Mon, 16 Jul 2018
World-renowned and revered South African photographer David Goldblatt died last month at the age of 87. He became a photographer at the age of 18 and would come to focus his camera on quiet, yet equally poignant features of the brutal apartheid regime.
Over the course of his decades-long career, Goldblatt’s photographs were exhibited widely and continue to be held in museums around the world. He won numerous major international awards for his work.
David was deeply connected to the country. Although he grew up in a time that was shaped by apartheid, his work went beyond the surface. He found the human in the inhuman social landscape.
In Boksburg (a mining town east of Johannesburg), the closest project he got to doing as an autobiography, he wrestled with the deep contradictions of the place before starting. As he told me:
I stood on street corners wholly engaged by what I tried to hold off the flow of orderly life. Spaces, roads, lines painted on them, low buildings, sky, veld; the people, white and black moving in their separate but tangled ways, all to be seen in the sharpness of the Highveld light.
Boksburg was shaped by white dreams and proprieties. Most pursued the family, social and civic concerns of respectable burghers anywhere, some with compassion, yet all drawn into a fixity of self-elected, legislated whiteness. Blacks were not of this town. They served it, traded with it, received charity from it, and were ruled, rewarded and punished by its precepts. Some, on occasion, were its privileged guests.
I was asking myself how it was possible to be so apparently normal, moral, upright – which almost all those citizens were – in such an appallingly abnormal, immoral, bizarre situation. I hoped we would see ourselves revealed by a mirror held up to ourselves.
David was primarily a documentarian. He made a life of photographing issues that went beyond the events and reflected the conditions that led to them. With the emergence of the fine art world in photography at the turn of the 21st Century, David evolved. But adjusting to the fine art world didn’t sit that comfortably with him.
He did the dance. But he privately hated exhibition openings, and the attention they brought him. He felt uncomfortable about being seen as an artist. In the end he came to terms with this dichotomy by simply calling himself a photographer, a “get out of jail card” for those who liked to pigeonhole people. About himself he said:
I would say that I am a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born, with a tendency to giving recognition to what is overlooked or unseen.
Under all his complex layers he was a humanist who was never comfortable about the world around him. His role with the camera fully emerged while photographing in Soweto in a period that preceded the Soweto uprisings in 1976. He remembered:
With a camera I was for the first time able to expand my experience of other people’s lives. Making portraits of people in Soweto in 1972 was a [...]