Lessons from veteran school lensman

Collin Sunkel with his old Kodak box camera.

“You are the photo-g-r-a-p -h -e-r,” said a little boy as he tugged at octogenarian Collin Sunkel’s hand, while he was idly standing, on the streets of Singapore.

“He was one of the many pupils whom I had photographed at schools in Cape Town’s northern suburbs. The boy was probably on holiday with his family. I was gobsmacked that he actually recognised me. The same thing happened in London when a South African woman recognised me, while I was on one of those red tour buses, as the photographer who took pictures at her school,” he said.

Mr Sunkel of Monte Vista said his fascination with taking photos started as a little boy in Woodlands in Durban.

He said the first camera he ever held was a brown Kodak box camera, also known as a Brownie. “My passion for photography grew as we had a camera at home and I used to take pictures and my mother would go and have them developed,” he said.

While at Durban Technical College, Mr Sunkel freelanced as a news photographer for the Daily News and the Natal Mercury (now called The Mercury).

Following that he worked as toolmaker for government and took photographs at weddings on the side. “Back then, we would only take about 25 photos at a wedding but these days, with the advent of technology, photographers take hundreds of pictures,” he quipped.

Mr Sunkel came to Cape Town in October 1959 after being transferred to the city for work. “Initially I stayed at the YMCA in Observatory and later in 1963 bought this house in Monte Vista,” he said.

A year later, Mr Sunkel, tied the knot with his wife Mariana and on Wednesday March 28, they celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary. Asked for the secret to a happy marriage, Mr Sunkel said: “Patience and perseverance mixed with a lot of love.”

Recalling what the area was like when he first moved to Monte Vista, Mr Sunkel said he believes they may be among the longest standing residents of the area.

“When we arrived here there was no national road; no N1 City nor had Bothasig or Edgemead sprung up yet. There were very little houses; a gravel road and the rest was just bush,” he said.

Mr Sunkel, who turned 80 years old in November last year, is semi-retired and his son Kurt, 46, now runs his business.

“When I first started out I worked from home then I worked from a space at 177 Voortrekker Road for more than 14 years. After that I bought a property at 22 Beaufort Street and worked from there for 25 years. Our offices are now based in Montague Gardens. “Initially my business was called Colin Sunkel Photography and then we changed it to Studio 22,” he said.

Mr Sunkel said when he first started taking pictures in Cape Town in the late 1950s there were very few lensmen.

He has taken pictures at schools such as Koos Sadie Primary School, Goodwood Park Primary School and Edgemead High School to name just a few.

Mr Sunkel said one of the highlights of his career was being able to take aerial photographs of the city from a helicopter.

He took the Northern News back in time when he showed photographs of the vacant land on which Century City was built and also how the old airport looked before it was upgraded.

“I was also fortunate to take pictures of oil rigs and ships and I was asked by Lufthansa Airlines in 1995 to take a picture of their new airbus at the time, with Table Mountain forming the backdrop for their advertising campaign,” he said.

On his advice to aspirant photographers, Mr Sunkel said: “Despite digital photography (making it easier), a photographer needs to know the basics of composition and also how to build good rapport with the people that they photograph.

“There are many great photographers out there who can capture wonderful images but as soon as you give them 50 to 100 people to photograph they struggle,” he said.

He said digital photography has changed the photographic landscape significantly. “The digital photos being produced these days are mind-blowing, especially the wildlife photography,” he said.

Mr Sunkel quipped that if he had the time he planned to write a book about his photographic pursuits over the last 50 years.