“I was never interested in making propaganda for anybody,” said David Goldblatt, “and didn’t allow my photos to be used that way.” It’s an important point because even Goldblatt’s admirers tend to see him as a political photographer who drew global attention to the injustices of Apartheid.
As this landmark retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art reveals, Goldblatt was an artist who looked at his surroundings with an unflinching honesty and left the interpretations to his audience. There was no need to pursue propaganda when the simple reality of life in South Africa was one long tale of injustice and racial conflict.
It’s rare for an Australian art museum to initiate an exhibition of world importance, but David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948-2018, is the most comprehensive show of Goldblatt’s work ever assembled. It’s been a labour of love for curator, Rachel Kent, who travelled around South Africa with the photographer, learning to see the country through his eyes. This commitment shows in the quality of the exhibition.
The catalogue continues the MCA’s run of impressive publications. This massive tome is the new ‘essential’ book on Goldblatt’s work. The only disappointment – and it’s the biggest one – was that Goldblatt never lived to see the exhibition, dying of cancer on 25 June. We always seem to be losing artists only months or weeks before their life’s work goes on display. Some retrospectives are too early, but most are too late.
Like that other great South African artist, William Kentridge, currently showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, Goldblatt was brought up in a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. The Goldblatts were white and middle-class but the anti-Semitism that seems to be inseparable from nationalist politics meant they were never quite part of the mainstream. Goldblatt’s father was a shop-keeper who expected his son to continue the trade. David did so until his father’s death in 1962, but would henceforth devote himself to photography. He learned most of his camera technique from reading the books of Anselm Adams.
Looking at the world through the lens of a camera is a way of being able to remove yourself from the stream of life and reflect on what what you’ve seen. Goldblatt would choose his subjects randomly, on the strength of a hunch. As he examined the results in the darkroom he became increasingly alert to his own vision and the things he needed to photograph.
The pictures of the 1960s convey a vivid sense of a divided society, sometimes literally – as in Evening exodus on West Street’ (1964), which shows white workers in their cars heading home to the suburbs of Johannesburg, while black workers march in the opposite direction, toward the trains that will take them back to the slums of Soweto.
There’s often a bitter humour in these pictures, notably Hold-up in Hillbrow’ (1963), in which a well-dressed black man in a white suburb is being menaced by a little white boy with a toy gun. It’s one of those jokes that reveals an unpleasant truth.
As Goldblatt becomes more confident in his abilities he delves more deeply into black and white communities. The devastation of the black townships is set against the kitschified lifestyles of the white middle-classes. But this simple dichotomy doesn’t begin to explain the subtleties of these images. Many of Goldblatt’s black subjects are fighting back against poverty and powerlessness – dressing sharp, running small businesses, keeping their houses neat and respectable.
On the white side of the ledger, before he has begun to photograph the suburban banalities of Boksburg, Goldblatt had already travelled to the Transvaal, where he captured the lives of the Afrikaaners, many of them poor farmers waging their own battles for survival. Hard men and long-suffering women, Goldblatt knew they had extremist views on race and religion, but still found much to admire in their temperaments and personalities. These ambiguous feelings are reflected in photos such as A plot-holder, his wife and their eldest son at lunch’ (1962), where a meal is being served in a spartan kitchen amid simmering family tensions. One examines the image with a mixture of sympathy and trepidation.
In Goldblatt’s portraits of blacks and of whites there is often a feeling of stoicism or brooding anger. It’s a different matter with the Asian shopkeepers of the suburb of Fietas, who were soon to be evicted by racially-motivated government re-zoning. Although they too suffered under Apartheid, they are great survivors who believe they can get along by dint of hard work.
The only subjects where there is no hint of adaptability or self-awareness are the white aspirationals of Boksburg who add a slice of suburban comedy to this show. A woman in a Voortrekkers uniform, sitting with a group of smiling children, could be emulating Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. The girls in the Miss Lovely Legs Competition held in the local Hypermarket, are oblivious to the sceptical stares of black onlookers. The old ladies playing carpet bowls at the Good Companions Club go about the game with grim determination.
When Nelson Mandela was swept into power in the momentous election of 1994 Goldblatt shared in the euphoria, but the following two decades would bring disenchantment as the same inequalities seemed to persist under the new regime. One particular tragedy was Thabo Mbeki’s unwillingness to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic, which saw the disease make deep inroads into the poorest classes.
Goldblatt photographed AIDS sufferers, desolate landscapes, victims and perpetrators of violent crime. In the post-Apartheid world he felt incensed by the political failures of the new society, finding himself compelled to take a stand on matters he felt strongly about. One of his last photo-series deals with the student protests that led to the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town in April 2015. He cheered this act from the sidelines but when the students began destroying paintings and photos, without even realising they were by black artists and activists, Goldblatt was disgusted.
His 2016 photos of the destruction wrought by the student mob read like an elegy for the hopes of that new South Africa born with the 1994 election. At the end of his life Goldblatt was still speaking truth to power, still feeling torn between love for his country and his anger at its self-destructive follies.
I’ve never been to South Africa but upon leaving this retrospective, I felt I’d just absorbed an in-depth lesson in the life and spirit of a nation. True to his own claims Goldblatt focuses on the particulars, not the universals, but each image adds up to a complex, contradictory portrait of a land that went from being the pariah of the planet to a unique symbol of hope. We see the whole story from the inside, in countless gritty details. In a world becoming more angry and divided this is a show about the immediate past of one country that asks crucial questions about the future of humanity.
David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948-2018
Museum of Contemporary Art, 19 October, 2018 – 3 March, 2019
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November, 2018