Friday, June 21, 2024

David Goldblatt: the photographer who documented ‘apartheid’

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For more than six decades David Goldblatt (Randfontein, South Africa, 1930) has documented part of his country’s history.

Wandering around with his camera, he has examined its inhabitants, as well as its landscapes, “seeking to experience reality without appropriating it”, as he himself puts it. In this way, his work is presented as a compendium of apartheid , its introduction, its development and its fall, which underlines the power and magic of photography not only to show the world but also to question it.

The Pompidou Center presents a great retrospective of the octogenarian artist, in which he traces his career through more than 200 images ranging from his first photographs taken as an amateur in 1946 to 2016. Many of these photographs are unpublished and come from the private archive by the author, considered a benchmark for documentary photography of the past 20th century, whose recognition, albeit belated, has earned him the Hasselblad prize in 2006, among others. He was the first South African artist represented at MoMA. The traveling exhibition Cinquanta-un anys, held at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2002, contributed to spreading his name internationally, where he was then virtually unknown. The exhibition is accompanied by panels that collect the photographer’s writings on the foundations of his art, while revealing his social sensitivity and serving as a guide to explore a work that takes as its protagonist not only the inhabitants of South Africa but also its architecture and its landscapes which inspire the author to reflect on the values ​​of the people who inhabit them.Woman with a hole in her ear, Joubert Park, Johannesburg, 1975Woman with a hole in her ear, Joubert Park, Johannesburg, 1975David Goldblatt.

He was born into a family of Lithuanian Jewish emigrants in the town of Randfontein, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where immigrants from different cultures and religions came to work in their gold mines for paltry wages. He was raised believing in equality and tolerance. His father ran a clothing store, where the young artist attended to Afrikaners (descendants of Dutch settlers), whom he respected, although he was aware that they mostly supported the National Party and its apartheid policy.. “It was very difficult for me to assimilate these contradictions in my head and in my heart,” recalls the artist in one of the panels that accompany the exhibition. From there perhaps arose his “curiosity for attitudes that I do not share, which are linked to a desire to understand them instead of rejecting them.”School Boy, Hillbrow, Johannesburg, June, 1972School Boy, Hillbrow, Johannesburg, June, 1972David Goldblatt .

His love for photography was forged thanks to a Contex camera that he received as a gift from his parents and to which he dedicated his spare time while studying business. It was not until the death of his parent, when he had to sell the family business and was able to dedicate himself fully to his work as a photographer. Influenced by Walker Evans and August Sander, he has carved out his path as “a profound humanist, without resorting to pathos, attentive to form and without falling into the aesthetic trap”, as described in the foreword to the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, David Goldblatt / Structures of domination and democracy . “Goldblatt remains seriously concerned about the proper understanding of the content of the images. The photograph of him moves us greatly ”.

He began by portraying the rural community of Afrikaners in the Groot Marico district and would later work for Tatler and Optima magazines . His first book On the mines would emerge from the commissions for this last publication , as well as Some Afrikaners Photographed, in which he began to openly express his total disagreement with the segregation policy .Both publications cemented his reputation as one of the great figures of South African photography, whose unique value rests on his personal interpretation of the medium, as well as his ethic of life, restricting each personal project to a specific place that he knows in depth. . He photographed Soweto and cycled through Johannesburg, always more interested in highlighting social injustice through the small details of the daily struggle, avoiding large manifestations of conflict. His gaze is as simple as it is intense. “I am more interested in the course of events than in the events themselves”, highlighted the author who says “wanting to get the most out of the least; directly, in search of what Borges described, in relation to writers, as ‘a modest and hidden complexity’”.Command of supporters of the National Party who escorted the late Dr.Hendrik Verwoerd to the 50th anniversary celebration party.  De Wildt, Transvaal, 31 October 1964Command of supporters of the National Party who escorted the late Dr.Hendrik Verwoerd to the 50th anniversary celebration party.

There have been several occasions on which the photographer has stated that photography is not a propaganda weapon for him. He does not consider himself an activist. Declaring it in public during a conference held in 1982, in the midst of the struggle against apartheid , organized by the African National Congress (now in power), provoked heated reactions. Among them, those of the members of Afrapix, an independent photography agency, who considered it a duty to denounce injustices through photography. Goldblatt supported his initiatives, but did not share his strategy.

“Yet he was considered one of the most uncompromising detractors of the apartheid system.and his photographs attest to it”, says the curator of the exhibition, Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, in a text that is included in the catalogue. Always distancing himself from any dogma, for the photographer it is essential “to not stop questioning the causes that have led to a situation. Never taking things for granted, and constantly being surprised…Every little detail is loaded with meaning, and in order to see it, we need to understand it.”

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