David Goldblatt

“If you run over a Kaffir, just be sure you reverse back over him to finish the job off; nobody’s concerned with a dead Kaffir.”


My twin sister received this early piece of advice when she arrived in one of the Northern Suburbs of Jo’burg in late 1974. She and her husband had emigrated there to start a new life. “Oh, and you’ll need to get some servants”; to which my sister thought ‘not on your life’. A month or so later Lynn had three servants, two who actually did things and a spare, just in case, was how she put it to me years later.


I knew of David Goldblatt, he is a ‘name’ in photography, but I didn’t really know his work and came across him at the Barbican’s recent exhibition “Everything was moving photography from the 60s and 70s”. The exhibition catalogue – which I still regard as one of the best exhibition catalogues I own – didn’t reproduce all of the work by Goldblatt on show, so I ordered another of his work: Johannesburg Photographs 1948-2010 – subtitled TJ, some 300 or so single photograph pages 10.5” X 11” beautifully produced images with a forward by the man. I thought the print quality in the exhibition catalogue was good, but this book surpasses that.

I haven’t received permission to show any images, so I will have to write about them with links as appropriate.


One of the visual traits that I noticed when I saw Goldblatts work at the Barbican was how, when the subjects were people, and especially when they were blacks, was how stock still they appeared. My intuition suggested that Goldblatt was using medium format film, perhaps ISO100 as the grain was minimal, they were quite sharp images with, generally a full range of tones. However, these stock still characters were sometimes undermined by other elements in the frame who weren’t sitting or standing like statues; there was movement, maybe a dog, or another person who unbeknownst to them was being included in the frame. What this suggested to me was how Goldblatt, a white photographer in Soweto, a township for blacks in apartheid South Africa had ‘power’.

Here is a link with Goldblatt talking about his work documenting the life as he saw it. http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/532 . Goldblatt understood his privileged position as a white South African, he writes quite eloquently about it in both the exhibition catalogue and in TJ. In his piece entitled “Soweto” he writes: “In 1972 , I was in and out of Soweto almost every day for about six months. The photography was invariable done with crowdedness and compression of matchbox houses and treeless narrow streets. On wintry days the place was enveloped in a pall of smoke and grey dust.

In the evenings, I would drive back to the spaciousness, clean air and streets of Jo’burg’s northern suburbs. Under the leafy canopies of thousands of trees, I passed houses serene in their grounds. And the comfort of home.”

That I ‘knew’ something of apartheid South Africa from my sister had I suppose prepared me somewhat for this work, but seeing  it again played out by the work of Goldblatt and Ernest Cole put me in mind of a Kafkaesque world and this video of Goldblatt talking about Ernest Cole seems to amplify my vision . http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/543


Not adding to Goldblatt’s eloquent description of Cole’s ethnic transfiguration, the photographer seems to have documented how bizarre the imposition of white ‘culture’ onto the indigenous population, though of course many ‘outsiders’ were drawn to Jo’burg, to try and share in the wealth that was being extracted from the earth by the mines. Peoples, races, from all over Africa, the ‘Commonwealth’ and the world came to this melting pot, that refused to allow melting. Goldblatt’s depiction of  “Wedding party, Orlando West. 1970” has a group of blacks in their very best Sunday best. A bride in white dress, a groom in a two-piece suit, trilby and white gloves. Women in twin-set suits and leg hosiery, and other wedding party guests one of who is carrying a clothes brush standing on a scrubby piece of land. Most formal wedding party photographs have the subjects slightly ill at ease with themselves, these look at ease with themselves – happy; though, in my minds eye, transposed to another world. A white world with white trappings and value systems. Shiny shoes.

Editing a photo book is an important task, I took this photograph of a double spread and really appreciated how the editing had been done to draw out so much from juxtaposing these twin images:

Domestic worker on Abel Road, Hillbrow. 1973 Young woman at a rooming house on Abel Road, Hillbrow. March 1973. Both original photographs by David Goldblatt from the book TJ

Domestic worker on Abel Road, Hillbrow. 1973
Young woman at a rooming house on Abel Road, Hillbrow. March 1973. Both original photographs by David Goldblatt from the book TJ

I wondered how I would feel about Goldblatt’s work, that he was white in South Africa in what was one of the most oppressive political regimes of the twentieth century, that his ‘view’ of the blacks would have been from an ‘outsiders’ perspective as opposed to Cole – who changed ‘ethnic origin’ to become an ‘outsider’ – well at least to the bureaucratic lunacy that prevailed in the lunacy of Apartheid. But now having looked more closely at Goldblatt’s work, listened to him speak I am inclined to think that not only is this record is a very important and valid document, but it shows that one can cross a divide with integrity and provide a truth that might not have seen the light of day otherwise.

Video’s are from SFMOMA, who have an excellent collection of works for students and visitors alike.



One thought on “David Goldblatt

  1. Pingback: Schoolboys | John Umney - Gesture and Meaning

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