Photographer Who Found the Human in an Inhuman Social Landscape

He focused his lens on the quiet yet poignant aspects of the brutal Apartheid regime.

Goldblatt’s photos were widely exhibited and are still held in many museums worldwide. Goldblatt won many major awards.

Paul Weinberg was a documentary photojournalist and Goldblatt’s close friend. He is the curator of the exhibit called Common Ground of Goldblatt and Peter Magubane’s work, which will be shown at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, on the 28th of July. Charles Leonard, The Conversation Africa’s Arts & Culture Editor, spoke with him about Goldblatt and his work.

His work focused on South Africans and their country, but his photographs had a universality about them: why was that?

David had a deep connection to his country. David grew up during a period of apartheid, but his work was more than just the surface. He saw the humanity in an inhuman social landscape.

The cycle will begin again between 2 and 3 am tomorrow for the majority of people on this bus. David Goldblatt

Before starting in Boksburg , the closest project to an autobiography he could have done was to wrestle with the contradictions of that place. As he said to me:

I stood at street corners, utterly absorbed by the orderly flow of life. The sharp light of the Highveld illuminated spaces, roads with lines painted on them, and low buildings. It also revealed the veld, the sky, and the black and white people moving in separate yet tangled ways.

Boksburg’s shape was determined by the white dreams and proprieties. The majority of whites in Boksburg were concerned with the social, civic, and family concerns of any respectable citizen, many of them with compassion. However, they all remained firmly rooted in a self-elected and legislated whiteness. Blacks weren’t from this town. They were its servants, traders, recipients of charity, and rulers. Some were, at times, its guests.

Two of Ted van Rensburg’s ballroom students are seen dancing to Victor Sylvester and His Orchestra in the MOTHS Hall, at the old Court House in Boksburg. 1980. David Goldblatt

I asked him why he took the pictures.

I asked myself how it could be possible to appear so normal, moral and upright, which was the case for almost all of those citizens, in such a shockingly abnormal, immoral and bizarre situation. I hoped that we could see our true selves in a mirror.

Was Goldblatt an artist, a documentarian, or a journalist?

David was first and foremost a documentary filmmaker. David spent his life photographing issues which went beyond events to reflect the conditions which led up to them. David’s evolution was accelerated by the advent of fine art photography in the 21st Century. David didn’t feel comfortable with the fine art world.

A Dutch Reformed Church elder walking with his family home after Sunday service in Carnavon (Cape Province), January 1968. David Goldblatt

He danced. He hated the attention he received at exhibition openings. He was uncomfortable with being viewed as an artist. He finally came to terms by calling himself a photographer, which was a way to escape the pigeon-holing of others. He said the following about himself:

I am an observer, critic, and self-appointed member of society. I tendnotice what is not seen or overlooked.

What was his legacy as an artist?

He was a humanist despite his many layers. In 1976, he was photographing in Soweto during a time that predated the Soweto Uprisings. He recalled:

For the first time, I could expand my understanding of people’s lives with a camera. In 1972, I was fundamentally changed by the experience of taking portraits in Soweto.

Lashing shovels recovered from underground. Each grain of sand that makes up the Witwatersrand landscape and each grain of gold, which is its wealth, came from a rock that was thrown by a black shovel. Central Salvage Yard, Randfontein Estates, Randfontein, 1966. David Goldblatt

Goldblatt, both then and now, was obsessed with values. In an interview with him that I conducted, he stated:

In those years, my main concern was values. What did we value in South Africa? How did we arrive at these values, and how, specifically, did we express them? Once you get started on this line of thinking, there is no stopping.

He was not only a photographer but a man of great character and community spirit. He founded the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg. He also co-founded the Ernest Cole Award to promote South African photography. He did not turn away any photographer, whether he was famous or evolving.


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