TYMON SMITH: Through David Goldblatt's unerring lens
'Headline events were the culmination of underlying conditions. I wanted to probe those conditions by going to their roots in people's lives'
During the 1950s, Goldblatt wrote: "I had felt that I had a mission: I had to show the world the terrible things that were happening in South Africa. But I had long since discarded that grand notion. I realised that I was neither a missionary with a camera nor a political activist. Nor was I, as a photographer, much interested in unfolding events and the kind of photographs of them that newspaper and magazine editors wanted.
"Physically I am a coward; if violence erupts I run away from it. But more fundamentally, I realised that what I wanted to engage with through the camera was the people's values and how they were expressed. Headline events were the culmination of underlying conditions. I wanted to probe those conditions by going to their roots in people's lives. The camera enabled me to be there and it demanded that I see it with understanding and coherence."
It was this desire that would direct his career over the next six decades and one which he often felt he had never satisfactorily achieved, no matter how much others would praise him for it.
It was perhaps macabre and grim, but on Tuesday afternoon, as I stood among the crowd gathered in a corner of the Westpark Jewish cemetery - reserved for those Jews who "have made a lasting contribution to the greater good of South Africa" - I couldn't help wondering how he might have chosen to photograph the scene. Would his eye have been drawn to the hedge above the gravesite where a DStv dish could be seen protruding from the other side, reflecting in cheekily appropriate irony the photo he'd taken in 1993 of a hedge planted by Jan Van Riebeeck in Cape Town in 1660 to separate settlers from the Khoikhoi? Or maybe his camera would have noticed the strange, almost zombie-like way in which everyone began to spread themselves among the gravestones as they drew nearer to the grave - quietly finding spaces next to tombstones of those once deemed the best of the tribe, now long forgotten by anyone other than their families.Looking up, I almost expected to see him perched on the Melville...