Johan Wilke




Wilke: “Be a photographer. Don’t try and categorise yourself too much. The best photographers are photographers who are totally passionate about photography and who simply cannot leave it alone.”

Self Portrait - Johan Wilke

My Tribute to One of South Africa’s Greatest Photographers, Johan Wilke

I want to thank all of you who are reading this tribute to an exceptional and dear friend of mine Johan Wilke. Johan was an extraordinary person who touched the lives of many people who knew him, mainly through his outstanding photographic ability. Without asking for or wanting any compensation, Johan helped me take my previous publication Camera&Image to a level and standard not experienced by any other photographic publication that was ever produced in our country.

It was through social media that I first found out about Johan’s untimely passing. Initially, I didn’t know what to think, but after contacting the person that was with him at that unfortunate time, I was comforted. Johan Passed away very peacefully and very suddenly on the 27th July 2020 from a heart attack. The realization that our lives are not in our hands and could be taken from us in a moment became a reality.

It was not long after I had spoken with her I received a message from Graham Abbott. This is what Graham told me; “Hi Robert, I am a good friend of Johan Wilke, we studied together at PE Teck in the ’80s, and I assisted him for five years in the ’90s, we were in touch on and off over the years, and we’re discussing an exhibition of his old analogue B+W Photos in Barrydale where I stay in Dec, I don’t know much of his last days and am wondering if you had any information that you could share to help get closure on a very dear friend thanks.”


Graham Abbott assisting Johan

I am pleased that a remembrance exhibition to some of Johan’s work is to be held in the not too distant future in Barrydale. I have included the details for this exhibition in a separate article, follow the link when you have finished reading this tribute to him.

The very first time that I spoke to Johan was at his Woodstock studio in Cape Town in 1999. The last work that I would receive from Johan was a design that he did for a print magazine that I was hoping to produce titled, Digital Photo SA. Due to market forces, this magazine never appeared in print but after quite a few years is now an internet photographic magazine, the magazine that you now have before you. I have kept this interview and the images that I am now able to share with you.

The last image that Johan did for me for Digital Photo SA. The magazine was registered but never printed.

Johan was very generous, and as we got on so well, he often would send me a body of work, work that I will be able to publish in the future again as long as I am able to, I will keep his memory alive. (I made the same commitment to Herman Potgieter and Frans Dely. Look out for these in future editions.)

Rob: I can say quite unashamedly that your work rates with some of the best in the world. I am sure that most of us would like to know what your secret is. Tell us a bit of your background and how you got started in photography.

Wilke: I studied at Port Elizabeth Technikon. But it was not photography that got me there. I wanted to pursue a direction in Fine Art, drawing and painting. And on looking back I can honestly say that the basis of any good photograph is an art basis. If you don’t have an interest in art it would be very difficult to become a good photographer.

I started first year and halfway through it became evident that I had a flare for design. Then I reached a crossroad, was I going to continue with painting or was I going to do design? I continued to study art and then went on to do the diploma in graphic design.

While I was finishing the diploma I became side tracked once again, as one of my subjects was photography. So I decided to continue with the diploma in photography straight after the diploma in graphic design. I went on to do the national higher diploma in photography and studied for a further four years. I spent a total of eight years at the PE Technikon. I was rather fortunate to have had Ian Difford as one of my lecturers who also enjoyed the documentary approach.

I attended a lecture conducted by Elliott Erwitt in London. Here he explained what his approach was when he went about setting up to produce a documentary photograph. This was great, as the approach always seemed to be a sore point with most documentary photographers

In my third year I chose documentary photography – and went on to become a documentary photographer after I qualified. I never did fashion or anything else technically but we were obliged to do some commercial work so I did a bit of tabletop. I don’t think that I had one fashion photograph in my entire portfolio. My focus was solely on documentary. I most probably would never had stood a chance at becoming a great documentary photographer, or making any money out of it. I think even to this day that I am still very passionate about documentary photography. Of all the photographic disciplines it must have the best learning curve as you are involved with something that you cannot control.

Rob: What do you use for inspiration to do great work. (What inspires you today?)

Wilke: I often go back into the history of art, delving into my art books. I especially like to look at paintings by the great masters. One of the masters who inspired me as far as lighting and dramatic effect must have been Rembrandt. His very strong lighting technique was almost a photographic light. He always had those strong pools of light in which he did his best work. If I look at my own portfolio most of it is stuff I shot for myself without being commissioned.

Rob: Do you have a favourite medium. One that you find yourself using more than others?

Wilke: I love black and white. Sometimes I would take colour images and convert them into black and white. Because we see in colour it would be true to say that good black and white images fascinate us. Even people who are generally not into photography, would appreciate black and white images. It is a lot more powerful because of the contrast – light and darkness.

Rob: What is it about your work that distinguishes it from the rest of the pack?

Wilke: Cartier Bresson and the like have influenced my documentary photography. It has that kind of graphic thing. And the other aspect that generally distinguishes all of my work – Documentary, fashion and my commercial work is that it has a very strong graphic element–because of my graphic background. I like clean uncluttered and simple. The lighting as well. I like strong light. I don’t often light just with a soft-box. Localising certain areas and picking up certain points of a subject and kind of highlight these. It has a lot more interest than just a flat light. I know have clients booking me in advance, especially when it comes to my black and white work, this is what I have always wanted. Especially seeing that I cannot do my documentary photography.

If I wanted to do documentary I would have to take about a month to get into the right frame of mind and to really immerse myself into the subject in order to get the stuff that I wanted.

Rob: Tell us about your studio in Cape Town?

Wilke: I travelled for a year overseas before I set up a studio in Cape Town. It was in 1989 that I went overseas for the first time. I will never forget how inspired I was to see some of the work by the great masters of photography first hand and in real life. When I got to Paris it was the celebration of the 150th anniversary of photography. There were photographs from Fox Talbot to photographs that had been taken up to the current time.

William Henry Fox Talbot

Rob: We would like to know your thoughts concerning the current trend in fashion photography?

Wilke: Richard Avendon in his 80’s is still shooting the Versace campaign, and it still has a fresh approach. A person has got to keep on evolving.

Fashion images and fashionable images. There is no such thing as a fashion image only fashionable images. This is generally created by the need you get from designers and creative people. Definitely the thing that is in fashion or fashionable images is a very obscure cropping, tight crops, almost haphazard lighting, angles and things like this. The beautiful image in fashion is not in any more. Totally the opposite, almost anti-fashion. It has almost gone in the opposite direction.


The fashion thing that worries me the most, and this is really why I don’t do much fashion is that I would really like a fashion editor to come to me and say; “Do something your way, after all you are the photographer.” The problem however exists in South Africa with most art directors and fashion editors is that they insult the intelligence of photographers. They don’t realise that you have more than a half a brain. We want this and you can’t do that. That is why we are constantly mimicking what we see in magazines. Also because they come with the magazines and tell you. ‘This is what we want’, They don’t say we are booking you for that style which is what happens overseas. They will book Herb Ritts because they want that particular style. They won’t go to Herb and say, ‘Herb we want you to shoot this shot with a bright green background.’ They would rather ask him how he would interpret the shot and what is it he always wanted to do with that type of garment?


I just feel that they insult the intelligence of photographers. They firstly don’t realise that qualified photographers have been trained in the creative field. We are not all happy snappers. Most of us have a bit of a background. We are also not paid what we are worth.

Rob: Having said that, do you now have any say in the creative concept?

Wilke: The art director will arrive on a shoot and tell you how to light the damn thing! He has looked at your portfolio and has booked you on the strength of that portfolio. The guy is capable, so why now turn around on a shoot and tell you, “Do it this way.” Why is it that after ten minutes on a shoot you become the local idiot – you just press the button. It is a very strange mentality.

Rob: The question most often asked by aspiring professionals has to do with the equipment that you favour. Tell us a bit about what you use.

Wilke: I like my Nikon. My favourite lenses must be the shorter focal lengths such as the 25-50mm. I use this lens most of the time for fashion because it allows me to get in close. I don’t like long lenses. Often you will be taken to an exotic location; well then you might as well shoot it on Clifton for what it’s worth. I like the freedom of movement the shorter lenses give me. I usually don’t use a tripod when I do things. A tripod just restricts me, I can’t get up or down or move around the subject freely.


Most of my metering is done with an incident meter, however when I am doing fashion I would insist on a clip test for every roll just to ensure that I have the skin tones correct. I usually print my own black and white work after a lab has processed the film and given me a contact sheet.

The medium format camera is a Mamiya 6×4.5. For my large format work I use a Horseman 4×5.

My flash equipment of choice is the Bowens self-contained unit. I often use strip lights to light my subject and the softbox would be used for localised soft lighting effects. I also use tungsten lighting for some of my work.


Rob: What would you like to tell the readers in closing.

Wilke: Be a photographer. Don’t try and categorise yourself too much. The best photographers are photographers who are totally passionate about photography and who simply cannot leave it alone. There is really no easy way in. Pay your dues, like the rest of us, and you will eventually get there.

Rob: How should we end this most interesting and informative interview?

Wilke: Let’s have coffee!   Johan Wilke: A Journey through Life (above) Produced by Graham Abbott

For as long as I am able, I intend to keep the memory of Johan alive. He is missed and prayerfully, he is at peace.