David Goldblatt obituary


The South African photographer David Goldblatt, who has died aged 87, began taking pictures as a teenager, and created a body of work that chronicled the country’s social and political change from the 1950s onwards. His images documented the racial divide in South African society, capturing everyday life, including, as he put it, the “banal normalities of white madness” through the traumatic decades of apartheid.

He was not one to turn up at a riot to film white police officers using their batons on black schoolchildren. These “events” did not interest him. He had originally tried to photograph news stories but came to realise that he was “interested in the cause of events”, how the main players in the vicious drama of apartheid interacted with one another – Afrikaner and African, at home, at work, but only rarely at the ugly meeting points.





David Goldblatt’s photograph of miners’ bunks in an abandoned compound at the Simmer and Jack Gold Mine, Germiston, 1965



David Goldblatt’s photograph of miners’ bunks in an abandoned compound at the Simmer and Jack Gold Mine, Germiston, 1965

Growing up in Randfontein, west of Johannesburg, he took the train to school, passing endless rows of gold mines. They never stopped operating for a minute, he remembered. “At night you’d see these little streetlights on top of the dumps.” The mines started to fail in the mid-1960s, and Goldblatt documented this decline.

In an abandoned compound he found thousands of concrete bunks once occupied by migrant labourers from across southern Africa. Only one had any sign of human habitation. A man had stuck pinups on the wall. “White women; presumably in those days there were no black pinups,” he said in an interview for South African History Online. His subsequent book, On the Mines (1973), featured an essay by Nadine Gordimer on the human and political dimensions of mining.

He worked freelance, valuing the freedom of not having an agent, doing what he thought was important. In 1972 he spent several days a week for six months in Soweto, documenting everyday life in the township as political tensions increased in the period leading up to the 1976 student uprising.





David Goldblatt’s image Children on the Border between Fietas and Mayfair, Johannesburg, c1949



David Goldblatt’s image Children on the Border between Fietas and Mayfair, Johannesburg, c1949

But all South Africa’s people came within his ambit – rich, poor, destitute; “coloured”, Cape Malay, Jew, Asian. In 1976 and 1977 he pedalled the streets of Fietas, tripod on back, as the Indian township was being destroyed to make way for a white suburb. His book on a white town, In Boksburg (1982), was a fly-on-the-wall observation on the Afrikaner, ballroom dancing, drum majorettes, a husband and wife carefully posed in their ornate lounge. “I believe I looked with real affection, even with love, but at the same time critically, and this was very uncomfortable for a lot of Afrikaners.”

If the Afrikaners did not always appreciate what he saw in his lens, the opponents of the regime had their own gripes, too. When his work toured Britain in the 1980s, a Liverpool gallery cancelled the show after local activists accused it of flouting the cultural boycott of apartheid. Goldblatt refused to turn his work into propaganda. One curator said: “He felt he should record the facts and leave the judgment to the viewer”.

By now he was being sought by book and magazine editors, gallery directors and museum curators; even the PRs of multinationals. In 1998 the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a solo exhibition of his work. He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and received the Hasselblad award (2006) and the Henri Cartier-Bresson award (2009), as well as doctorates from the San Francisco Art Institute, and the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand.





Yaksha Modi in her father’s shop before its destruction under the Group Areas Act, Fietas, Johannesburg, 1976.



Yaksha Modi in her father’s shop before its destruction under the Group Areas Act, Fietas, Johannesburg, 1976. Photograph: David Goldblatt

Goldblatt was born in Randfontein, the third son of Eli and Olga Goldblatt, who had both fled anti-Jewish violence in Lithuania as children. Yet the son was bullied in his turn – as a boarder at Pretoria boys high, and then briefly at the Marist Brothers in Johannesburg, where “the antisemitism among the kids and the sadism of some of the teachers was simply beyond my telling”. Back home in Randfontein, and happy at his new school in the nearby mining town of Krugersdorp, he began taking pictures, which appeared in the school magazine.

After leaving school he worked in the family outfitters shop, but when his father died in 1962 he sold up to try his luck as a professional photographer. It was a gamble. He was 32; he and his wife, Lily, had two children with a third on the way. All he wanted was to take pictures. “I’ve never been religious, but I still offer up a bracha [a Hebrew blessing]: ‘Thanks for this liberty’.”

In 1989, with friends, he raised funds to set up the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg, to train aspiring lensmen and women of all races, especially the township young. He had a passion for mentoring young photographers and was always ready to share his knowledge of the genre and to be there when important decisions were made.





David Goldblatt’s 1980 photograph of ballroom dancers in the court house of the town of Boksburg; the dancing-master Ted van Rensburg looks on



David Goldblatt’s 1980 photograph of ballroom dancers in the court house of the town of Boksburg; the dancing-master Ted van Rensburg looks on

I worked with him once, on a magazine piece to mark 200 years since the Battle of Muizenberg (1795), a minor skirmish in False Bay by the Cape Peninsula that provided the foothold for Britain to turn the southern continent pink. We sweated up the mountain to the remains of a Dutch fort, took the pics, and he was gone. He wasn’t one for mixing chat and work.

Goldblatt made no bones about his dislike of the art world. He would have seen himself as an artisan, not an artist. In his early 80s he mused about having only 20 or 30 years left, “so I really want to make as many pictures as possible”. Tongue in cheek, perhaps, but this serious fellow might just have believed it. He had done enough to ensure that his work will endure when the story of apartheid has faded. Many of the 130,000 visitors to his exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris this year will agree.

In 1987, his country on the brink of civil war, he donated 115 prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, to be held in a safe public place. They form a part of the museum’s Goldblatt collection. But his negatives archive has been left to Yale University, with the digital archive available free in South Africa.

He is survived by Lily (nee Psek), whom he married in 1955, and their children, Steven, Brenda and Rasada.

Lewis David Goldblatt, photographer, born 29 November 1930; died 25 June 2018



READ SOURCE

ALSO READ   The homegrown talent headed to Milan's Salone del Mobile design fair

Leave a Reply