Good photographers are story tellers and one of South Africa’s most influential photographers passed away last month. David Goldblatt passed away at the age of 87 after a prestigious career as a documentary photographer capturing the events unfolding in South Africa during the apartheid era. Every country has stories to tell but I think with South Africa’s conflicting past and rich diversity, it creates the backdrop to powerful imagery telling important stories. Goldblatt captured these powerful moments in the apartheid years leaving us with a body of work that shares in all honesty a country working, failing, winning and changing.
Goldblatt began taking photographs in 1948 but started his career as a professional photographer on 15 September 1963 when he sold the family business, a men’s outfitters that he inherited from his parents. He mentioned in an interview at the Design Indaba Conference in 2014, “The Ultimate Portrait” that he wanted to do this since high school but failed at first. When his father passed away he had the freedom to pursue again.
Goldblatt began exploring the Afrikaans farming communities in Western Transvaal, but his big break came when he started shooting assignments for the Tatler magazine and later for the Anglo American Corporation’s in-house magazine, Optima. This gave him access to mining operations in South Africa which led to his first publication in 1972 – On the Mines.
In 1998, Golblatt was the first South African to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was also one of the few South African artists to exhibit at Documeta 11 (2002) and Documenta 12 (2007) in Kassel, Germany. He had solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and New Museum in New York. His work was included in the exhibition ILLUMInation at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011 and has featured on shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Barbican Centre in London. He was also the recipient of some prestigious awards such as the 2006 Hasselblad Award, the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award and the 2013 ICP Infinity Award.
"Photography has the capacity for recognizing things and bringing them out of obscurity, or out of where they are into another frame so that one looks at it somewhat differently" - David Goldblatt
Black and White and Colour
While Goldblatt was documenting the developments in South Africa he only worked in black and white stating that: “During those years colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear, that apartheid inspired.” It was only after the project he completed in Australia about a disease and death caused by blue asbestos, did he start exploring the medium to its full potential.
Although in his later years Goldblatt focused his talents on landscape photography, his earlier work was mostly documentary and natural portraiture. These portraits usually spoke a truth of real people, real struggles, and raw beauty and shows a very sensitive approach. He was always very impressed how people carried themselves. And you can see that there is an appreciation and understanding in his portraiture. Although there was an aim to communicate his own sensuality and to reflect his interest in people, there was always a political undertone.
A legend with an understanding of light and an appreciation of people, a true inspiration for me personally and a great loss to our country.