David Goldblatt: Behind the lens, his eyes

David Goldblatt’s vast output was a meditation on his country, and an attempt to explain to himself, and us, our complex social history

01 July 2018 - 00:00 By TYMON SMITH

It was perhaps macabre and grim, but on Tuesday afternoon, as I stood among the crowd gathered in a corner of the Westpark Jewish cemetery - reserved for those Jews who "have made a lasting contribution to the greater good of South Africa" - I couldn't help wondering how he might have chosen to photograph the scene. Would his eye have been drawn to the hedge above the gravesite where a DStv dish could be seen protruding from the other side, reflecting in cheekily appropriate irony the photo he'd taken in 1993 of a hedge planted by Jan Van Riebeeck in Cape Town in 1660 to separate settlers from the Khoikhoi?
Or maybe his camera would have noticed the strange, almost zombie-like way in which everyone began to spread themselves among the gravestones as they drew nearer to the grave - quietly finding spaces next to tombstones of those once deemed the best of the tribe, now long forgotten by anyone other than their families.Looking up, I almost expected to see him perched on the Melville Koppies above, standing on top of his modified camper truck, parked in the shadow of the brutalist university residence, waiting for the perfect moment at which the light, the yarmulkes of the mourners and the shovels raised to pitch the dirt onto the plain coffin all met to create a fitting final moment.
A final moment which he would then caption as an aside while informing his audience of the history of the Koppies as an Iron Age settlement and creating a connection between an individual death and the social history of life in the country he'd spent most of his 87 years trying to explain to himself through the lens of his camera.
As friends and family, fellow photographers, artists, curators, playwrights, poets, state officials and journalists went forward to help fill the grave, it became clear that I would never know. David Goldblatt was returned to the dust, 37km from Randfontein where he was born and 13km from the modest, unassuming house in Fellside where he lived for more than half a century.His long, varied but distinctive, ever-curious career as one of the foremost photographers of a country that perplexed, intrigued and seduced him will always be remembered and celebrated. But even those who loved him had known this moment, too much to bear, was coming. He had cancer.
I had the privilege of interviewing him several times over the past decade. While his reputation for not suffering fools preceded him, I found that as long as you did your homework and attempted to engage with his work he would be open to talking about his photographs - not seeking to impose his own view upon you but willing to engage in a conversation. He was, as we say in Yiddish, a true mensch - a person of integrity and honour.
Goldblatt was born on November 29 1930 in the West Rand mining town of Randfontein. His grandparents, as he remembered in the plain-speaking, carefully worded introduction to his seminal book Some Afrikaners Revisited, "came with their children to South Africa in the 1890s to escape the persecution of Jews, then prevalent in Lithuania".
His father "owned a men's clothing store, my mother kept house". He had "two brothers, Nick and Dan, ten and eight years older than me". His family "were middle-class Jewish people and my earliest experiences of social interaction were partly in the Jewish community, partly in the wider town". He added that, "without being particularly aware of it, I grew up with a sense of social justice and what it should or could mean, and of injustice".
Goldblatt graduated from high school in 1948, the year the National Party came to power. It was around this time that he began to take photographs. He submitted a picture of the nearby Millsite dump and Robinson Lake to a Meccano Magazine competition and won the third prize of 10 shillings.
He worked in his father's shop and studied economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. He and Lilly Psek, a social worker, married in 1955, and had Steven, Brenda and Ronnie.
When his father died of cancer in 1962, Goldblatt sold the family shop and became a full-time photographer, first for Tatler, then for Optima, the in-house magazine of mining giant Anglo American, and later Leadership magazine.During the 1950s, Goldblatt wrote: "I had felt that I had a mission: I had to show the world the terrible things that were happening in South Africa. But I had long since discarded that grand notion. I realised that I was neither a missionary with a camera nor a political activist. Nor was I, as a photographer, much interested in unfolding events and the kind of photographs of them that newspaper and magazine editors wanted.
"Physically I am a coward; if violence erupts I run away from it. But more fundamentally, I realised that what I wanted to engage with through the camera was the people's values and how they were expressed. Headline events were the culmination of underlying conditions. I wanted to probe those conditions by going to their roots in people's lives. The camera enabled me to be there and it demanded that I see it with understanding and coherence."
It was this desire that would direct his career over the next six decades and one which he often felt he had never satisfactorily achieved, no matter how much others would praise him for it.
Beginning with his first book, On the Mines, published in 1973 in collaboration with author and lifelong friend Nadine Gordimer, and followed by Some Afrikaners Photographed, published in 1975, Goldblatt showed how it might be possible to examine the people, places and structures of his country in ways that were deceptively simple but profoundly complex in their implications.
These early books and the now revered In Boksburg (1982), while helping to establish his reputation internationally, did not sell in significant numbers and until the 1990s and the publication of South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, Goldblatt relied heavily on commercial work to support himself and his family. He also had to contend with a backlash against his work from local photographers who felt it was their duty to reveal the horrors of life under apartheid to the world. To them, photography was a weapon, a notion Goldblatt steadfastly refused.Goldblatt contributed to the upliftment of society in other ways. He helped found the Market Photo Workshop in 1989, through whose doors a new generation of acclaimed new eyes and ways of looking at South Africa have since passed. He provided input and feedback to many other photographers. He stood firm for the values he held dear in the face of criticism - whether the threat to freedom of expression posed by the Zuma administration's secrecy bill, which led him in 2011 to refuse the Order of Ikhamanga, or his decision not to bequeath his archive to the University of Cape Town and place it instead in the hands of Yale University - in protest against what he saw as the stifling of freedom of expression in the wake of the Rhodes Must Fall protests.
By this time, Goldblatt had in many people's eyes more than earned the right to make this decision. His work had been exhibited around the globe, he had won most of the world's major prizes and created, through a continuous and ever-searching curiosity, a body of work that Guardian writer Sean O'Hagan described this week as singular in its "deeply resonant expression of a country's complex identity".
I remember a Skype interview in which he told a story to illustrate a point about observance of the rule of law. "A very, very simple and undramatic example," it was about how he was stopped for speeding in the Australian Outback.
It seems to me now that his "simple and undramatic example" may stand as a fitting maxim for his huge output. His thousands of photographs were noticeable for their apparent lack of drama, but they slowly crept up on you with their deeply significant details and made you look at them again and again until, maybe, your eye became attuned to Goldblatt's own and you began to see a bigger picture that spoke of much more than that within the frame.
Goldblatt's pictures were subtly composed to provide what critic Ivor Powell once described as images in which "time present, time past and, on occasion, time future are telescoped into a single frame - the image that is rooted in the moment but transcends, by its access to immanences, the limitations of the moment".
Later on Tuesday, the road outside the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg is filled with cars in every direction as a large crowd of mourners gathers for prayers and tributes. There is the sad-looking author who worked on many of Goldblatt's later projects; his equally sombre fellow gallery artists; the critic with a tear in his eye; the collectors who bought his work; the students to whom he offered criticism, sometimes harsh but often prescient; and of course his family and friends, distraught at his departure while buoyed by the show of respect and love.
Traditionally this service would have been held in Goldblatt's house, the place where his soul would have spent the most time, but because of the large turnout his long-time gallery has, for the first time, become a place of worship. In any case, Goldblatt's house is simple and compact, tucked away in a small suburb. He was never one to spend his money on luxuries. His clothes were practical, his car modest and apart from investing in equipment he bore very few signs of the success he had achieved.
In the gallery some amendments have been made - a picture covered with a shroud, candles lit in the main gallery and signs, in keeping with Orthodox Jewish tradition, demarcating separate areas for men and women.
As I struggle to hear the stories and tributes, I once again look around and wonder what Goldblatt would have trained his lens on. I like to think he would have been attracted to the way in which the crowd ignored attempts to separate men and women at a prayer service for a man averse to artificial racial separations imposed on people under a system he stubbornly fought for decades in his own, particular, dispassionately passionate way.
There was only ever one David Goldblatt, and his particular way of seeing will never be repeated. Amen...

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.