Arnold Castle — a photographer’s life

By Elana Castle

A lifetime resident of Cape Town, Arnold Castle (1932-2020) was considered a master portrait photographer, well-known for his black and white images of South Africans from all walks of life. 

A self-taught hobbyist, Arnold first picked up a camera in the early 1970s. Discovering that he did not have the budget to produce a promotional fashion catalogue for the family-owned clothing company, Arnold reached out to his neighbour, Dick Pearce for assistance. Dick, an avid photographer, encouraged Arnold to learn the basics of the craft so that he could create his own promotional material. 

Arnold enrolled in a course at the Ruth Prowse School of Art, where he learned the photographic fundamentals and was taught by some of the city’s most esteemed photographers. He developed a passion for the medium, setting up a darkroom and portrait studio in his garage. He also joined the Cape Town Photographic Society, where he was inspired by the work of industry luminaries like Ted Dickinson and Dick Wittington-Jones.

By the late 1970s, Arnold was a very active member of the Cape Town Photographic Society and the Venture Camera Club. He sought out interesting people whom he felt would make compelling character studies, and approached local street vendors, newspaper sellers and strangers that he encountered on his walks along Sea Point promenade in the hope that they’d agree to sit for portraits in his studio. On occasion, he would shoot his subjects ‘unaltered’; but his style evolved into a more theatrical approach, where he created character portraits through the use of props and costuming. He also began to study the work of traditional portrait artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, whose control of light and shade was a constant source of inspiration, as well as contemporary photographers like Yousuf Karsh and Annie Leibovitz.

In 1978 Arnold achieved an Associateship of the Photographic Society of South Africa (APSSA) in monochrome prints, and in 1984 a Fellowship of the Photographic Society of South Africa (FPSSA). Further accolades and awards followed, including a gold medal from The Photographic Society of America for The Eternal Scholar in which Arnold dramatically transformed a working class, glass-grinding craftsman into a scholarly Rabbi. 

With a number of extraordinary works in his growing repertoire, Arnold co-produced two exhibitions with his dear friend and mentor Roy Millington at The Shell Gallery. He constantly sought out new material and techniques and submitted prints to salons in South Africa and abroad. He also served as a judge on many photographic panels. For a man for whom photography was merely a “hobby”; Arnold achieved an extraordinary level of acclaim amongst his peers, whilst remaining extremely humble.

Arnold only ventured into colour when digital photography became the norm. Although well into his 70s, he was committed to learning an entirely new skill-set. His Hasselblads and Leicas were replaced with digital SLRs and the darkroom was replaced by a computer. With the help of his friends and technical whizzes Paul Meusberger and Michael Groenewald, Arnold immersed himself in the world of digital editing and manipulation, shifting genres to landscape, his other passion.  

Until his passing, Arnold continued to develop his craft, producing award-winning photographs captured on his travels through South Africa and globally. He also mentored and assisted aspiring photographers, and was celebrated for imparting his acute technical knowledge and artistic advice with great generosity.

The Eternal Scholar, an exhibition of Arnold’s portrait photography scheduled to open at the SA Jewish Museum in August (see page 21) brings a unique perspective to historical Cape Town through an edited collection of Arnold’s character portraits. His photographs gave a human face to people on the fringes of society as well as to recognisable South Africans. His critical eye and expert technical know-how, coupled with his immaculate attention to detail in both shooting and editing, make Arnold’s images as relevant and intimate as the milieus in which they were captured. 

A Note from the Curator
This exhibition opens almost three years to the day that my dad suffered his first heart attack. I flew home from New York to be with him and the family. As he lay in his hospital bed back in August 2019, I asked him if I could have a look through his old work. I had many memories of my dad photographing strangers in our garage. Sometimes, my mom was given the job of sobering them up. She was very encouraging of his work! Whilst dusting off an old filing cabinet in my parents’ storeroom, I discovered a very large series of portraits my dad had taken in the late 70s and 80s, which I found simply intoxicating. I realised that many had never been seen by the general public as my dad rarely shared his images with an audience beyond his closest family and friends, and the photographic societies to which he belonged. I was immediately struck by their quality and authenticity and felt that they needed to be shared. My dad was a proud Jew and he would have been delighted to have seen this project come to fruition at the South African Jewish Museum. I hope you are as moved by the stories and lives of his subjects as I am — Elana Castle (Arnold’s daughter), July 2022

See exhibition details here.

Well into his 70s, Arnold ventured into colour, embracing the medium of digital photography and the genre of landscape.

For more information please go to

• Published in the PDF edition of the July 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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