David Goldblatt: Documenting a country’s values in visuals

By Nkateko Mabasa 25 June 2018
Miriam Mazibuko waters the garden of her RDP house for which she waited eight years. It consists of one room. Her four children live with her in-laws. Extension 8, Far East Alexandra Township, 12 September 2006. David Goldblatt/Goodman Gallery
Miriam Mazibuko waters the garden of her RDP house for which she waited eight years. It consists of one room. Her four children live with her in-laws. Extension 8, Far East Alexandra Township, 12 September 2006. David Goldblatt/Goodman Gallery

As the world hears of the death of renowned photographer David Goldblatt at the age of 87 on 25 June, 2018, his photographs remind us of the life and times of generations living under apartheid – and beyond.

See a visual essay of the work of David Goldblatt here

Famous South African photo-journalism pioneer David Goldblatt  “passed away peacefully in the early hours of this morning at his home in Johannesburg”, according to a statement by the Goodman Gallery.

Goldblatt, who was born in 1930 in Randfontein, was a national icon whose photographs documenting the lives of ordinary South Africans under apartheid gained him esteem.

At the age of 18, Goldblatt began photographing people and the landscapes around him. His focus was the conditions created for people by the brutal apartheid regime. And over the course of his career, Goldblatt’s photographs documented the lived experiences of generations under apartheid and how they navigated their daily lives.

David Goldblatt’s death is a very sad day for us all at Goodman Gallery and indeed for South Africa. David was a dear friend and I will miss him very much. I am privileged to have known him and worked closely together for the past decade. In that time, David offered me his unwavering support, commitment and mentorship. David’s passing is a significant loss to South Africa and the global art world,” said Liza Essers, director of the Goodman Gallery.

President Cyril Ramaphosa released a statement to express his heartfelt condolences, saying: He captured the social and moral systems that portrayed South Africa during a time of (the) apartheid system in order to influence its changing political landscape.”

Goldblatt once reflected on where he chose to point his lens and the years when his prime concern was not with political figures or events but with values:

What did we value in South Africa, how did we get to those values and how did we express those values?

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,” said Goldblatt, as quoted by the Goodman Gallery.

Museums around the world have housed Goldblatt’s work, including the South African National Gallery; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Tate London; Inhotim in Brazil; the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Getty Museum, US.

He is also the winner of the 2006 Hasselblad award, the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, the 2013 ICP Infinity Award and, in 2016, was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture of France.

Yale University recently signed an agreement to transfer Goldblatt’s entire archive of negatives to the university. However, a digital archive of Goldblatt’s work will be created in South Africa and made available to the public for free through an initiative called the Photographic Legacy Project.

As we reflect on the photographs of a pioneering photojournalist, his work should inspire us to consider how far we, as a nation, still have to go.

David Goldblatt will be laid to rest at noon on 26 June at the Westpark Cemetery in Braamfontein, in the Jewish section. Following the funeral, prayers will be held at 17:15 at the Goodman Gallery,163 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg. DM

This article was amended at 1pm on 26 June, 2018, after it was pointed out by his family that although Goldblatt had been awarded a  National Order of Ikhamanga by then President Jacob Zuma in 2011, as reported, he had  turned it down on principle after a great amount of thought. A statement from the family released by the Goodman Gallery stated: “At that time a Secrecy Bill that curtailed press freedom was supported by the ANC in parliament, and this undermined David’s fundamental belief in freedom of speech as a bedrock of democracy.  In his letter to  Zuma in November 2011, he wrote: “I decline the award in protest against what has been done to the spirit in which the award was created.  South Africa’s rebirth was characterised by its march towards humanity, a new culture of human rights and a respect for human dignity. The government and the party which had passed the bill were in contempt of that spirit – which was the spirit in which the national orders were conceived. To accept the Order of Ikhamanga from you… would be to endorse your contempt. I refuse to do that and, very sadly, I decline the honour.” 

See here an article from our archives: Mines of the Beloved Country: Through the Mind of a photographer and essayist


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