Observing the Everyday: David Goldblatt

William K Ivins has called the camera the most important invention since the printing press. It allows us to re-create our world anew, dramatically bringing together past and present. This is startlingly evident in David Goldblatt’s exhibition, Kith Kin and Khaya, which compresses nearly 50 years of South African history into the SA Jewish Museum.

The genius that informs David Goldblatt’s work is a deep thoughtfulness. His is the art of understatement that has the same effect as the schoolteacher who lowers his voice to gain the attention of unruly students. Goldblatt’s use of black-and-white photography serves perfectly to emphasise the stark divisions in South African society. Dividing his work along ethnic lines -Afrikaners in their suburbs, Blacks in Soweto and Indians in their neighbourhood – effectively depicts a fragmented society. Goldblatt occupies a contradictory position. With his camera he is an observer, an anthropologist of his own country, and yet primarily, he has always addressed South Africans, trying to make them understand the narrative context of his photographs.

Certainly, without understanding the subtext of these images, it is possible to miss some of their deep poignancy. For example, the image of the white Afrikaans boy with his young black nursemaid captures the absurd contradictions imposed by a regime that tolerated emotional proximity only until white children reached a certain age. The photograph of the Indian shopkeeper and his daughter in their grocery store is made achingly precious by the knowledge that it was taken just before forced removals wreaked havoc on their lives. Central to Goldblatt’s quest is the attempt to understand the anomaly of apartheid, which he conveys through the daily acts of division that went unnoticed and now have become emblematic of the apartheid era – the sidewalks full of only black people catching public transport, while the roads are occupied by whites sitting in white cars in a traffic jam, trying to commute to their suburbs. Susan Sontag, who in On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, deeply probes the role of photography, argues that it “steals” the pain of others. But anything that Goldblatt takes from others he seems to borrow at their own behest.

There is something noble about his veering away from sensationalism, the pornography of pain, towards subtlety. Goldblatt, in typically self-deprecating fashion, attributes this to the fact that when he was young he was simply too much of a physical coward to put himself in the thick of action. Sontag could be describing Goldblatt’s entire approach when she writes, “The main tradition in photography is the one that implies that anything can be interesting if you take a photograph of it. It consists in discovering beauty, a beauty that can exist anywhere but is assumed to reside particularly in the random and the banal.” Goldblatt’s lasting contribution is that he has focused on places conventionally considered ugly or unworthy of consideration. His images of the mines infect us with his passion for metal and steel which he describes as “magnificent steam hoists oxacetylened for scrap”. His intimate and ironic observation of Boksburg deepens our empathy for its inhabititants. Goldblatt has secured a place, in both history and our imagination, for times, places and people that would otherwise be lost to our memory.

In collaboration with the Goodman Gallery at the
SA Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield Street, Gardens
021 465 1546. Running through May 2011.

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