Goldblatt grew up during the rise of the National Party. When the Party came to power in 1948, the Nationals began implementing Apartheid policies that marginalised non-white South Africans.
In this difficult political environment, young Goldblatt developed an interest in photography-focused magazines like Life and wanted to become a magazine photographer. Then, when the African National Congress became active in their struggle against Apartheid, the editor of Picture Post asked him to photograph ANC meetings.
the identity document that every black South African had to carry, 1972.
A white farmer’s son with his young black nursemaid,
Western Transvaal 1964.
Goldblatt wanted to show how immoral the Apartheid regime was. But he did not automatically attend violent rallies or protests; rather he ran away from violence. He was interested in the causes of events, so his photos captured the understated unease of living an ordinary life under an Apartheid regime. Clearly there was no explicit violence in Goldblatt’s photos, no bodies in Soweto streets or after Sharpeville. Just everyday life! But violence permeated life in South Africa and fear was a constant.
In the 1964 photograph, a white farmer’s son stood next to his black nursemaid, Heimweeberg, his hands resting gently on her shoulders. Behind them was a barbed wire fence.
Goldblatt said he was a photographer, capturing things that were important to him and to society. But he was not an artist; instead he saw himself as a documentarian. He asked how it was possible to be so apparently normal, moral and upright, as most citizens were, in such an appallingly abnormal and immoral situation.
Saturday morning at the hypermarket, 1980
See the photograph Saturday Morning at the Hypermarket: Miss Lovely Legs Competition 1980 with white teenagers parading in bathers, and black and white shoppers looking on. Like many of his photos, it wasn’t dramatic and the subjects weren't named. But its very ordinariness showed the casualness of a society marked by Apartheid, a separateness that most children were aware of growing up in South Africa back then.
Another photo was taken just after 2 AM. It showed a never-ending queue of black South African commuters travelling on a bus that took them from the segregated areas where they were forced to live, to work in Pretoria. Many carried blankets in the hopes of getting some much-needed rest while on the 3 hour journey. In this Blacks Only bus in 1983, not all enjoyed the luxury of seating as the bus travelled on its daily commute. Goldblatt had found the human, in the inhuman social landscape.
For much of his career, Goldblatt had worked with black-and-white photos; he believed that colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that Apartheid inspired. How ironic, since race was almost entirely decided by colour alone.
In the 1990s, he began experimenting with colour, but his mission to photograph South Africa through a lens of integrity and morality remained the same. He was looking critically at the processes taking place in his country.
each morning at 3 am
These images will be among many in the exhibition David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948–2018 at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art this southern summer (Oct 2018-Mar 2019). Planned and curated before the late South African photographer died this June, the programme includes his earliest work, his later portraits of miners, Afrikaners, exhausted early morning commuters, AIDS sufferers, blacks’ shacks and the lumbering mines that built the fortunes of the white ruling class on the backs of black labourers.
In 1987, David Goldblatt gave 115 of his prints to the V&A in London. The photographs had toured several British venues during the 1980s, organised by Newcastle’s Side Gallery. With majority rule not coming to South Africa until 1994 and the political situation worsening in the meantime, Goldblatt needed to secure his work in a publicly accessible, safe place outside South Africa.
Originally Goldblatt promised the rest of his negatives to Cape Town University, but withdrew his collection after student protestors began burning campus artworks that they deemed to be colonial symbols. He believed that the actions of the students were the antithesis of democratic action. Before he died, Goldblatt instead bequeathed his archive of negatives to Yale University.
Goldblatt’s work has been exhibited in museums throughout the world. In 1989, he founded the Market Photography Workshop at home and in 1998 he was the first South African to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He exhibited in Kassel, Germany in 2002 and 2007, and held solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and the New Museum in New York, and in the Venice Biennale in 2011. Most recently he held exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Barbican Centre in London and Paris’ Centre Pompidou.
And now Sydney. As the opening of David Goldblatt's retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, the museum’s Chief Curator Rachel Kent, and South African photographer, archivist and curator Paul Weinberg, spoke on the life and legacy of the late artist.
Even those of my close friends in Australia who haven’t been back to South Africa since 1990 will be stirred by the Sydney exhibition. South Africa has greatly changed, but its racist history was frozen in Goldblatt’s pictures. Thus his photos are a powerful reminder that while ordinary people went about their daily lives, horrors were committed and excused in their name. Perhaps the images are a warning to Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump.