David Goldblatt will always be known as the photographer who exposed the evils of Apartheid to the world, but to characterise him as a ‘political’ artist is to diminish the breadth of his achievements. This is something Goldblatt has in common with all great photographers who have found their subjects in war, poverty, hatred and injustice. Think of figures such as Walker Evans, Don McCullin or Sebastiao Salgado, and it’s the artistry of their work that makes it so memorable – the ability to choose the right moment, the right angle, the precise degree of distance that confers maximum power on an image.
A photographer’s vision of the world develops during many years of staring into a viewfinder and examining prints in a developing tray – or as is more common nowadays, on a computer screen. If one happens to be living and working in a country where rank injustices are being perpetrated, the subject matter chooses itself.
In the digital age the complacent old cliché which assured us the camera never lied has been supplanted by a paranoid suspicion that every image has been manipulated in some way. In the past the only defense was to say a photo had been staged, but this only worked when none of the participants in a scene might be identified. Today people routinely claim to be victims of deliberate deceptions generated by Photoshop.
A side-effect of this process has been a devaluation of truth itself. When a pathological liar such as Donald Trump can call every negative story “fake news”, it’s clear we are in a world where “truth” has taken on a much more subjective complexion. What was once seen as an absolute has become a preference, as people choose to believe only those stories and images that support their existing worldviews.
One way to get around this epistemological impasse is to produce images of such power that they remain lodged in the mind regardless of any attempt to deny the evidence of the eyes. This is what happened with Nilüfer Demir’s image of a dead child washed ashore in Syria, after his family’s failed attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Or Julia Le Duc’s photo of a father and daughter drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States. Such photos have cut through the inflammatory rhetoric associated with the world’s refugee crises, and revealed the human consequences.
Neither of these wellknown photos have much of an aesthetic dimension, although it would be obscene to venture this as a criticism. It is the subject matter alone that strikes us with such force. They are not ‘classic’ images but bombs thrown into a news cycle that treats tragedy and suffering as passing events competing with tennis and football for space in a TV broadcast.
When we look back on the many iconic images Goldblatt produced during his long career, one sees a very different approach. Goldblatt was a servant of history – a witness to events that needed to be recorded if he were to document the true story of Apartheid, and the ecstasy and disenchantment that followed the upheavals of 1995.
One thinks of images such as that of fifteen-year-old Lawrence Matjee, with white plaster casts on both black arms, after a visit from the Security Police; the painful ordeal of the daily bus ride from Marabastad to Waterval, as black workers commuted from their distant townships to work in the city; the children of Soweto playing in a graveyard of burnt-out automobiles. In an instant we have a chilling sense of what it meant to live and work in such a society. The ‘truth’ of these photos impresses itself upon the viewer in the most effortless fashion. Lawrence Matjee’s two broken arms sit awkwardly with his serene expression, as if there were nothing so unusual about being brutalised.
The directness of such images must be put alongside Goldblatt’s many photo-portraits of people simply living their lives: in poor black townships such as Soweto, or the middle-class white suburb of Boksburg. There is no pretence, no drama or editorialising. We get a complete picture from the mere details of a room, the clothes and expressions worn by those who posed in front of Goldblatt’s lens. Over time what once seemed the acme of ordinariness becomes extraordinary. We wonder how people could tolerate such conditions, or be blind to their own bigotry and hypocrisy. The big truth in this instance, is that everything becomes normalised by virtue of duration and repetition until it seems part of the natural order of things.
Finally with Goldblatt there is another strategy at work: an attempt to avoid obvious narratives and deal with the universals of bodies and places. The 1975 series, Particulars, consists of close-ups of the human body – small details that say something meaningful about a person, from the rightness or smoothness of their hands, to the tension in a gesture, the stains on their clothing, glimpses of body hair or wrinkles. The compositions are formal, almost abstract, and the subjects anonymous, but we view them in a way that tears down all their defences. It’s a vista onto the way personality is written on the body, be it black or white, young or old, rich or poor – and ultimately a celebration of that shared humanity all these fragments hold in common.
In the late Intersections series Goldblatt brings that search for truth into the landscape, in photos that reject the traditional fixations on sublime or picturesque imagery that still dominate this genre. There is an irony in this, given Goldblatt’s early admiration for Ansel Adams, but it is part of his inexorable development as an artist.
It takes both courage and experience to turn one’s gaze towards the raw, desolate scenes captured in this series: the dry grasslands, yards of hard-packed dirt, makeshift shacks, half-built suburbs, wire fences, slabs of dull concrete baking in the sun. After all the tragedy and hardship of the past these photos step back from the pageant of history and look at the material facts of a hard country that has helped mould an equally hard, tough, diverse group of people. If “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” as the poet insists, there is a powerful attraction in these uncompromising, unclassical landscapes that make no concessions to anybody’s dreams.
Catalogue essay for ‘David Goldblatt’
Annandale Galleries, from 4 September, 2019