“I became interested in photography in the late 1940s and began to look at magazines such as Life, Look, and Picture Post,” David Goldblatt told Colin Pantall, writing for BJP in 2013. “In the early 1950s, I tried to become a magazine photographer. I sent my pictures to Picture Post and got rejected. Then, when the African National Congress became active in their struggle against apartheid, Tom Hopkinson, the editor of Picture Post, contacted me and asked if I could make something. So I went to an ANC meeting and photographed everything I saw. That was in 1952.
“I shot and I shot and I shot and then I realised that I was using a long roll of film – film that had failed to engage on the sprocket of the Leica I was using. It was an incredibly basic mistake. But the other thing I realised was that I wasn’t really interested in what was happening around me.
“After the ANC meeting, I discovered I had to understand what I was competent in and what I was interested in. That took some years to probe, until I could get to the underbelly of the society that underlay South Africa. And to understand it visually, I also had to get a grasp on the history of the country. So I did a degree, which included courses in English and economic history. This taught me how to think and understand what was happening around me.
“My father died in 1963. I was 32 with three children and a family, but I sold the shop [the family business] and, with a couple of Leicas and the capital to keep on going for a year, I became a full-time photographer.”
Thus began a stellar career in photography, which saw Goldblatt documenting a tumultuous period in South African history, and which continued until just weeks before his death, aged 87, on 25 June. Born to a white Jewish family in 1930, Goldblatt made his way up through editorial photography, and by the 1970s had started to publish iconic photobooks giving a pin-sharp insight into his homeland.
On the Mines, published in 1973, showed both poor miners and their masters, and included text by the writer Nadine Gordimer; The Transported of Kwandebele: A South African Odyssey, published in 1989, was shot on commuter buses and showed impoverished black workers making their long journeys to and from work on the few hours break they had per day.
But he also photographed white South Africa, taking the same dispassionate look at white nationalists, the comfortably wealthy, and the poor and disenfranchised he found among them. In Boksburg, published in 1982, was a fly-on-the-wall look at a white-only town on the edge of Johannesburg heavily dependent on black labour; initially commissioned by Optima, the story was rejected by the magazine for its quiet but damning depiction of privilege.
It was a stance that won Goldblatt criticism from more radical anti-apartheid campaigners, who felt that photography in apartheid South Africa should be used as a tool to bring down the divisive political system. But it’s a stance that also arguably gave his work its lasting power.
“David was very critical of people who made propaganda, and he would use that word,” says Sean O’Toole, the Cape Town-based arts writer. “He tried to directly respond to the people he photographed and to the complexity of what he saw. He was not just photographing the now. His images delivered nuance that front-line photography didn’t. He wasn’t shooting in that impactful way that would appeal to the hard left – what he was creating was very subtle, nuanced pictures.”
“David wanted to remove his judgement from his photography,” says Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, the Centre Pompidou curator who worked on a huge retrospective of Goldblatt’s work shown at the institution earlier this year. “He always said that if a photograph serves a certain idea, even if it’s a good idea, the idea always takes precedence and the photography then contains a judgement. He felt that he should record the facts, and leave the judgement to the viewer.”
“He refused to let his work be used in journalistic context,” adds South African artist Adam Broomberg. “He got a lot of flak for that and for not letting his work be a kind of testimony on apartheid, from those who thought he lacked rigour and commitment. He was never part of journalism, never allowed his work to enter that realm. He was never in that debate, he didn’t change anything but he stuck to his guns and eventually the world began to understand.”
And stick to his guns he did, continuing to shoot throughout his life and creating work of a consistent quality to the end. In 1999 he started to shoot in colour, creating images of landscapes and the built environment that were, for him, as telling of South African society as images of its people. In 2005 he published the book Intersections with Prestel, for example, capturing some of the many facets of his homeland – the bustle of the city, the ostentatious new city developments, the countryside ravaged by mining, and the beauty of the natural landscape.
“I’m a plodder,” Goldblatt told BJP. “If you look back at my work, it’s a straight-line graph with a few bumps. I’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years. Today I’m doing exactly what I was doing in the years of apartheid. I’m looking critically at the processes taking place in my country.”
“David was interested in the way history leaves an indelible mark on the present; on the faces of the people he photographed and also the buildings and structures that populate the urban environment,” says artist Oliver Chanarin. “There was an aesthetic and conceptual rigour that is unmistakably David; a beautiful stubbornness!”
“I knew David was very ill, but he was taking photographs right up until the very end,” says World Press Photo-winning image-maker Jodi Bieber. “His enthusiasm was inspirational – he kept going, and he was equally good.”
And he never lost his ability to “go against the grain”, as O’Toole puts it, speaking out after protests at the University of Cape Town in 2015/16 in which paintings, photographs and sculptures were covered up and burnt for their perceived political incorrectness. Controversially, Goldblatt also removed his archive from the university library in response to the protests, and the university’s reaction to them.
“Differences are settled by talk. You don’t threaten with guns. You don’t threaten with fists. You don’t burn. You don’t destroy. You talk. These actions of the students are the antithesis of democratic action,” said Goldblatt at the time. “For me, the essential issue was that [the university] was in breach of my freedom of expression. I couldn’t leave my work there… to leave my work there would be to endorse that policy.”
“2016 was, I think, a watershed in South Africa, equivalent to May ’68 in France,” explains O’Toole. “There was a remarkable student movement and I supposed a kind of hardening of identity politics. David was one of those who argued for the right of art to be free, and he was very disappointed by the art community’s lack of response.”
“David was really against any form of silence [ie, censorship],” adds Ziebinska-Lewandowska. “He would always say that if there is discord between people we need to discuss it; he was not a person to fight or be aggressive. He was very strict about democracy and discussion.”
But if Goldblatt was willing to take unpopular positions at times, his actions also spoke for themselves. In 1989 he established the Market Photo Workshop, a school for photography that aimed to educate the disadvantaged and at minimal cost to them. Zanele Muholi is just one of the now internationally famous photographers to have come up through the workshop, nurtured by Goldblatt along the way.
“The global photography industries and enthusiasts continue to be actively engaged by influential practitioners that lived through this space over the past 29 years,” says Lekgetho Makola, current head of the Market Photo Workshop. “It also still remains one of the most important visual literacy and visual culture spaces in South Africa, both in its photography curriculum and public engagement programming.
“Up until his passing, David Goldblatt made time to interact with young photographers at the Market Photo Workshop through numerous critique sessions hosted by the school. His passion on mentoring young photographers will continue to live.”
“He was in it for all the right reasons and you could feel it,” says Broomberg. “It’s no coincidence that South Africa has this inspirational record of very, very good photography for such a small country – it’s part of his legacy that he set up the Market Photo Workshop. Stories abound of him giving cameras to photographers who are very well-known now when they didn’t have a penny. He was very generous.”
And if the Market Photo Workshop is a very visible testament to Goldblatt’s commitment to other image-makers, there are also many less formal illustrations of it. Bieber says she regularly took new work to show Goldblatt, for example, for critiques that were “very honest and direct”.
“From the very beginning I could phone David and say, ‘I’ve got some work – can I show you?’” she says. “I have created a new body of work and went to show him recently. He intently looked at it. I have done very intense interviews with 15 to 20 year olds, he read every single one – and there were 45. He was very sincere in his approach – though he was also very strict, and he didn’t mince his words.”
“David was the lodestar of South African photography, but also a towering moral and intellectual guide in person,” says photographer Mikhael Subotzky. “He was endlessly generous with his help and guidance, and his brutal honesty was a gift to all of us.”
In this can be seen another aspect of Goldblatt’s approach to photography and life: his sense of modesty. Though he was shown in world-class institutions – his show at the Pompidou has just ended, and another huge retrospective opens at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia on 19 October – and though he was feted in the art world as well as in photography, he preferred to avoid the glitz, to take off in his campervan to shoot another project, or to sit down with an emerging photographer.
“He had absolutely no interest in the art world, he reeked of integrity,” says Broomberg; “His ability to tune out the noise and stay focused on what matters is what is so striking about David’s singular practice,” says Chanarin. “He didn’t think of himself as an artist. That wasn’t important to him. What seemed important was staying engaged, and using photography to understand South Africa, during the apartheid regime and later as the country began reshaping itself in the post-apartheid years.”
“I am embarrassed to say that I make my money from print sales,” Goldblatt told BJP in 2013. “There is an artificiality to the art market; the price of one’s work is dependent on its scarcity. The positive thing is that it has freed me up. I spend my time entirely on making my own personal work. I don’t have to worry about commissions, but I spend too much time on the computer preparing for exhibitions and publishing books. It is time that takes me out from the field.
“I recognise that, at the age of 82, I only have 20 or 30 years left, so I really want to be making as many pictures as possible.”
David Goldblatt was born in Randfontein, Gauteng Province on 29 November 1930, and died at home in Johannesburg on 25 June 2018; he is survived by his wife Lily, his children Steven, Brenda and Ronnie, and his two grandchildren www.davidgoldblatt.com
The exhibition David Goldblatt was shown at Centre Pompidou, Paris from 21 February – 13 May 2018 www.centrepompidou.fr The forthcoming exhibition David Goldblatt goes on show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia from 19 October 2018 – 03 March 2019 www.mca.com.au
Particulars by David Goldblatt was published by Steidl in 2014, priced €58 https://steidl.de/ Regarding Intersections by David Goldblatt was published by David Goldblatt in 2014, priced €68 https://steidl.de/