Joburg through an honest lens

WORDS Lisa Johnston PHOTOS Calvin Copeling


Calvin Copeling’s exhibition ‘A Look Through The Lens’ takes an Instagram journey through Johannesburg to unearth the city’s frequently overlooked historic buildings. 

The exhibition speaks to the fabric and texture of the city – at times lost in decay, but also shifting and developing towards a new future. Copeling’s observations are mediated through his architectural background, as well as his experience of living in the city, and offers a keen insight into an ever-evolving, growing and decaying urban space.

What do you do for a living?

I work as an interior architect 

What drew you to live in the inner city?

I had always dreamt about living in the inner city, but it wasn’t until I was instructed by the non-profit organisation I was working for at the time to look for office space, that I visited the Ansteys building. I met Brian McKechnie and decided I’d like to live there myself, so I purchased a unit.

Inner city living definitely changes your perspective on things, but I never wanted to become complacent with my surroundings or with looking for inspiration. These days I set out walking through the city, with no final destination or location in mind, and just see where the city takes me.  

When did you start photographing the city?

After purchasing my apartment in the Ansteys. Being in the city more often I started noticing buildings that are often overlooked and undervalued, and decided to document them. 

Which is your favourite building, and why?

Ummmm…. difficult question. There are so many in Johannesburg that I am drawn to: Lorna Court, the legislature building, Johannesburg City Council, old Johannesburg General Hospital, Carlton Hotel, the old synagogue.  What draws me to most of them is the play of texture and form – as a result of both design and decay. 

What is it about a particular building that makes you want to photograph it?

I generally look for interesting texture and shapes, or the way the light plays on a building. But it’s often whatever draws my eye as I walk through the city.

Do you think its important to preserve the city’s old buildings?

Yes indeed. So much of our city’s architectural heritage has been lost, we have to preserve the historic buildings we have left and be sensitive when renewing them.

Does your background as an interior architect influence the way you look at the city, and the world?

I definitely think my architectural background has influenced the way I photograph and see the city. I think the way I photograph is how I experience the city – both the beautiful and the ugly side-by-side.

Tell us about your current exhibition A Look Through the Lens.

I set out trying to document Johannesburg’s often overlooked and undervalued architecture. I try to look past the dirt and grime and see the city as it was historically, while looking towards its future. The focus is on the use of concrete in the city; how it ages over time, transforms the city, and becomes a backdrop to the city’s history and transformation. The idea that concrete forms the historical and textural backdrop for the city is the focus of my photography. I show the city as I see it, not gentrified and sterile, not shying away from the dirt and grime that plays part of the city landscape. 

Where can people see more of your work?

I am in the process of setting up a website where the public can view my photos and purchase prints, but in the mean time they are welcome to follow me on Instagram @calvincopeling 

A Look Through The Lens runs until 3 August 2014 at the Gauteng Institute for Architecture (GIFA), 77 Juta Street, Braamfontein.