Photographer David Goldblatt, photographed at his home in Johannesburg in September 2013. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
Photographer David Goldblatt, photographed at his home in Johannesburg in September 2013. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

The elder statesman of South African documentary photography‚ David Goldblatt‚ has died.

Born in November 1930‚ he had documented oppression since the National Party came to power in 1948‚ travelling the country to put a human face to political policies.

"A great tree has fallen and we have lost one of our national living treasures. RIP David Goldblatt‚ one of South Africa’s most accomplished social chroniclers‚" art conservator Monique Vajifdar announced on Facebook.

"He inspired generations of younger photo-journalists. By documenting the daily life of South Africans under apartheid and post-apartheid‚ he gave all of us a more complete picture of South African history and society. Deep sympathies to Lily‚ Brenda Goldblatt Steven Goldblatt Jenny Hoffmann Rasada Goldblatt and their families."

Goldblatt was the first South African to be given a one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His list of impressive awards included the Hasselblad Award‚ the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award and the International Centre for Photography Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also an honorary fellow of The Royal Photographic Society.

Among his memorable projects‚ Goldblatt spent six months photographing in Soweto in 1972 and in 1976-77 he travelled on a bicycle photographing mainly the forced removal threat faced by the Johannesburg Indian area of Fietas (Pageview)‚ according to SA History.org.

In 1979 Goldblatt began working on a project about life in a typical white suburb of the Transvaal‚ which led to the publication of the book, In Boksburg.

SA History.org said he also participated in a seminal exhibition‚ South Africa the Cordoned Heart (1985)‚ curated by fellow photographer Omar Badsha‚ a founder of Afrapix. He was asked by Badsha to cover the story of workers who travelled an average of four hours per day by bus between the homelands and cities like Pretoria.


Beginning in 1999 and continuing to the present‚ I have photographed some structures that are eloquent of our still nascent democracy
David Goldblatt

In the 1980s Goldblatt also began working on a 15-year project that would culminate in the publication of South Africa‚ The Structure of Things Then (published in 1998).

In 1989‚ together with some friends‚ Goldblatt raised funds to set up the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg‚ which has been instrumental in training many young South African photographers.

While Goldblatt became a household name for his exquisite portraits of human beings in their daily lives and the Struggle in particular‚ he also provided a different perspective on architecture‚ and how it reflects power.

In the mid-2000s‚ Goldblatt‚ during interviews for his exhibition‚ Structures of Dominion and Democracy‚ criticised the trend of damaging historical sites.


In a statement for his exhibition on this collection‚ he said: "Over the years I have photographed South African structures which I found eloquent of the dominion which whites gradually came to exert over all of SA and its peoples.

"That time of domination began in about 1660 when Jan van Riebeeck ordered a cordon to be erected of blockhouses and barriers that would exclude the indigenous population from access to the first European settlement in SA and its lands‚ water and grazing. The time of domination ended on February 2 1990‚ when‚ on behalf of the government and the whites of SA‚ President FW de Klerk effectively abdicated from power."

He added: "Beginning in 1999 and continuing to the present‚ I have photographed some structures that are eloquent of our still nascent democracy. In the belief that in what we build‚ we express much about what we value‚ I have looked at South African structures as declarations of our value systems‚ our ethos."


I don’t think it’s good for democracy to have destructive direct action that forces people to conform to a particular view
David Goldblatt

Goldblatt was critical of the trend of damaging historical sites.

"We are aiming in the long term and generalised sort of way to have a democracy‚ and democracy in absolute essence is a system in which you talk‚" he told Tymon Smith of the Sunday Times.

"I don’t think it’s good for democracy to have destructive direct action that forces people to conform to a particular view."

He also said what is lacking in SA‚ "in particular and very urgently‚ is an ordinary regard for the law as a supreme value that forms the basis of our lives. We don’t have that‚ and I think that goes back a very long way and I imagine it will continue for a long time into the future. It’s what brings us the violence with which we’re living; it’s what brings us to the lack of wisdom very often in governance and so on."

In another interview with the Sunday Times‚ Goldblatt encouraged other documentary photographers to stay the course.

"I think we must never forget that the price of liberty is very high and you have to keep at it all the time. You can’t not keep watching‚ you’ve got to keep watching because otherwise the rot creeps in."

Goldblatt’s funeral will be at Johannesburg’s West Park cemetery on noon on Tuesday. A service will also be held at the Goodman Gallery from 5pm on Tuesday.

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