Re­spected lens­man re­mem­bered

Un­der all his com­plex lay­ers he was a hu­man­ist who was never com­fort­able about the world around him

Pretoria News Weekend - - OPINION -

WORLD renowned and revered South African pho­tog­ra­pher David Gold­blatt has died at the age of 87. He be­came a pho­tog­ra­pher at the age of 18 and would come to fo­cus his cam­era on quiet, yet equally poignant fea­tures of the bru­tal apartheid regime.

Over the course of his decades-long ca­reer, Gold­blatt won numer­ous ma­jor in­ter­na­tional awards.

His pho­to­graphs were ex­hib­ited widely and con­tinue to be held in mu­se­ums around the world.

Paul Wein­berg, a doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­pher and friend of Gold­blatt, is cu­ra­tor of an ex­hi­bi­tion of Gold­blatt and Peter Magubane’s work called “Common Ground”, on show at the Good­man Gallery in Jo­han­nes­burg from yes­ter­day.

Charles Leonard (CL), The Con­ver­sa­tion Africa’s arts & cul­ture ed­i­tor, spoke to Wein­berg (PW) about Gold­blatt’s life and work.

(This ar­ti­cle is re­pub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion.)

Gold­blatt’s work fo­cused on South Africans and their coun­try, but his pho­to­graphs had a uni­ver­sal­ity about them: why was that?

David was deeply con­nected to the coun­try.

Although he grew up at a time that was shaped by apartheid, his work went be­yond the sur­face. He found the hu­man in the in­hu­man so­cial land­scape.

In Boks­burg, the clos­est project he got to do­ing as an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, he wres­tled with the deep con­tra­dic­tions of the place be­fore start­ing. As he told me: “I stood on street cor­ners wholly en­gaged by what I tried to hold of the flow of or­derly life. Spa­ces, roads, lines painted on them, low build­ings, sky, veld; the peo­ple, white and black mov­ing in their sep­a­rate but tan­gled ways, all to be seen in the sharp­ness of the Highveld light.

“Boks­burg was shaped by white dreams and pro­pri­eties.

“Most pur­sued the fam­ily, so­cial and civic con­cerns of re­spectable burghers any­where, some with com­pas­sion, yet all drawn into a fix­ity of self-elected, leg­is­lated white­ness. Blacks were not of this town.

“They served


it, traded with it, re­ceived char­ity from it, and were ruled, re­warded and pun­ished by its pre­cepts. Some, on oc­ca­sion, were its priv­i­leged guests.”

I asked him what the pur­pose of his pho­to­graphs was.

“I was ask­ing my­self how it was pos­si­ble to be so ap­par­ently nor­mal, moral, up­right – which al­most all those cit­i­zens were – in such an ap­pallingly ab­nor­mal, im­moral, bizarre sit­u­a­tion.

“I hoped we would see our­selves re­vealed by a mir­ror held up to our­selves.”

Was Gold­blatt a jour­nal­ist, doc­u­men­tar­ian or an artist?

David was pri­mar­ily a doc­u­men­tar­ian.


He made a life of pho­tograph­ing is­sues that went be­yond the events and re­flected the con­di­tions that led to them. With the emer­gence of the fine art world in pho­tog­ra­phy at the turn of the 21st Cen­tury, David evolved. But ad­just­ing to the fine art world didn’t sit that com­fort­ably with him.

He did the dance. But he pri­vately hated ex­hi­bi­tion open­ings, and the at­ten­tion they brought him. He felt un­com­fort­able about be­ing seen as an artist. In the end he came to terms with this di­chotomy by sim­ply call­ing him­self a pho­tog­ra­pher, a “get out of jail card” for those who liked to pi­geon hole peo­ple. About him­self he said: “I would say that I am a self-ap­pointed ob­server and critic of the so­ci­ety into which I was born, with a ten­dency to giv­ing recog­ni­tion to what is over­looked or un­seen.”

What is his le­gacy as a pho­tog­ra­pher?

Un­der all his com­plex lay­ers he was a hu­man­ist who was never com­fort­able about the world around him. His


role with the cam­era fully emerged while pho­tograph­ing in Soweto in a pe­riod that pre­ceded the Soweto up­ris­ings in 1976. He re­mem­bered: “With a cam­era I was for the first time able to ex­pand my ex­pe­ri­ence of other peo­ple’s lives. Mak­ing por­traits of peo­ple in Soweto in 1972 was a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment for me fun­da­men­tally.”

Gold­blatt was pre­oc­cu­pied with val­ues, then and now. In an in­ter­view I did with him, he said: “Dur­ing those years my prime con­cern was with val­ues – what did we value in South Africa, how did we get to those val­ues and, in par­tic­u­lar, how did we ex­press those val­ues? And once you start on that line of think­ing, then it’s a con­tin­u­a­tion, there’s no break.”

Be­yond his pho­tog­ra­phy he was a men­sch on steroids with a great com­mu­nity spirit. He was the founder of the Mar­ket Photo Work­shop in Jo­han­nes­burg and co-founder of the Ernest Cole Award es­tab­lished to sup­port South African pho­tog­ra­phy. He turned no pho­tog­ra­pher, fa­mous or evolv­ing, from his door. David was ac­ces­si­ble to ev­ery­one. And now this leg­end has passed. Liv­ing with­out him will be hard. But his pres­ence through his pho­to­graphs, views and com­mit­ments will al­ways be with us and re­played over and over again in the years to come. ● David Gold­blatt, pho­tog­ra­pher, bornNovem­ber 29, 1930; died June 25, 2018

Pho­tog­ra­pher and re­cip­i­ent of the Na­tional Or­der of Ikhamanga, David Gold­blatt.

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