This past Monday saw the passing of one of South Africa’s most legendary and important photographers. David Goldblatt died in Johannesburg on the 25th June. He was 87 years old.
Looking back at the work of this internationally acclaimed documentary photographer is an emotional experience, despite Goldblatt’s style being quite detached. The images simply record everyday life of South Africans between the years 1948 to 2018, but it is the context that often make these photographs so interesting, and in many cases disturbing: an image of a seemingly happy Indian shopkeeper, posing with his daughter, takes on a whole new meaning when you realise that not long after the photograph was taken, the trading store was destroyed in terms of the Group Areas Act.
In a recently published article, journalist Sean O’Hagan describes Goldblatt’s work:
His detached but democratic eye allowing the viewer the space to see beyond the frame and sense the grotesque – but normalised – society that defined his subjects to such a degree.
The son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, something that surely effected the way he viewed South Africa, Goldblatt grew up in the small mining town of Randfontein, Johannesburg. The miners were Goldblatt’s first subjects, when he started taking photographs at the age of eighteen, using a camera bought for him by his parents.
His big break as a photographer came in 1964 when he did a feature on Anglo-American for the avant-garde magazine, Tatler, which led to a long association with Anglo’s in-house magazine, Optima. Goldblatt’s association with Optima gave him access to the mining operations of Anglo, which allowed him in turn to complete his book On the Mines, which was published in 1973.
Goldblatt became part of the intellectual and artistic community of white Johannesburg, becoming friendly with many of Johannesburg’s leading white liberal literary and artistic figures. Speaking of his relationship with author, Nadine Gordimer, Goldblatt talked of her influence on his work being greater than any photographic predecessor.
Interestingly, despite his influence and the perceived slant of his work, Goldblatt steadfastly avoided any active political involvement, failing to photograph any of the turning points in South African history. Something which perhaps irked the ANC who in 1985 called for a boycott of his exhibition that was touring Britain. The ANC believed that Goldblatt had defied the cultural boycott, and weren’t happy about the work that he did with Anglo-American. Subsequently, the boycott was relaxed when people such as Omar Badsha and Nadine Gordimer called for the boycott against him to be lifted.
During those years colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired.” David Goldblatt
But while Goldblatt wasn’t a ‘political’ photographer, his work still served to make for a very compelling argument against the system of white rule. As O’Hagan puts it:
He was, above all, a master of the extended series, each building on the last, until a portrait of an entire society, in all its contradictions, emerges.
David Goldblatt is survived by his wife, Lily, his three children, and two grandchildren.
Note: There are plans for the creation of a digital archive of David Goldblatt’s work, which will be made available to the public for free through the Photographic Legacy Project.