Obituary: Photographer David Goldblatt, Chronicler of Apartheid, 87

June 25, 2018

South African photographer David Goldblatt, who brought an artistic eye to his exploration of the social and economic consequences of apartheid and mentored two generations of South African photographers, died June 25. The Goodman Gallery, which represent his work, reported the news to several media outlets. Goldblatt was 87.

Goldblatt was born in 1930 in Randfontein, South Africa, a town whose white residents prospered in an economy based on its nearby gold mines. In the 1960s, he began photographing the grueling work of miners, and their lives in homes and hostels owned by the mines. In 1973 he published his first book, On the Mines, with a foreword by novelist Nadine Gordimer. His second book, The Transported of KwaNdebele, captures in haunting, somber black-and-white images the arduous daily journey of workers who commuted from apartheid homelands on the distant outskirts of Pretoria to jobs in the city center.

For Goldblatt, photography was a way to process the experience of living under apartheid. From 1979 to 1980, he worked on a series of sly, sometimes surreal images of Boksburg, a whites-only suburb that he described as “abnormal beyond belief.” He often made portraits, and throughout his career, he photographed South African homes, churches, government buildings and resettlement houses where, he said, “nothing ‘happened,’ and yet all was contained and imminent.” Though simple in composition, the images captured the outward expression of South Africa’s values and ethos.

“His understatement and complexity place considerable demands on his viewers,” says John Edwin Mason, who teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia. “His lack of flash denies them instant gratification. It’s slow photography in a fast food world.” Goldblatt said he had been most influenced by writers, such as Gordimer and other novelists. Says Mason, “Like these writers, he finds his deepest meanings in ordinary people and things that he approaches with compassion, but without sentimentality. Like them, he discovers the universal in the particular, which is why his photography will resonate for a very long time.”

Photographer Samantha Reinders, who describes Goldblatt as a “mainstay and hero,” observes, “He never catered to trend, worked slowly, worked smartly and worked with heart.”

The Museum of Modern Art had a solo show of Goldblatt’s work in 1998. His awards include the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award and the International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement.

The ICP said its award recognized not only Goldblatt’s artist achievement, but his influence and mentorship, and his experience “teaching visual literacy and photographic skills to youth disadvantaged by the system of apartheid.” Goldblatt served on the board of Market Photo Gallery in Johannesburg and, in 1989 he founded Market Photo Workshop to mentor young photographers. Its past students include Zanele Muholi and Jodi Bieber.

“So many of his projects and approaches inspired other photographers to pursue similar lines,” says South African-born photographer Gideon Mendel. Mendel was photographing the anti-apartheid struggle for the news agency AFP in 1985 when Goldblatt asked to see his work, then invited him to show at Market Photo Gallery. “He offered me the use of his darkroom, his technical support and even the money to pay for paper and chemicals if needed. I printed that exhibition in his darkroom and learned so much from him technically, esthetically and personally,” Mendel says. “I know that I am one of so many South African photographers who have, on many occasions, visited his home and received his 
deeply insightful, and often tough feedback on our work.”

In 2013, when Goldblatt accepted the ICP Infinity Award, he noted that the name “Lifetime Achievement” suggested “one has reached the end of the road.” He suggested that it be renamed the “Work in Progress” award. He vowed to use the prize as an incentive to work harder, though “in a state of geriatric deterioration” in hopes of returning to accept another award “in 15 or 20 years.”

In recent years, his “works in progress” have included portraits of former prison inmates, photographed at the scene of their crimes.
This spring, Goldblatt curated, with educator John Fleetwood, an exhibition of young photographers he admired. The Centre de Pompidou in Paris mounted a career retrospective exhibition from February to May of this year.

In 2017, Goldblatt announced he would leave his archive to Yale University.

Joanna Lehan, adjunct curator for ICP, interviewed Goldblatt for PDN and other publications and, at Goldblatt’s request, wrote the essay for a 2010 reprint of his book In Boksburg. Lehan says,Goldblatt “set a good example of how to be a person of privilege (in his case, a white man in South Africa), but to use that privilege to bring worldwide attention to injustice in a nuanced, poetic way– ie though art. Just as crucially he knew to advocate– to provide others access to it, as he has done with Market Photo Workshop. He was angry, and he was kind and he was generous, and I’m sad he’s not in the world anymore.”

Related Articles
29th Annual ICP Infinity Awards Honor Goldblatt, DeMiddel, Henner

David Goldblatt’s Johannesburg