Farewell to master Photographer David Goldblatt

 The exhibition was an expanded version of Goldblatt’s work that had been published as “Some Afrikaners Photograhmed” in 1975.

Each photograph was small. Each picture was striking and made you want to have a conversation. Goldblatt, like the Dutch Masters, knew how to bring the ordinary to life, even the kitchen of an Afrikaner family living in poverty.

Goldblatt’s photographs reveal the essence of his work. He has an intuitive talent to spot and pinpoint the things that make South Africans uncomfortable, probe the dilemmas at the core of South African existence today, and elaborate on those unspeakable problems using sharp images.

Read more: David Goldblatt: Photographer Who Found the Human in an Inhuman Social Landscape.

Here, among Goldblatt’s images, were their kitchens and the soot of their country hearths (“In Martjie Marais’s kitchen in Gamkaskloof,” 1967), their marriages (“The bride and her parents-in-law,” near Barkly East, 1966), their love for their priced ewes (“J.G. Loots of the farm Quaggasfontein,” where his family had farmed for more than 200 years, Graaff-Reinet, 1966).

The fear they felt and the vastness of the landscape that they loved were juxtaposed. Here, too, is the terror that they wreaked on those who depended on them – those whom they loved, feared, and intimidated to a subordination that removed their humanity (Johannes van der Linde farmer and major with his head laborer “Ou Sam” near Bloemfontein in 1965, and “Shiftboss underground with ‘his Piccanin'” at Randfontein Estates Gold Mine Randfontein in 1965).

They were struggling with an abundance of belonging, not my ambivalence.

I emailed Goldblatt on a whim. This led to a conversation that lasted for over ten years.

Home language and landscape

Goldblatt was an outsider among people who were so situated. In an interview, he said that the Afrikaner boys who were around him taunted him for being Jewish. However, added that it was in English-medium school that he encountered serious anti-Semitism.

First at Pretoria Boys High, then at Marist Brothers Johannesburg.

He began to like the Afrikaners who came into his father’s shop to get dressed, and he was even beginning to appreciate the language he once hated.

He set out to be a photographer to investigate what lies at the core of their power. To explore the contradictions that those enclosed in protective power structures are forced to cultivate to navigate through everyday life while including or excluding others who do not live within the same power structure.

Working class people

Goldblatt wanted to make an exposé of the Afrikaners, and he made it his mission to get to know “some leading Afrikaners, upper middle class, wealthy people, newly-rich.”

As he went on, he realized that he was,

I was woefully under-equipped to undertake such an ambitious project. Secondly, I wouldn’t want to take on the task because I wouldn’t say I like creating encyclopedias. Anyone who attempts to create one is going to be in for a slap in the face. Because how can you… create a comprehensive view of a culture?

Then I realized that although I had photographed some of the richer and more cultured people, I was actually more interested in the working class and farmers.

This was partly because many of them I had met while working at my father’s store in Randfontein, a small town to the east of Johannesburg. After having spoken with them and served them, I knew that they were all good people.

There was an almost naked fear of The Black. There was a level of intimacy I had with blacks that far exceeded the closeness I felt with my family, friends, and others in my middle-class life.

Goldblatt then decided to abandon the idea of focusing only on the Afrikaners at the top.

I didn’t care about them because, in reality, I was more interested in )…, which was the base of support for the National Party, and the churches, which were the Afrikaner churches, in the farming and working-class Afrikaner community. They were the ones who provided the mass votes. Their values were of particular interest to me.

Extraordinary Work

Omar Badsha, a friend and fellow photographer who has sparred with him on personal political issues, remembers Goldblatt’s 1970s and 80s work as not being particularly successful or admired.

We were in Jo’burg, and we were walking through a Hillbrow shopping center with my wife, Nasima. In a C&A’s sales bin, I found a Goldblatt book. I got it for almost nothing. The damn thing was not selling. The work was amazing. I had only started taking photos a few months earlier.

Goldblatt’s work only became extraordinary in the late 90s when the world began to be more interested in South African photography for its ability to tell a story beyond sensational news images.

He knew how to convey what needed to be said with minimal words. I saw determination without bravado.

In a decade spent writing about his art, I have learned much about myself and my place in the universe. I also learned how to maintain a relationship with the people I write about and the landscapes I am drawn to. From him, I learned how to be in a place without being attached.

His generosity is what I and many others owe for our photographic journeys and so much more. Now it is time to say ngiyabonga mkhulu, thank you, elder.

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