For over 60 years David Goldblatt (1930-2018) photographed the people, landscapes and social structures of his native South Africa. His vast archive has become one of the best records of South Africa in the twentieth century. His work is critically acclaimed for its powerful testimony as a historical record and for its rigorous, unflinching aesthetic.
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David Goldblatt was born on 29th November 1930 in the small town of Randfontein, South Africa. His family had emigrated to the country at the end of the nineteenth century to escape the persecution of the Jewish population in Lithuania. His father established a small clothing shop in Randfontein which Goldblatt worked in as a child, whilst studying at Krugersdorp High School.
By the time that Goldblatt had left school the effects of apartheid were already prevalent in South African society and politics. Following the election of the National Party in 1948 successive laws led to the forced relocation of populations to specifically designated areas and determined every aspect of people’s lives, from what they could learn, who they could meet, where they could live and who they could marry.
In the early 1950s Goldblatt sent some of the pictures he had taken to Picture Post magazine but they were rejected. Two years later, once the African National Congress became active in their struggle against apartheid, Picture Post’s editor contacted Goldblatt to offer him an assignment. Goldblatt attended a meeting of the ANC and photographed everything that he saw. He was, however, unsatisfied by this work as he felt that he did not fully understand how to visually represent what he saw, and to do so faithfully would require a real understanding of his country’s history and economics. Goldblatt subsequently enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand where he gained a degree in commerce.
Following the death of his father in 1963, Goldblatt sold his father’s shop and bought himself a Leica camera, dedicating himself to becoming a full-time photographer. From the 1960s onwards Goldblatt produced numerous extensive photo-essays which documented particular aspects of South African society, its politics and economics. Goldblatt spent much of the 1960s photographing the country’s Afrikaner population. Afrikaner’s were the driving political force of the National Party and a number came to be identified as the ruling elite, who along with other white communities were the beneficiaries of the strict segregation laws.
Goldblatt’s series On the Mines was published as a book in 1973 later won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Photographs from this series were taken in the Witwatersrand, an industrial area that had long been the centre of South Africa’s gold mining industry. Goldblatt’s photographs explored not only the lives of those working in the mines but also the physical structures of the mining industry which together depicted a society structured around the migrant labour of black men. The 1970s and 1980s were increasingly volatile both economically and politically. Though Goldblatt’s work was championed by anti-apartheid activists, he was determined that his photography should not be used within the context of propaganda. He believed the role of the photographer was to move beyond the sensational and shocking and reveal the underlying structures and foundations upon which society was based.
From 1979-1980, Goldblatt created one of his most celebrated bodies of work In Boksburg. Boksburg was a small, white middle-class area to the east of the city of Johannesburg. Goldblatt’s photographs from the series capture everyday scenes and social rituals of a segregated society. His photographs are punctuated by the presence of the black servants and labourers who existed on the margins of this society but who were vital to the town’s existence and prosperity. Originally commissioned for Optima magazine, the photographs were rejected for their damming depiction of privilege and were instead made into a book, published in 1982. Goldblatt received further acclaim for his series The Transported of KwaNdebele (1989) which documented the excruciatingly long and uncomfortable twice-daily bus journeys of black labourers who lived in the segregated ‘homelands’ northeast of Pretoria.
Goldblatt was not solely interested in photographing individuals and their lives but also the way values, ideologies and politics are expressed in the structures that societies build. In 1998, he released South Africa: The Structure of Things Then which included his photographs of monuments, private homes, servants’ quarters and churches, depicting the buildings as manifest symbols of the conditions that created them. During the years of apartheid, Goldblatt photographed almost exclusively in black and white but began experimenting with colour photography in the late 1990s. His colour photographs document contemporary South African society, from the bustle of the city to the countryside ravaged by industry as well as the country’s pristine natural landscapes. These quietly powerful photographs depict a country emerging from the horrors of a deeply troubled recent history.
Exhibitions and Awards
Goldblatt’s consistent documentation of his country’s history and society has received critical acclaim and he has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Hasselblad Award in 2006, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2009 and the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography in 2013. In 2016, he was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture in France. His work has been exhibited internationally and in 1998 he was the first South African to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Most recently he was the subject of a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Goldblatt died on 25th June 2018 in South Africa.