Apartheid rage, dis­tilled into black-and-white

Pho­tog­ra­pher David Gold­blatt spent 60 years chron­i­cling South Africa’s so­cial in­jus­tices. He was driven by anger, he says

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&books - BYMELANIEABRAMS

DAVID GOLD­BLATT has been rail­ing against in­jus­tice for decades. The award-win­ning 78-year-old South African pho­tog­ra­pher has spent the past half-cen­tury chron­i­cling the re­al­i­ties of life in his coun­try. Un­der apartheid, his work was fu­elled by anger at the way black peo­ple were treated. Post-apartheid, his work is fu­elled by his anger that so many in­jus­tices still ex­ist.

His first ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­crim­i­na­tion came as a child, fac­ing an­tisemitism at school dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s. “The an­tisemitism was pal­pa­ble,” he says. “It was a daily force that ex­isted all the time, from the odd re­mark to be­ing sur­rounded by boys and girls who phys­i­cally abused me. I was ou­traged by the in­jus­tice. I couldn’t un­der­stand it. And that sense of in­jus­tice in­flu­enced the way I looked at the world and the treat­ment of black peo­ple in this coun­try.”

Once he moved to a new school, pho­tog­ra­phy be­came his pas­sion. “I used the cam­era to look at the world around me,” he says.

Over the next 60 years, this sense of in­jus­tice, cou­pled with a cool, crit­i­cal eye, es­tab­lished his rep­u­ta­tion as one of the finest pho­tog­ra­phers in the world. In 2006, he won the Has­sel­blad Award, pho­tog­ra­phy’s equiv­a­lent to the No­bel prize. Now two ex­hi­bi­tions in Lon­don are fea­tur­ing his work. The Tate Mod­ern show, Street & Stu­dio: An Ur­ban His­tory of Pho­tog­ra­phy, in­cludes pho­to­graphs taken dur­ing apartheid from the se­ries, On Eloff Street, Jo­han­nes­burg 1966-7. Th­ese images show black and white peo­ple as one in­te­grated crowd. “He is not iso­lat­ing blacks. So it be­comes a state­ment in terms of see­ing them as an equal part of so­ci­ety,” says the show’s cu­ra­tor Ute Eskild­sen.

The con­tem­po­rary South African art ex­hi­bi­tion, Home Lands — Land Marks, at Haunch of Veni­son, in Cen­tral Lon­don, is show­cas­ing his more re­cent work, since apartheid. Ac­cord­ing to Ta­mar Garb, pro­fes­sor of art his­tory at Univer­sity Col­lege, Lon­don and cu­ra­tor of the Home Lands — Land Marks show, “Gold­blatt is the most im­por­tant vis­ual artist to come out of South Africa in the late 20th and 21st cen­tury. He never shirks away from dif­fi­cult truths and does not ide­alise the post-apartheid era ei­ther.”

Gold­blatt grew up in Rand­fontein, a goldmining town 40km out­side Jo­han­nes­burg, among a mid­dle-class Jewish com­mu­nity. “I went to He­brew school like most of the kids in the vil­lage,” he says. “In my teens, I joined the Habonim youth group, where I met my wife, Lily. Now, my wife and I are one of the very few cou­ples of our gen­er­a­tion of Habonim still in Jo­han­nes­burg.”

Many have gone to other big cities in South Africa or em­i­grated, mainly, he be­lieves, of the fear of an­tisemitism. In­deed, one of the images in Home­Lands— Land Marks, Shoe­maker on Raleigh Street, Yeovill, Jo­han­nes­burg (taken in Septem­ber 2006) de­picts a sub­urb that used to house a large Jewish com­mu­nity.

Gold­blatt notes that de­spite the huge im­prove­ments of the post-apartheid era, “there is still a huge and un­break­able aware­ness of race”.

As Gold­blatt talks about his work in the shows, it is clear that his anger at the in­jus­tices within South Africa re­mains strong. “The pho­to­graph of the Shoe­maker was made in anger and with a deep sense of re­gret that this is what we are re­duced to. It tells us about the vi­o­lence and crime that has gripped us here. The shoe­maker, like all of us, lives be­hind a ra­zor wire and elec­tric fence.”

He is equally ou­traged when dis­cussing his 2006 im­age of Miriam Maz­ibuko wa­ter­ing the gar­den of her new RDP (Re­con­struc­tion and De­vel­op­ment) house in the Alexandra Town­ship, one of the poor­est ar­eas in the re­gion. “It looks like an ideal ver­sion of the mod­ern South African wo­man with her wa­ter­ing can. But she waited eight years for this home. And as it only has one room, her four chil­dren live with her par­ents-in-law. It is ap­palling that we can’t af­ford to give that wo­man a de­cent home be­cause we’ve squan­dered it on other things.”

Gold­blatt points out that he shot both th­ese images in black-and-white de­lib­er­ately: “Be­cause colour would have pret­ti­fied the images and I wanted to em­pha­sise the things I am pho­tograph­ing.”

And he stresses that his approach to tak­ing pho­to­graphs has re­mained the same from the On Eloff Street se­ries to to­day. “I am a straight-line man. A crit­i­cal ob­server, with no am­bi­tion to be creative,” he says.

Cur­rently he is work­ing on a book that will bring to­gether his images, doc­u­ment­ing life in Jo­han­nes­burg since 1952. Con­trib­u­tors will in­clude two of South Africa’s fore­most con­tem­po­rary au­thors. Garb sums him up: “He is a man of ex­tra­or­di­nary con­vic­tion, in­tegrity and crit­i­cal ob­ser­va­tion.” Street & Stu­dio: An Ur­ban His­tory of Pho­tog­ra­phy is at Tate Mod­ern, Lon­don SE1, un­til Au­gust 31 (www.tate.org.uk). Home Land — Land Marks is at Haunch of Veni­son, Lon­don W1 from May 31 (www. haunchofveni­son.com)

at the

Above: Gold­blatt’s At Kevin Kwanele’s Bar­ber Shop in Cape Town; and ( be­low), Shoe­maker on Raleigh Street, Jo­han­nes­burg. Both pho­tos are

Home Lands — Land Marks ex­hi­bi­tion

Left: A shot from the se­ries On Eloff Street, Jo­han­nes­burg 1966-67. On show at Tate Mod­ern

David Gold­blatt

Gold­blatt’s 2006 black-and-white im­age of a wo­man wa­ter­ing her gar­den in the im­pov­er­ished town­ship of Alexandra. “It’s ap­palling we can’t af­ford to give her a de­cent home,” he says

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