RIP David Goldblatt.
If you ever thought photography was anything other than a long game, take the example of the wise, gifted and gentle David Goldblatt. This is from an interview I did with him a few years ago. For a fuller obituary, visit the BJP here. His legacy lies not just in his own brilliant work, but what the visual power of contemporary South African photography.
“I became interested in photography in the late 1940s and I began to look at magazines like Life, Look and Picture Post,” says David Goldblatt, a photographer renowned for getting under the skin of South African society. “In the early fifties I tried to become a magazine photographer. I sent my pictures to the Picture Post and got rejected. Then when the ANC became active in their struggle against an unjust system (apartheid), Tom Hopkinson (the editor of Picture Post) contacted me and asked if I could make something. So I went to an ANC meeting and photographed everything that I could see. This was 1952. I shot and I shot and I shot and then I realised that I was using an incredibly long roll of film – film which had failed to engage on the sprocket of the Leica I was using. It was an incredibly basic mistake. But the other thing I realised was that I wasn’t really interested in what was happening around me.”
With Goldblatt’s initial attempt to break into photography a failure, he went to work in his father’s tailor’s shop for 12 years while he learned the skills that have made him a defining visual voice of South Africa. These skills were not just technical but also rested on how Goldblatt understood the world he was trying to portray.
“After the ANC meeting, I also discovered what I had to understand was what I was competent in and what I was interested in. That took some years to probe, until I could get to the underbelly of the society and value system that underlay South Africa. And to understand it visually I also had to get a grasp on the history of the country. So while working in the shop I did a degree that included courses on English, Economics and Economic History. This was so important because it taught me how to think and understand what was happening around me.”
“My father died in 1963. I was 32 then with three children and a family, but I sold the shop and, with a couple of Leicas and the capital to keep on going for a year, I became a full-time photographer.”
Goldblatt embarked on a career that documented the tumultuous events that were taking place in South Africa. Working in black and white, he examined the way transport, work and housing intersected to brutalise a workforce, he looked at how the mining industry could divide and conquer a nation, while In Boksburg is his classic look at how middle-class white South Africa accommodated a thuggish and racist regime. Since the 1980s he has used colour film in his nuanced look at South African cities and landscapes as well as helped develop radical new talent by setting up Johannesburg’s Market Photo Workshop.
Goldblatt’s work has critically evolved with the developments of South African politics and culture, and he remains an active critic of the post-apartheid era, but he is dismissive of the idea that his work has developed over the years.
“I don’t use the words creative or art,” says Goldblatt “I’m a plodder; if you look back at my work, it’s a straight line graph win a few bumps. I’ve been doing the same thing for 60 years. Today I’m doing exactly the same as I was doing in the years of apartheid. I’m looking critically at the processes taking place in my country.”
Goldblatt’s work is driven by political and economic change and because of this the huge changes that have occurred in South African society have prevented his photography from becoming boring or predictable.
“You can grow stale but I think I’ve got better at what I do. The engagement is with this country and my compatriots. We live in a complex society – everybody lives in a complex society but this (South Africa) is a peculiarly complex society. Photographers here work in very concrete ways that are related to the places that they are living in a way that is not always the case in European countries. There is an energy here that is quite remarkable.”
Economically however, there have been changes. “There have been ups and downs but these are the ups and downs of a freelancer’s economy. Now I don’t depend on commissions. I am embarrassed to say that I make my money from print sales. There is an artificiality to the art market; the price of one’s work is dependent on its scarcity.
“The positive thing is it has freed me up. I spend my time entirely on making my own personal work. I don’t have to worry about commissions. But I spend too much time on the computer preparing for exhibitions and publishing books. It is time that takes me out from the field. I recognise, at the age of 82, I only have 20 -30 years left, so I really want to be making as many pictures as possible. “