Brenda Goldblatt has always understood the power of looking closer. The daughter of the legendary photographer David Goldblatt, remembers driving through Soweto, the Johannesburg township where black South Africans had been systematically relocated since the 1948 dawn of Apartheid. Her father made sure it didn’t pass her by.
“We were driving to visit my grandmother in Randfontein and there was a route that went through Soweto,” she recalls. “As a young girl, I used to like lying on the back seat of the car and looking at clouds and I remember my father yelling at me, ‘Dammit, Brenda, get up and look!’ He wanted us to see, he wanted us to know where we lived. It wasn’t always comfortable. We grew up with an intense awareness of South Africa and the inhumanities of Apartheid. Unlike lot of middle-class children who were brought up with wilful blindness, we were brought up in a state of conscious awareness. It shaped us completely.”
Goldblatt, who died of cancer, aged 87, in June this year and whose practice is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney – the largest-ever show dedicated to his work in the Southern Hemisphere – devoted his life to seeing. But for the photographer, this act wasn’t about passive observation or even photojournalistic documentation.
David Goldblatt, photographer.
David Goldblatt, photographer.CREDIT:WARREN VAN RENSBURG
He wasn’t interested in chronicling violence and protests, the lingua franca of societies riven by injustice. Like great short stories, his photographs employ cumulative details to reveal the humanity and complexity of his subjects. They also hint at the values that uphold oppressive systems. These ripple under the surface of his images and linger, ghost-like, beyond the frame. Take Young men with dompas (1972), in which a pair of men lean into each other, eyes glimmering with challenge even as they display the identity cards that policed the movements of black South Africans through segregated white areas.
Or Shop assistant, Orlando West (1972), which shows a teenage shopkeeper from Orlando West, one of Soweto’s first suburbs, square her shoulders against the wall, one hand protectively cupping a tin of Milo. Goldblatt, who took these pictures a few years before the 1976 Soweto Uprising, a series of protests that killed an estimated 575 people, held a mirror up to inequality. But his images also show us freedom, defiance, the minute ways that human beings resist the forces designed to quash them. Decades before we started using the word “privilege” to prove our progressive credentials, Goldblatt spent his life chasing its long shadows.
Liza Essers, the director of Johannesburg’s Goodman Gallery and Goldblatt’s long-time friend and gallerist, says that the photographer dedicated himself to this mission with rigour and seriousness.
“David wasn’t focused on particular moments, he was interested in something deeper and more universal,” she smiles. “It was really about investigating something entrenched in society. If there was something he was curious about, he’d go through archives, read news clippings, do deep research. That’s why the longer you look at his images, the more they make you think.”
Goldblatt was born in 1930 and grew up in the gold mining town Randfontein, the grandson of Lithuanian Jewish refugees who’d settled in South Africa in the 1890s. He started taking photos as a teenager with an old Contax camera, entranced by magazines such as Life and Picture Post. He studied commerce at the University of Witwatersrand, later taking over his father’s clothing shop in Johannesburg, where he lived with his wife, Lily, a social worker and children Brenda, Steven and Ronnie. In 1963, he sold the shop and used the proceedings to become a full-time photographer, shooting for South African Tatler and working with current affairs magazines such as Optima and Leadership.
“I was three when my father became professional and I remember that it was a big deal, a turning point,” Brenda says. “He always worked from home and if I wanted to spend time with him, I would go and sit with him in the darkroom. My mother was also involved in his work at all kinds of levels. Like many artists, my father was a monomaniac. He never hung out; he was always working in some form.”
In 1973, Goldblatt published On the Mines, a landmark photobook, in collaboration with the Nobel Prize-winning writer Nadine Gordimer. The volume, which featured monochrome images of black workers in mine shafts, concrete bunks and towers of salvaged shovels, documented the landscapes and people that shaped the South African mining industry. It also hinted at the ways in which the goldmines, the source of South Africa’s wealth, galvanised the country’s disparities. This idea – that we can understand a society by paying attention to its most unremarkable by-products – would go on to define his artistic trajectory.
The 1974 series Fietas Fractured explored the removal of Indian and Malay communities from the township of Fietas to make way for white occupation under the Group Areas acts. Abandoned shopfronts and a smiling butcher’s daughter in an empty boutique trace a community slowly drained of its soul and vitality. In the 1989 photo essay The Transported of KwaNdebele, the four-hour commutes made by bone-tired black workers forced to travel by bus from remote homelands to workplaces in Pretoria symbolise the way physical distance can obstruct economic freedom. And his ongoing series Structures of Dominion and Democracy, uses the built environment – Dutch Reformed churches, pedestrian bridges with separate staircases – to show us how physical structures mirror ideological structures such as white supremacy.
Brenda, who interviewed the workers captured in The Transported of KwaNdebele, says Goldblatt’s images are a lesson in how privilege – or its lack – determines our material realities.
“I think my father was showing us how power shapes the world in all sorts of subtle ways, from the size of people’s rooms to the way they live their lives,” says Brenda, who also collaborated with Goldblatt on Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime, a harrowing 2008 series that saw subjects photographed at the sites of their transgressions. It explores redemption, humanity and the way cultural forces can lead people to commit the darkest acts. “Apartheid legislations placed restrictions on where and how black people could trade as a form of economic protection for whites. But after it ended in 1994, my father, a former economist, became excited by this new freedom to make a living. When he saw hawkers selling bananas in Johannesburg, the phone numbers of house painters on trees, he’d call them up to photograph them. His work was about value and power and how it’s always wielded around us and over us.”
Rachel Kent, MCA’s chief curator, spent weeks travelling with Goldblatt, returning to the sites of his major bodies of work, in preparation for the exhibition. She says his ability to convey the way racist exclusion reverberates through society resonates with the Australia we live in today.
“Goldblatt was quintessentially South African but his work is really a global conversation about these issues,” she says. “We’re being faced with challenges around migration and asylum, countries fleeing from persecution and being turned away. His work deals with race, institutionalised discrimination of the most extreme kind, the depths of cruelty that human beings can sink to. He found this terribly confronting because he was a very gentle man. But, nonetheless, he found it necessary to address it, even in a wider context.”
Brenda points out that her father had his critics, namely Omar Badsha, a left-wing South African photographer who argued that Goldblatt’s work failed to radically challenge institutions. But for Essers, Goldblatt’s refusal to join a photo agency or let his photographs further any political agenda speaks to an artistic integrity that influenced a generation of artists including Zanele Muholi, a fast-rising visual activist whose portraits chronicle South Africa’s LGBTQI+ communities and have been shown at the Guggenheim and Tate Modern.
“He had such a genuine care for and interest in the people he regarded as his friends and made absolutely no compromises when it came to his principles,” says Essers, who believes Goldblatt’s archive, including his images of the dethroning of Cecil Rhodes, a British coloniser whose statue was vandalised at the University of Cape Town, is one of South Africa’s most important historical documents to date. “He’d spend hours sitting with young photographers in his home, giving them guidance. He was given one of the highest honours in South Africa, the Order of Ikhamanga, but turned it down because he was unhappy with government corruption. He was extraordinary.”
Brenda attributes her lifelong commitment to social justice to her parents’ influence. She ranks accompanying Goldblatt on a journey through the country among one of the fondest memories of her father before his death.
“He’d pause to take photographs and I’d tease him and say, ‘Dad, stop! There is a blade of grass here, don’t you want to photograph it?’ because for most people it looked like he was shooting blank space,” she says with a laugh. “We passed a black couple who’d seen him on television. They had a conversation and before the man left, he turned around and said ‘I know who you are – you’re the man who shows us what we cannot see’. Her voice wavers slightly. “He taught me that the choices we make matter. I miss him so much.”
David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948-2018 shows as part of the Sydney International Art Series at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney from October 19 to March 3.