Achievements of Peter Magubane and David Goldblatt show our different stories belong together
On Common Ground, an exhibition at the Apartheid Museum, goes beyond the obvious and beyond apartheid
Iconic photographers Peter Magubane and David Goldblatt were on opposite sides of the colour divide but were united by a common humanity.
Magubane is a hardened photojournalist. He cut his teeth in the Drum Magazine constellation of the 1950s. He used his camera as a tool of liberation and suffered torture, police brutality, jail, the SA record of 586 days in solitary confinement and a five-year banning order.
Magubane photographed many major events that changed the country. His documentation of the 1976 uprising became the defining work of his career and in 1986 he won the prestigious Robert Capa award for courageous journalism. Magubane saved the family of a fallen impimpi from being hacked to death by furious comrades in Leandra.
Goldblatt had a great love for SA and its people and documented the country’s memory and social heritage. His pictures were of “the quiet and commonplace, where nothing happened and yet all was contained and immanent”, as Goldblatt wrote in the text accompanying the images at a new exhibition On Common Ground: The Life’s Work of David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane.
His work in Soweto was a turning point in his career. For six months in 1972 he set up his tripod and photographed what was in front of him. He wrote: “This was the first time I expanded my experience of other people’s lives.”
At the opening of the exhibition, his widow, Lilly Goldblatt, explained that there were not many dorps in this country her husband didn’t visit. She told a funny story: “We were travelling to Secunda with our daughter Brenda. She asked David to stop the car. He stopped the car and said, ‘What is it?’ Brenda responded, ‘There is a blade of grass you haven’t photographed!’”
Goldblatt was a contributor to Staffrider magazine and photo editor at Leadership magazine. He contributed to various anti-apartheid exhibitions locally and internationally. He first met Magubane on the frontline in 1966 with the visit of Robert and Ethel Kennedy to Soweto.
On Common Ground is curated by photographer, filmmaker, educator, archivist and curator Paul Weinberg. It includes selected texts, quotes, image captions, videos and a short documentary together with approximately 100 images.
Where Magubane’s work is shot mainly on 35mm, Goldblatt used medium- and large-format cameras. Where Magubane’s photographs include newsworthy photojournalism, poetry in motion and a proud anthropology, Goldblatt’s pictures are softer and paint a thousand words by extending poignant moments into portraits.
Although their work came from two very different perspectives it is united by many common themes to provide a graphic documentation of SA society, its values, marginalised communities, inherent integrity and liberation.
Weinberg makes note of the seldom exhibited sets of photographs of Afrikaner people that sit side by side in the exhibition. In an interview he said, “They are using the camera to go beyond the obvious and beyond apartheid. They made an enormous contribution to humanity by acknowledging the everyday ordinary person and giving them a sense of hope and optimism.”
Guest speaker Hlonipha Mokoena opened the exhibition, saying: “This exhibition shows that despite the debris, the wreckage and the devastation, there is still something naive, humanising and triumphant about the human spirit.”
The movement of these two canons of work to future generations was an unspoken theme of the event. Magubane’s granddaughter Lungile, a performing artist, has taken up the mantle of representing her granddad at events. She has accompanied him to many exhibitions, openings, tribute gatherings and ceremonies, both in SA and New York, where she grew up.
She said, “People like him were never meant to survive beyond their most efficient labour capabilities, never mind become beacons of hope and true talent. He and so many other freedom fighters burst open the shackles of a system that was designed to oppress us forever. On Common Ground is an example to future curators that our stories — black, white, green and purple — belong together.”
Goldblatt’s work is preserved in the ongoing initiatives of the Market Photo Workshop, which he founded in Johannesburg in 1989, and the Ernest Cole Award for Photography he initiated in 2011. His physical archive is housed at Yale University.
Magubane advises young aspiring photographers to just create work, noting that he never waited for editors to assign him jobs. It is this attitude that has led Magubane to publish 23 books so far, with more to come.
Their documentation provides a lasting legacy of the liberation struggle, or as Apartheid Museum curator Emilia Potenza put it, “a compass for us at a time when many of us are feeling so rudderless”.
The exhibition will be seen by hundreds of school children who come in busloads to the museum.
Goldblatt died on June 25 2018. Magubane endures, his stature one of strength, determination and bravery. He still has that typical glint in his eye, but at 87 he is feeling, as he said, “madala” (old).
- On Common Ground: The Life’s work of David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane runs at the George Bizos Gallery at the Apartheid Museum from June 29 until October 31.