David Goldblatt: A mensch for all seasons


A king amongst photographers: David Goldblatt. Photograph by David Southwood.

HE WAS THE man who gave voice to the ordinary people in South Africa, those who travel for hours in public transport, work in ignominious circumstances and earn a pittance in KwaNdebele. Not afraid to go down mine shafts, or gaze at white Afrikaners in the eye, and with empathy, during the thick of apartheid, or indeed to voice his opinions and turn down honours offered by structures he deemed corrupt, South Africa’s most celebrated photographer, David Goldblatt was a man with values, a keen eye and a wry sense of humour. He passed away, with terminal cancer on June 25 2018. He was 87 years old.

The first South African photographer to show work at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art in New York, Goldblatt’s trajectory was neither easy nor a given. Born on November 29 1930 to Jewish parents who had fled their homeland of Lithuania, in the small mining town of Randfontein, he was the youngest of three boys and subject from almost the get-go to the contradictory hatreds of the time and the place: because he was white he was a part of the privileged minority. Because he was a Jew, he was hated.

And the career trajectory was plotted out for him – he was to take over his father’s general dealer store. But Goldblatt had completely different plans. He came of age as apartheid was legislated in 1948; it took him more than a decade to develop an approach toward making photographs that was at once uniquely his own, but also offered important inroads into the field of photojournalism in this country that was only burgeoning.

And thus, he defined his vision to the world. The master of deadpan photography, Goldblatt was a careful craftsman, an artist with a great deal of wisdom and respect for other people, but one who had his own opinions about what mattered in the world. He was modest in that in he didn’t need to broadcast his presence: his work did all that. He worked for various publications from the early 1960s, including the Tatler Magazine, and published his first anthology of images, On the Mines, in 1973.

Working in black and white only until he was in his 70s, Goldblatt was not afraid to play with new technology and complex issues. Ever. His work never stooped to being schmaltzy or sentimental – and he commented in an interview that he found the conventional use of colour in photography to be ‘sweet and plasticky’, but that he felt black and white to be completely conducive to the harshness of the classic South African light. Goldblatt unrelentingly reached toward the root of an issue, and in doing so, created work that retained utter authenticity. He worked with the quiet assurance of one who knows what he is doing and knows that he does it damned well. Unapologetically.

Goldblatt, during his prolific career, won lots of real international acknowledgement as an artist, but he was a man in this world without the prima donna attitude that his celebrity status seems to imply. A photographer with the knowledge of life and the injustices and cruelty of systems such as apartheid, he was able in his own inimitable fashion to capture the essence of place. Be it the place of Boksburg, a small town dominated by white Afrikaans-speakers or in documenting places of worship across the country, as he did in his magnificent 1998 book The Structure of Things Then.

Without being a card-carrying anti-apartheid activist, Goldblatt addressed culture with sincerity. His pictures are never a vicarious look that pries into the lives of the underprivileged. Their quality rests on their ability to be plainspoken and almost austere, but to sustain multiple meanings. Rather than instances of conflagration, political or otherwise, Goldblatt’s are moments of normalcy which are often more telling.

Photography is an art form that belies its own challenge. Since its invention in the late 19th century, the camera became a readily available commodity for anybody. By implication, the whole medium was considered by real artists as “easy”. In truth, while it can lend itself to happy snaps or flagrant commercialism, to say nothing of the ubiquitous selfie, photography had also joined the ranks of fine art in the same complex way as the computer as an art tool is doing, today: by becoming a tool responsible for many shifting perspectives in visual culture.

And that’s where the anachronistic quality of the medium lies. Unlike a painting, a photograph has an immediacy, which gives its images connotations of documentation or of a role other than pure image, like propaganda. Goldblatt’s pictures slip these boundaries, because technically they are conventional. There are no gimmicky tricks here. Visually, the give and take between subject matter and composition and light and shade, reveal them as unique. Goldblatt never took a picture from an obvious angle, or from a traditionally pretty one.

Goldblatt’s life segued with the realities that rocked society at the time – in 1985 the ANC called for a boycott of an exhibition of his that was touring Britain, based on the mistaken belief that he had defied the country’s cultural boycott that was then in place.  This ANC oversight was corrected by Afrapix founder Omar Badsha and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. In 2011, he was selected for the South African government’s award of the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his contribution to the field, but it was an honour he turned down because of the so-called “secrecy bill” at the time. Similarly, in 2013, he became aware of self-censorship on the part of Joburg Art Fair when it came to the exhibiting of the inflammatory work of Ayanda Mabulu. In solidarity with the painter, he removed his own work from the Fair’s walls.

Goldblatt leaves a priceless legacy of work that forced South Africans to look at themselves and the world in which they were living with a eye that was coloured by empathy and wryness. He leaves his wife, Lily; three children: Steven who lives in England, Brenda and Rasada; and two grandchildren: Sam and Daniel.

  • David Goldblatt will be buried on Tuesday June 26 at 12pm in the Jewish Section of West Park Cemetery.
  • The Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg is hosting prayers for him on Tuesday June 26 at 5:15pm.
  • On July 28 an exhibition curated by Paul Weinberg of the work of David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane entitled On Common Ground opens at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Call 011 788 1113.

5 replies »

  1. Magnificent. Thank you. If he was buried in the Heroes’ section, which I heard on the radio, then it wasn’t the Jewish section, right?

    • It was the Jewish section. There’s a section there for dignitaries and heroes…

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