally. The first photograph using this process in Port Elizabeth was on the 17th October 1846.
Main picture: The Beach at South End in 1878
Monsieur Jules Léger of Paris, a daguerreotypist, arrived in Algoa Bay [Port Elizabeth] from India on October 14, 1846 aboard the schooner Hannah Codner after first making a sea voyage to India some time prior to 1846. Léger disembarked, intending at first to demonstrate his photographic skills while the ship lay at anchor. Legend has it that this is where he met William Ring, a local bookdealer and stationer and together they decided to set up South Africa’s first photographic studio in Port Elizabeth. Three days later, Léger was taking “photographic likenesses (a minute’s attendance)”, in Mr. William Ring’s book and stationery shop. Together they set up a studio in Ring’s premises in Jetty Street. Very soon Léger exhibited a handful of settler portraits and some colonial scenes which were described in the Grahamstown Journal in November 1846 as “beautiful, wonderful, interesting.”
William Ring with his wife and three children left London on the barque, Prince Albert, on the 21st April 1841, being one of a number of families intending to emigrate to New Zealand. The ship, however, calling at Cape Town for supplies, was wrecked in Table Bay on 4th September 1841. All the passengers were saved but the emigrants lost all their possessions and most of them were compelled to stay in Port Elizabeth. How Ring made a living during the next four years is not known but in 1845 he was in business in Uitenhage as a bookseller and stationer. He moved to Port Elizabeth in May 1845 and rented premises in Jetty Street. To augment his income, he started the “P.E. News Society” loaning newspapers and periodicals for a fee and later added a few books to his stocks. The “News Society” rented a room in the Commercial Hall which was adjacent to the Herald Chambers. Ring’s innovative venture came to an abrupt end in 1848 when the Public Library was set up.
In the meantime, Ring, the ever-adaptive entrepreneur, had commenced his photographic career. A month after Leger and Ring had set up their business, they decided to relocate to Grahamstown where they set up a studio in Bathurst Street. With all due respect that was a highly irrational move as Port Elizabeth had a growth momentum whereas business in Grahamstown was sluggish at best. Moreover, there was more potential in Port Elizabeth what with the town expanding rapidly.
Very soon thereafter, Leger relocated to Cape Town but ultimately went back to Paris. These two moves by Leger begs the question of what was motivating him make such apparently irrational moves. William Ring purchased all of Leger’s equipment and continued to carry on business in Grahamstown until 1847 when he returned to Port Elizabeth. The demand for portraits must have been restricted and the prospects meagre as photography was merely a sideline to his other two businesses. Casting further doubt upon the viability of the original businesses, Ring advertised himself as a “book and music binder” It had probably been a long time coming but Ring was declared insolvent in October of that year. Surprisingly he was somehow able to continue in business as a photographer and as a stationery business.
William Ring sought greener pastures. William boarded the “Phoenix” on the 3rd July 1850 with his wife and two children and is recorded as landing at Simon’s Town on the 9th July 1850.
After that, little is known of William except for one advertisement in a Cape Town newspaper offering to make likenesses by the daguerreotype method. He may well have returned to the Eastern Cape later as a farmer, by the name of Ring, is recorded in the Uitenhage district. There is also one Abraham Ring who operated as a photographer in Cape Town in the 1880s.
It was noted that William was less successful than Leger in the photographic business. Notwithstanding this, the adoption of the wet plate process would ensure that photography in South Africa expanded.
No sources are able to identify who the first persons were to be photographed. The only reasonable assumption to be made is that they were affluent. Moreover, none of these photographs is extant.
The only extant photographs that I have able to trace, which can be classified as early photographs, are the ones used in this blog. Unfortunately portraits of the two pioneer photographers in Port Elizabeth, Monsieur Jules Léger of Paris and William Ring of England, are not extant.
As regards photographers, according to JJ Redgrave, one of the first and best was a Mr James Bruton who commenced business as a photographer on 11th February 1859 after being a shopkeeper. In December of that year he opened a studio in Jetty Street, finally moving to Cape Town in 1874. Port Elizabeth owes him a debt of gratitude as it is probably that many of the extant photographs of that period are Bruton’s work.
Schedule of Early Photographers in Port Elizabeth
These are the periods/dates on which these photographers operated from Port Elizabeth.
South Africa’s First Professional Photographer by Khitab (Looking Back, 1980)
Silver Images by A.D. Benususan [Cape Town, Howard Timmins, 1966]
Secure the Shadow – The Story of Cape Photography from its beginnings to the end of 1870 by Majorie Bull & Dr J. Benfield
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Empire units in P.E. during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Defences during the Boer War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Memorials to the Fallen in War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Fire Damage to the P.E. Advertiser in 1913
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Albany Road
Algoa Bay before the Settlers: Sojourn by Henry Lichtenstein in the Early 1800s
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Captain Jacob Glen Cuyler
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Growth of the Population
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Murders most Foul
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Phoenix Hotel
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Echoes of a Far off War
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Main Street in the Tram Era
Lost Artefacts of Port Elizabeth: Customs House
The Great Flood in Port Elizabeth on 1st September 1968
A Sunday Drive to Schoenmakerskop in 1922
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Horse Drawn Trams
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Trinder Square
The Sad Demise of the Boet Erasmus Stadium
Interesting Old Buildings in Central Port Elizabeth:
The Shameful Torching of Port Elizabeth’s German Club in 1915:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Cora Terrace:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Grand Hotel:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Whaling in Algoa Bay:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: White’s Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Slipway in Humewood:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: King’s Beach:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Russell Road:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Sand dunes, Inhabitants and Animals:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: The Horse Memorial:
Port Elizabeth of Yore: Target Kloof:
The Parsonage House at Number 7 Castle Hill Port Elizabeth
What happened to the Shark River in Port Elizabeth?
A Pictorial History of the Campanile in Port Elizabeth
Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth
The Three Eras of the Historic Port Elizabeth Harbour
The Historical Port Elizabeth Railway Station
Pioneer Port: The illustrated History of East London by Joseph Denfield