David Goldblatt focused on apartheid’s still points
David Goldblatt was born on November29 1930 in Randfontein. The grandson of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants who came to SA to escape persecution in the 1890s, his interest in photography was sparked by his mother giving him a camera, after matriculating in 1948.
Goldblatt, who died on Monday, set his sights on a career in photojournalism and began to photograph the unfolding campaigns mounted by the Congress Alliance, but soon found news photography unrewarding. Perhaps he was unsuited to its pace.
When his father became ill with cancer he had to take over his men’s outfitting business, and registered for a Bachelor of Commerce degree part-time. He continued to take photographs in his spare time and was by now married to Lily, with three children. When his father died in 1963, Goldblatt, aged 33, began working as a full-time professional photographer.
Over the next several decades he would come to focus his camera on the quiet, poignant features of the brutal apartheid regime. "During those years my prime concern was with values — what did we value in SA, how did we get to those values and how did we express those values," said Goldblatt, reflecting on where he chose to point his lens.
"I was very interested in the events that were taking place in the country as a citizen but, as a photographer, I’m not particularly interested, and I wasn’t then, in photographing the moment that something happens. I’m interested in the conditions that give rise to events."
Goldblatt became part of the artistic and intellectual community of Johannesburg. Through his friendship with the writer Lionel Abrahams, editor of the work of Herman Charles Bosman, he began to explore the Afrikaans farming community of the Groot Marico in the then Western Transvaal.
He did important work for the Anglo-American Corporation and its in-house magazine Optima, which led to his book On the Mines (1973).
His seminal book, Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975), grew out of his prolonged travels in the countryside and he published a book about white working-class South Africans, in Boksburg, as well as projects on the Transkei, Soweto and the city of Johannesburg.
A gentle, humble man, Goldblatt still did not suffer fools gladly. He had built a reputation by the end of the 1970s as one of SA’s leading documentary photographers. But he was not a "joiner" and while obviously opposed to the Nationalist government, he said he would not allow his work to be used "by either side of the struggle" for propaganda purposes. Nevertheless, it was Goldblatt who initiated the first open dialogue between the captains of capital and the ANC.
In Lusaka with Hugh Murray from Leadership magazine to do a feature on President Kenneth Kaunda, Goldblatt suggested trying to set up an interview with Oliver Tambo, head of the then banned ANC. This set the ball rolling and the first meeting between the captains of South African industry and the ANC was held in Lusaka in 1985.
In 2017 Goldblatt wrote to then University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price, asking to revoke his contract with the university and to remove his collection of photographs from the Libraries Special Collections, a centre he had helped to establish, after the "throwing of sh*t on to Cecil John Rhodes’s sculpture … and the burning of over 20 paintings". He feared that the events signalled a new tendency towards antidemocratic thought among youth.
"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," he said.
Goldblatt’s photographs have been published and exhibited widely in newspapers and museums around the world. Earlier in 2018, the Pompidou Centre in Paris held the critically acclaimed retrospective Goldblatt. In October, his work will be on show at the MCA Sydney.
In 1989, Goldblatt founded the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg. A year earlier, he was the first South African to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 2001, a retrospective of his work, David Goldblatt Fifty-One Years. began a tour of galleries and museums. He was one of the few South African artists to exhibit at Documenta 11 (2002) and Documenta 12 (2007) in Kassel, Germany. Goldblatt has held solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and the New Museum, both in New York. His work was included in the exhibition ILLUMInations at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.
Goldblatt’s photographs are held in the collections of most major museums around the world, including the South African National Gallery; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Pompidou; and Tate.
Goldblatt is the recipient of the 2006 Hasselblad Award, the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, the 2013 ICP Infinity Award and, in 2016, he was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture of France.
Most recently an agreement with Yale was signed, transferring Goldblatt’s entire archive of negatives to the university.
A digital archive of Goldblatt’s work will be created in SA and made available to the public free through the Photographic Legacy Project.
Goldblatt was a devoted family man. He is survived by his wife, Lily, and children Steven, Brenda and Ron.