‘My prime concern was with values – what did we value in South Africa, how did we get to those values and how did we express those values,’ David Goldblatt observed. ‘I was very interested in the events that were taking place in the country as a citizen but, as a photographer, I’m not particularly interested, and I wasn’t then, in photographing the moment that something happens. I’m interested in the conditions that give rise to events.’
David Goldblatt, who died this week, was one of South Africa’s most significant photographers. Yet his work divided opinion. His photographs are of a society, and of a time, that was extraordinarily brutal, violent and oppressive. Yet there is little sense of that in his images. They are quiet, austere, elegiac. This led to much criticism from more radical opponents of apartheid. ‘He refused to let his work be used in journalistic context’, said South African artist Adam Broomberg. ‘He got a lot of flak for… not letting his work be a kind of testimony on apartheid, from those who thought he lacked rigour and commitment.’ Goldblatt, in the words Karolina Ziebinska-Lewandowska, a curator at Paris’ Centre Pompidou curator who helped organize a major retrospective of his work earlier this year, ‘wanted to remove his judgement from his photography. He always said that if a photograph serves a certain idea, even if it’s a good idea, the idea always takes precedence and the photography then contains a judgement. He felt that he should record the facts, and leave the judgement to the viewer.’
Much of the criticism of Goldblatt’s approach was valid. No photograph, no work of art, can abjure judgment. The very act of taking a photograph, or framing a scene, imposes meaning upon it. It distils a certain viewpoint, draws the eye into a certain perspective. It was certainly not possible for a photographer, any more than was for a writer, to be disengaged in a society such as apartheid South Africa. Goldblatt’s very choice of black and white as his photographic medium spoke to his judgement. ‘During those years’, he once observed, ‘colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired.’
And that is why, for all the quietude of Goldblatt’s images, they, resonate. They speak deeply of the coercive character of the racial divide in South Africa, of the grotesqueness of what passed for normality. His images, as Sean O’Hagan observes, work though ‘a language of suggestion, of atmosphere, of small but telling details: the craggy, unreadable faces of many of the older white Afrikaners; the stern, almost imperial look of those three young white landowners on horseback; the languorous but defiant gaze of the young, black, female shop assistant, born into a system where oppression and humiliation was a given’.
The kind of photography that Goldblatt dismissed as ‘propaganda’ had a vital role in exposing the terror that was apartheid South Africa. But Goldblatt’s austere, almost poetical images, have a place, too, in that story. His was a work not stripped of judgment but infused with a quiet rage.