Derivations are a clear case of making a photograph as opposed to taking a photograph.[1]

Roel Roelofsen is South Africa’s forgotten master of colour slides. His slides were widely celebrated throughout the world during the early 1970s and yet, his achievements and works are unknown and uncelebrated by South African art history. His fascination with both colour and the built environment is evident in his vibrant works. These scenes are familiar to us today, as Johannesburg has continued to expand as a center of commerce and industry, and it is remarkable how, forty years on, the excitement and wonders of urbanization still enchant us as onlookers. The select works on exhibition clearly illustrate his unique vision and exacting technique.

Roelof Roelofsen was born in Utrecht, Holland, on the 23rd of November 1929. Roelofsen lived in Veenedaal, where is met his wife, Errisje, at a swimming gala. Roelofsen was quite a sportsman, participating in highboard diving and gymnastics.  The couple married in 1957 and moved to Vlaardingen, where Roelofsen worked as a chemist.

Roel bought his first camera and began experimenting with photography around 1966.[3] Initially, photography was as a means of documenting the lives of his young children.[4] Roelofsen’s passion for photographing his children soon developed into an interest in portrait photography.  “Real Enjoyment”, is a portrait of his father, who worked in a cigar factory in Holland. This award-winning image clearly demonstrates Roelofsen’s natural talent and understanding of lighting, composition and subject, as he tenderly captured his father’s moment of quiet contemplation.

Roelofsen was an active member of the Camera Club of Johannesburg. In an interview with Photography and Travel, March 1974, Roelofsen explained:

I learned the fundamentals of photography as a member of the Camera Club of Johannesburg. I drank in everything the judges said, and let’s be honest, criticism is a difficult thing to take at the best of times. No one enjoys criticism. Today, my wife and kids are my best judges.[5]

Roelofsen worked as a quality control manager at Wyeth Laboratories, an American pharmaceutical firm in Isando.[6] His expertise in chemistry lended itself to his newfound talent, and he began experimenting with the method of producing images from negatives. Food dyes, in particular, would become an integral feature of his derivation technique, an expertise which characterises his later, more graphic, work.

When the derivation bug bites, I go out and shoot some black and white pictures bearing in mind what my final colour picture is going to look like. In other words, I have a pretty clear idea in my mind what I am after. I might shoot several pictures of one subject and in addition shoot other pictures which I require for my final “derivation”.[7]

What initially began as a hobby, soon began to take over his life. Roel built himself a dark room, where he spent every night experimenting and perfecting his techniques. He also attended every fortnightly meeting of the Johannesburg Camera Club. He was drawn to the colour slide section of the Club, and was greatly influenced by the more established photographers, such as William Till, who exhibited with Roel in this section. Roel also exhibited alongside other popular photographers who continued to stay in the public eye, photographers such as Michael Myersfeld.

Roel’s derivation technique involved copying the negatives of black and white photographs onto high-contrast line film, thereby eliminating all grey shades, resulting in an image with black and white areas only.[8] A number of black and white images could then be superimposed on one another and arranged to form a montage. The composition is thus entirely dependent on the aesthetic inclinations of the photographer. The final montage was then photographed, producing a single, black and white negative. In order to apply colour to the negative, which is covered by a film of emulsion, a technique called etch-bleaching is necessary in order to remove the emulsion from the desired area and allow the colour to be hand-painted onto the exposed area and adhere to the negative.[9] This process was repeated in a number of colours, each colour on a new negative, so that the ultimate picture was the result of a montage of several layers of film.[10] Roelofsen warned his contemporaries about the painstaking nature of his technique, “Derivations are great fun but you’ve got to have determination and staying power. If you give up easily, don’t tackle this aspect of picture-making art”.[11]

Roel certainly proved that he had the patience and skill to execute this painstaking method, and his efforts were well received abroad. By 1972 he had a record of 256 acceptances to international photographic salons, some examples of the catalogues from Como, Argentina and Hong Kong, amongst many others, will be on exhibition alongside his works. That year, he was also awarded the title of the number one colour slide exhibitor by the Photographic Society of America (PSA). This made him the first non-American man in 10 years to hold the world ‘colour’ crown. By 1974, he had amassed over 600 salon acceptances, 56 awards and 33 gold medals as well as a PSA four star rating.

During the later years of the 1970s, Roel shifted his focus away from photography and more towards painting. He still lectured extensively on the topic of photography and his derivation technique (see newspaper article). in 1977, his second daughter, Marjo, was born. However, she never got to feature in any of his slides.

The urban settings of his work include iconic buildings in the Johannesburg CBD, buildings such as the Trust Bank, the Carlton Centre and Standard Bank. He also features places of industry, the Kelvin Power station in Kempton Park is the setting for 3×3. His own career in the industrial sector, and that of his father in the Ritmeester in Veenendaal, may contribute to the Roelofsen’s interest in these hubs of industry.

Public and recreational spaces were also of interest to Roel; the Johannesburg railway station, Department of Health (then located in Benoni), and Germiston Lake are all incorporated as elements of his utterly urban scenes. The Twin Towers also feature in his body of work; Roelofsen travelled to the US during the 60s and was clearly inspired by these famous features of the New York skyline.

Roelofsen’s works communicate a strong sense of excitement for the construction of these skyscrapers; they are symbols of industry, modernity and a growing economy. This excitement is emphasised by the inclusion of his young children – the next generation, set to inhabit this urban metropolis.

Despite the international acclaim and recognition of his efforts in the development of ground-breaking techniques in colour slide photography, Roelofsen never took the step into the commercial world of photography. He never sold a slide or produced any printed images from his photographs to sell to the public. This is the first opportunity for the public to purchase a limited edition of prints from his slides, forty years on from his rise to fame in the colour slide salons. The Stephan Welz & Co Studio is looking forward to celebrating the life and works of this forgotten master.

[1] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.
[2] ‘Pictures With A Difference’, Harry Parker, The Star, Johannesburg, 25 April 1973, p.B1.
[3] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.
[4] ‘Roelofsen Presents a New Visual Experience’, The Springs and Brakpan Advertiser, 18 February 1977, p. 9.
[5] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.

[6] ‘Pictures With A Difference’, Harry Parker, The Star, Johannesburg, 25 April 1973, p.B1.
[7] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.
[8] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.
[9] ‘Pictures With A Difference’, Harry Parker, The Star, Johannesburg, 25 April 1973, p.B1.
[10] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.
[11] ‘Colour King’, Photography and Travel, March 1974, p. 11.

Roel Roelofsen profile kindly supplied by