LondonDavid Goldblatt: Johannesburg 1948-2018
“I was drawn not to the events of the time but to the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and imminent” David Goldblatt, The Last Interview, Steidl, 2019
Goodman Gallery presents Johannesburg 1948 – 2018, the acclaimed South African photographer David Goldblatt’s first major solo exhibition in London since 1986.
Silver gelatin print on fibre-based paper
Image: 39.9 x 39.7 cm
Edition of 8
Silver gelatin print on fibre-based paper
45 x 29.5 cm
Edition of 10
Added to list
Renowned for a lifetime of photography exploring his home country, Goldblatt produced an unparalleled body of work within the city of Johannesburg, where he lived for 50 years. At age 17, Goldblatt would hitchhike from Randfontein, the small mining town where he was born, into Johannesburg. He walked around the city until the next morning, talking to night watchmen and following his intuition: “People would ask me what I was doing, and I would say, ‘I’m poeging. I’m walking around the city; I’m learning the city, and trying to take photographs.” (i) This process became the foundation of his practice.
The exhibition maps Goldblatt’s evolution of work in a city divided by structural racism and subject to waves of trauma and resistance. Goldblatt was engaged in the conditions of society – the values by which people lived – rather than the climactic outcomes of those conditions. He intended to discover and probe these values through the medium of photography.
“Johannesburg”, he wrote, “is not an easy city to love. From its beginnings as a mining camp in 1886, whites did not want brown and black people living among or near them and over the years pushed them further and further from the city and its white suburbs. Like the city itself my thoughts and feelings about Joburg are fragmented. I can’t easily bring a vision or a coherent bundle of ideas to mind and say, ‘That’s Joburg for me.’ Over the years I have photographed a wide range of subjects, each was almost self-contained, a fragment of a whole that I’ve never quite grasped.” (ii)
Central to the exhibition is a selection of Goldblatt’s 1972 photographic essay on Soweto, a township west of the city created by the government to warehouse black people serving the white population in Johannesburg. Soweto would later become the epicenter for the 1976 uprising, which gave renewed impetus to the anti-apartheid struggle. Goldblatt’s photographs of Soweto capture everyday acts, from sports and religious gatherings to domestic scenes, shopkeepers and children at play. Influenced by the work of photographer Bruce Davidson, Goldblatt used a large format camera which forced a slow and formal approach to his subjects.
“Originally, I would draw a crowd of children. There was absolutely no way I could be a fly on the wall. Then I realised that I had to go there with a camera on a tripod and simply declare myself – let happen what will. (iii) The photography was invariably within the crowdedness and compression of matchbox houses and treeless, narrow streets. On winter days the place was enveloped in a pall of smoke and grey dust. I would drive back into the spaciousness and clean air of Joburg’s northern suburbs. Under the canopies of thousands of trees, I would drive past houses serene in their grounds. And to the comfort of home. Nothing in all of my life made me more sharply aware of the power of apartheid and of what it meant to be Black or White, than this simple transition.” (iv)
Johannesburg 1948 – 2018 features photographs from Goldblatt’s most expansive project, Structures of Dominion and Democracy, including early prints hand-made in his dark room and more recent large-scale colour prints. These photographs span a long era of dominion, followed by the precarious post-apartheid period of democracy.
Goldblatt sought to document an intimate dialogue between himself and his subject within a specific moment in time and place. The subtlety in this approach allowed his work to uncover difficult realities about a society pervasively penetrated by racial inequality, trauma and injustice. As such, we see an extraordinary documentation of the lived experience of his fellow South Africans.
David Goldblatt died at his home in Johannesburg in June 2018. Working until shortly before his death, he remained, to the last, “a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born”. In 2011, art critic and social commentator Mark Gevisser describes Goldblatt as “the doyen of South African photography” who cast “so clear an eye over the South African landscape […] that he has become the country’s visual conscience”. (v)
Johannesburg 1948 – 2018 marks David Goldblatt’s first major solo exhibition in London since 1986 at The Photographers’ Gallery, and follows the presentation of Goldblatt’s work at Tate Modern as part of their annual permanent collection display, which has been extended to the end of 2020.
In 2018, Goldblatt retrospectives were held at Centre Pompidou in Paris and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. In 2012, Barbican featured a significant collection of Goldblatt’s prints from Soweto in the group exhibition Everything Was Moving : Photographs from the 60s and 70s. Further visibility in the UK includes a major exhibition at Modern Art Oxford (2003) and Open Eye Liverpool (2009). In 2017, Goldblatt’s series on ex-offenders from South Africa and the UK, titled Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime, was exhibited at UK prisons HMP Manchester and HMP Birmingham exclusively for inmates.
In 1987 Goldblatt gifted 115 of his prints to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tensions were ratcheting up within South Africa and Goldblatt felt he needed to secure his photographs in a safe and publicly accessible place. The collection later prompted Tamar Garb and Martin Barnes to curate Figures & Fictions (V&A, 2011) a landmark exhibition on contemporary South African photography in which Goldblatt’s prints featured prominently. To pay tribute to Goldblatt’s unique legacy, the full V&A collection of his works featured alongside Figures & Fictions.
Steidl have continued to publish books on Goldblatt posthumously. Since 2018, they have released Some Afrikaners Photographed, The Last Interview and Ex-Offenders at the Scene of the Crime. Steidl will soon publish Fietas Fractured as part of an initiative to complete publications on all of Goldblatt’s photographic essays.
To facilitate the rise of the next generation of photographers, Goldblatt founded the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg in 1989, which continues to provide quality education to thousands of students, such as Jabulani Dhlamini and Thabiso Sekgala.
Major awards include the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture of France in 2016, ICP Infinity Award in 2013, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award in 2009 and the Hasselblad award in 2006.
I David Goldblatt, The Last Interview, Steidl, 2019
II David Goldblatt, Structures of Dominion and Democracy, Steidl & Centre Pompidou, 2017
III David Goldblatt, Photographs 1948 – 2018, MCA Australia, 2018
IV David Goldblatt, Everything Was Moving, Photography from the 60s and 70s, Barbican Art Gallery, 2012
V Mark Gevisser, Figures & Fictions at the V&A, The Guardian, 2011
Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery