Further Adventures of Werner Forman

Two Pints and a Brush with Death

Guest post by ASPP member Julian Jackson

In July and again in August, ASPP Member Julian Jackson wrote about Czech-born photographer Werner Forman, who got his first big break photographing chinese art in czech collections. The photos, with text by the editor of Novy Orient, were compiled in a book which became a worldwide sensation and was reissued several times.  In this follow up article, Jackson reports on some of Forman’s incredible adventures–including a brush with death during his trip to Ghana in 1978 to document the Akan people for the Black Kingdoms, Black Peoples book.

King55402359-302px A major part of the journey was to locate the place of a local king who still lived in a traditional setting. Finding him proved difficult even more so was photographing some of the finest shrines there, which were still in use by Akan kings. Finally Forman consulted with a professional courtier whose job it was to assist petitioners in audiences with the local royalty. The courtier told Forman that he would need to please the spirits in order to move on to photograph the king. Two £20 pints of brandy seemed to do the trick. Forman was then able to photograph the king in full regalia.

After capturing many incredible photographs, Forman headed down the coast. Finding no place decent to sleep, he went for a calm swim. But Forman soon found himself being pulled in and not able to swim back to shore. As he was being carried further and further out to sea, the thought crossed his mind that he could die out there. But somehow he found himself flung into shallow water after much struggle with the intense waves.

Forman later wrote: “I am not a strong swimmer; I had no intention to cross the Atlantic. I sat in the shallows, lazily floating my arms and soaking in sunlight, peace and cleanliness. After a while, I felt myself sinking slightly into the sand, which seemed in movement, pulling me gradually outwards. Without concern, I stood up and changed my position. Again, the dragging sensation. Calmly, I pushed off the bottom and swam in a leisurely way parallel to the beach.

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All photographs copyright Werner Forman Archive. Images are available for licensing worldwide. See http://www-forman-archive.com

Why, I wondered idly, did I not remain parallel to the beach? Still quite without anxiety, I turned towards the shore and began to make a deliberate effort – to no avail. I realized, with the first twinge of panic, that, although I was now swimming vigorously towards the beach, I was actually being carried out to sea.”

Back on shore and out of danger, Forman looked at his logbook, where he had written, “I’ve done all I can. Now it’s in the lap of the gods.” Forman later discovered that this stretch of water was quite treacherous, explaining why no one was occupying the beach.