She is a portrait unto herself. Vanessa Kauffmann, the blue-eyed Artist of the Aperture, is a Charlestonian by choice. She is out of Africa. Born in Durban, the largest city on the continent’s east coast, the port of Durban is an aqueous crossroads that spreads 3.5 million inhabitants throughout its notable expanse. Kauffmann’s mother and two sisters still reside in South Africa and she visits annually.
The engaging photographer is not indentured to the profession. She has carried her camera as a means of warm expression, taking the commitment seriously over the last seven years. She shoots landscapes, portraits, an occasional wedding, and does some volunteer photography for a handful of charitable organizations. It is a passion, not a ‘cash in.’
“I started with a film camera, a Canon Rebel, and unfortunately didn’t have the temperament or patience to read manuals or figure out the technicalities of shutter speeds and aperture sizes, so it was a slow and frustrating learning process. Digital technology changed all that, enabling me to make adjustments instantly with the camera, significantly shortening the learning curve. So the digital evolution has been great for photography,” says Kauffmann.
Yet the evolution cannot supplant a natural gift. The photographer’s eye and feel for the subject transcends the technology. Kauffmann’s ability to focus upon the petals of a bridal bouquet across a beam of sunlight or capturing the wonder of a full moon rise behind a historic church spire defines the elements of her innate talent. “I was never formally trained in photography,” Kauffmann stated. “However, I studied the work of great photographers and attended many “hands-on” workshops all over the US, in South Africa and Namibia. I learned to watch for the light, for shifting shadows, always looking for my personal interpretation of a subject. Sometimes I come away disappointed, not having captured what I was looking for. Probably 80% of my photographs are not exactly what I wanted. But you have to shoot them to get that magical 20%.”
“Most of all, I love landscapes. There is so much beauty in nature and the wild places. It’s a God thing… He is the ultimate source of creativity; a sunrise that inspires, a fingernail moon in the dawn sky. Sometimes I just have to thank Him for “being.” You see this concept of His “being” in His answer to Moses. ‘I Am Who I Am.’ (Exodus 3:14). Apart from being grateful for His blessings of protection and provision, I am grateful that He exists and we see this in nature every day,”
Kauffmann explained. “Another recent diversion is aerial photography. It is a huge thrill to hover over our beautiful city or coastline in a helicopter with no doors and photograph the scenes below. I also love people and enjoy portrait work. I don’t really seek out wedding photography assignments, but I will take on er, less formal weddings, and then my goal is to communicate the warmth and uniqueness of the occasion on a very personal level.” Kauffmann found Charleston on another faith. It was enterprising Charlestonians who visited Durban and persuaded her husband, an inventive engineer, to move to the Holy City. The thought of producing his patented waterproofing product, Sealoflex, in Charleston made sense. The Kauffmanns gambled upon Charleston being as advertised, having visited a few times prior to their ultimate move. They have not looked back.
“We came in 1990, just after Hurricane Hugo had devastated the area. The most obvious difference between what we had left behind and our new American neighborhood was evident in suburban life, how safe it was for the kids. We saw lawns that stretched to the streets and children in neighborhoods playing outdoors. In South Africa at that time, yards were all walled for security. Crime was high. It was very different for children there, and for the parents, as well,” Kauffmann recalled. “South Africa is a fabulously beautiful place, but we had concerns about the future.”
Charleston was different in other ways too, she continued. “Initially I looked at the flat marshes and dismissed them as being very boring, but I could not have been more wrong. Marshes have subtleties and nuances. They look different depending on the time of day and the seasons. I love how the colors change and have developed a fascination for the complex ecosystem at work within the ebb and flow of the tides that wash through them.”
Her children have grown. Her youngest (Matthew) is currently finishing his senior year at the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. Her daughter, Leigh, a College of Charleston graduate, is married and expecting Kauffmann’s second grandchild in short order. Gideon, her first grandchild, is part of the reason she loves being in the Lowcountry. “I spend as much time as possible with my family. The years go by so fast and every moment is a gift. Another favorite pastime is simply taking my dog to Folly Beach ‘out-of-season’ when the beach is deserted.”
“I keep quite busy. I have a regular eight to five career at The GEL Group,” Kauffmann stated. GEL, a company headquartered in Charleston and employing approximately 350 people, performs analytical testing, environmental consulting, and engineering design.
In addition, Kauffmann does volunteer media production for James Island Christian Church and provides various photography services for them and favorite non-profits at no charge. The week prior to this interview, she covered the Charleston Leadership Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that has brought together Charleston’s community leaders over the past eleven years in a commitment to uphold Christian values and principles in the workplace. This year’s keynote speaker was PGA golfer Tom Lehman. Kauffmann’s photographs of the event were donated and will grace the website of the Charleston Leadership Foundation. Other “Pro Bono” assignments include work for the Johns Island Conservancy, the Edisto Open Land Trust, and Water Missions International. The work is not over at the last click of the shutter however, since most images require sorting and editing, which she does at home during the evenings and over weekends.
Kauffmann also currently serves as the president of her neighborhood homeowners’ association, an undertaking that requires no measure of diplomacy. She is at her best when busy, but happy to have a few moments to reflect.
She finds inspiration in the divine, and says her father, Bill England has probably had the most influence on her life. He was the first South African to run the Durban based Mobil Oil Refinery in their history. All previous refinery CEOs had been American. He passed away in March of 2012 after a short illness. He drifted away in a matter of hours after Kauffmann’s emergency return to South Africa to be at his bedside.
“My father was my plumb line. He had the courage to consistently stand up for what he believed was right, no matter what. I’m sure this didn’t always make him popular with some, but he was highly respected by all. He was also a wise and very generous man.”
Honesty and truthfulness are not necessarily hereditary, but with Kauffmann, these qualities emerge in the composition of her avocation. Her focus is spot on. Her light source is seemingly celestial. Her content is truth touted. Her exquisite photographs are to be shared, contemplated and appreciated. They exude warmth. They tell much more than any dimension of linear gloss would seem to whisper.
She is Charleston’s Artist of the Aperture.
See more of Kaufman’s work at her website at http://www.vanessak.com/
W. Thomas McQueeney is a graduate of The Citadel, a recipient of the Order of the Palmetto and the author of two books, The Rise of Charleston & Sunsets Over Charleston.