Maverick Life

PHOTO ESSAY

First posthumous monograph on David Goldblatt shows photographer’s continued relevance

First posthumous monograph on David Goldblatt shows photographer’s continued relevance
Owendale Asbestos Mine was taken on 21 December 2002 near Postmasburg, Northern Cape. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

‘David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive’ coincides with a major retrospective exhibition organised by Yale University, which now houses the world-famous photographer’s archive, and The Art Institute of Chicago.

When internationally acclaimed photographer David Goldblatt worked on commissions for Optima, an in-house publication of Anglo American, more than 50 years ago, he would often assign himself stories on topics in which he was interested, besides doing public relations images for the company. 

He suggested to editor Charles Eglington, who was most interested in good literature and good photography, that they should do an essay on Soweto township, which was hardly known by South Africans, in particular white people, in the 1970s.

“The township was a very strange place. It was not a slum. It was a vast series of government-built houses and these houses were specifically designed to prevent or discourage people from putting down roots,” he said during his presentation at the Design Indaba Conference in Cape Town 2014.

“They wanted people who live there to be labourers in the so-called white economy and to go back home to their tribal homelands.”

With the assistance of writer and poet Sipho Sipamla, his friend, Goldblatt was introduced to singer Margaret Mcingatha in Zola, Soweto. He made an exquisite black-and-white portrait of her lying comfortably on the couch smoking, and that photograph would be the first of many to follow, marking a turning point in how he worked. 

David Goldblatt

George and Sarah Manyane, 3153 Emdeni Extension, Soweto. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

“He was very clear that he was making a photograph of a person and whether he or she participated or not, that was their choice,” said Brenda Goldblatt about her father’s work.

She was addressing an audience during the launch of the book No Ulterior Motive, which was held at the David Krut Bookstore in Parkwood, Johannesburg, on 3 February.

Goldblatt was a documentarian – a compelling storyteller who verbalised through the lens his personal experiences as a white Jewish man living and working in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa. Over six decades, he documented the country’s developments beyond physical violence as honestly and straightforwardly as he could, without political affiliation.

Read more in Daily Maverick: David Goldblatt: The Art of Capturing a New truth

He “shunned public posture, allowing it little place in his photographs. This approach helped lower the temperature set by the many postured dramas of daily life in apartheid South Africa,” writes Njabulo Ndebele in the preface.

The book is based on the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery and The Art Institute of Chicago. It is the first posthumous monograph on Goldblatt, who died in 2018, and it accompanies the artist’s first retrospective in the US since 2010.

The dethroning of Cecil John Rhodes. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

David Goldblatt

Republic Islamic Butchery, Fietas, Johannesburg, April 1976. The butchery was later destroyed under the Group Areas Act. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

It is the most extensive presentation of his body of work to date, and shows Goldblatt’s continued relevance through the participation of photographers from several generations tracing themes that resonate through his working life.

The commentaries give readers a wider perspective of Goldblatt’s personal and professional life and the difference he made through mentorship, generosity, care and love for his fellow South Africans.

In 1989, he founded the Market Photography Workshop, which has produced many flourishing photographers, mostly coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.

During the panel discussion with photographers Ruth Motau, Andile Bhala and Terry Kurgan, Brenda admitted to not liking the title at first.

She explained that when her father was documenting Hillbrow and Soweto simultaneously, he would put up notices wherever he could at post offices and in newspapers’ classified sections to get access to people’s homes to capture intimate portraits. He would use the phrase “no ulterior motive” to try to signify that he was not looking for sex.

Read more in Daily Maverick: David Goldblatt: Documenting a country’s values in visuals

“I felt that they picked words that had very little to do with David’s practice… made him feel very inexact with his relationship with what he was doing,” she said.

Nevertheless, she praised the quality book design and content, including the cover photograph, which she had seen many times but never thought of much.

Mother and child, Vorstershoop was taken in North West on 11 April 2003. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

She said it was almost like they took “my father’s orthodoxies and challenged them in a way that I think it’s fantastic”.

A week later, I visited her brother Ronnie Goldblatt at his home in Norwood to find out how he had managed to store and archive his father’s work.

“My dad made contact sheets religiously in his darkroom and would write numbers so we could easily find his images,” he said.

“He often used a medium-format, two-and-a-quarter-inch square camera for portraiture and a four-by-five-inch view camera for structures and landscape, and by writing 2/ or 4/ at the beginning on the contact sheet, he indicated to us what camera he was using on that particular shoot.” 

The edited images would be backed up on computers and Google Drive, and raw shots would be stored on three hard drives to be kept in three different locations.

The esteemed photographer is known for his sharp photographs using the from-near-to-far technique. He often used the four-by-five-inch view camera, which is unsurpassed for landscape photography for its sharpness, better tonality and being grain-free.

The bulky and expensive camera needs a tripod to do long exposure time to achieve the technique, and bodyguard Thabo Mamiane remembers fondly the long waits during photoshoots.

Going home: 8.45pm, Marabastad-Waterval bus. Some of these passengers will reach home at 10pm and start the next day at 2am. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

“We would spend half a day sitting in Hillbrow while hearing gunshots at a distance,” he said jokingly over the phone. “He would disappear under the black cloth to only take one or two frames, and we would then pack up and leave only to come back to the same spot weeks later for more pictures.”

In 2013, Goldblatt was robbed of his equipment in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha). It was not the first time. His project Ex Offenders at the Scene of Crime was derived from the observation that many of his fellow South Africans, regardless of their race and class, were the victims of often violent crime. 

Queen Monyeki in her kitchen, 1388 A White City, Jabavu

Queen Monyeki in her kitchen, Jabavu City, Soweto, 1972. (Photo: David Goldblatt)

Archive ending up at Yale

The Rhodes Must Fall protest movement began in 2015 at the University of Cape Town and was originally directed at the removal of a statue that commemorates Cecil John Rhodes, a colonial expansionist who provided the land for the founding of the institution.

The student-led campaign received global attention and led to a wider movement to “decolonise” education across South Africa. But when students collaborated with the university to remove or conceal more artworks that were deemed problematic, Goldblatt viewed the policy as “short-sighted” and an abrogation of the “freedom of expression”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Through a Lens Darkly: David Goldblatt (1930-2018)

This prompted him in 2017 to withdraw his physical archive and give his work and archive, consisting of more than 100,000 negatives and including vintage prints, to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, for an undisclosed sum. As part of the deal, Goldblatt negotiated that a digital replica of his archive be kept in Africa, available to all for educational purposes through the Photography Legacy Project.

The book is conceptualised well and features invaluable information and enticing anecdotes, making the reader want to know more about Goldblatt’s work as well as that of his peers.

My only minor disappointment is the irritating repetition of dates in most photographs, which is unfortunate considering the four-year effort that went into producing the book. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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