David Goldblatt: Intersections
July 8, 2007 - August 26, 2007
"Intersections" is the term used by the South African photographer David Goldblatt for the crosscurrents of values, ideas, spaces, and people that make up South African society. Goldblatt (b. Randfontein, 1930) is the éminence grise of South African photography, known for his subtle and sharp take on life in South Africa.
From the time when the apartheid regime was introduced at the end of the 1940s, Goldblatt has observed social developments in his native country with a critical eye and specific attention to the neglected detail. In the tradition of the great documentary photography of the twentieth century, Goldblatt is less interested in reporting on events than in recording the conditions that lead to those events. His photographs of mine workers, Afrikaners, life in the black homelands and in the white suburbs are published in magazines and in numerous books. He won the prestigious Hasselblad Award in 2006.
Through his photography Goldblatt attempts to give meaning to the relationship between the political and physical geography of South Africa, investigating how apartheid and the country's violent history have shaped its political and social structures, its cities and landscapes. As he once said in an interview, "Primary is the land, its division, possession, use, misuse. How we have shaped it and how it has shaped us."
Until a few years ago Goldblatt's personal work (as opposed to his professional work for magazines and other clients) was exclusively in black and white; with color, he felt, he could not express his rage, revulsion, and fear of the ideology of apartheid. The beginning of a new political and social era after the abolition of apartheid occurred almost synchronously with far-reaching developments in digital printing techniques. At this point Goldblatt felt the need to expand his choice of subject and form of expression. A new generation of colour films and the remarkable control of contrast and colour saturation enabled by digital reproduction have made that possible for him.
Goldblatt shoots his photographs on color film and then edits the negatives in the computer. Working together with his master printer Tony Meintjes, he makes only those changes that could be done in a darkroom, never using the computer to alter the contents of an image. He strives for a color rendering that corresponds as closely as possible to his perception of color in the reality of the harsh South African sunlight: high contrast, unsaturated neutral colors, and at the same time a broad range of tone and hue give each print an unprecedented, pinpoint-sharp graphic quality.
Goldblatt's command of photographic techniques is sublimely expressed in his series of monumental photographs of the desolate, desert-like landscape of the Karoo and the Northern Cape province. The temperatures are extreme, it is arid and dry, and the sun shines intensely and mercilessly in the immense sky. Every color fades in this endless landscape in which the lack of reference points throws the traveler upon his own resources. In trying to reveal the uncompromising character of this landscape in his photographs, Goldblatt avoids optical tricks (wide-angle, panoramic photography) and the picturesque and dramatic moments of the day (sunrise, sunset, stormy weather). The depth of field he achieves with his view camera enables the viewer to "read" the image down to the smallest detail. In this manner he collects the visual proofs of the relationship between mankind and the land: fences, monuments, remains of settlements, nomads and their herds.
The content and intensity of Goldblatt's color photography is not fundamentally different from that of his older black-and-white work, but Intersections contains themes that he could not have satisfactorily depicted in black-and-white, such as the series of asbestos landscapes that touch on a large social problem. Blue asbestos was mined for a century in South Africa but the mining companies ignored the damage done by asbestos to the health of mining communities and the dangers of asbestos waste scattered over the land they mined. Thousands of people have died as a result, and many more will follow in years to come. The new government supports claims made by the relatives and at great cost is rehabilitating the environment.
During apartheid, blacks were only allowed to appear on the streets of Johannesburg under strict conditions and were not permitted to do business. After the collapse of apartheid millions of people poured into South Africa's cities from all over Africa. Within a few years Johannesburg city became heavily overcrowded and populated almost entirely by blacks. Its streets were radically transformed from sanitized post-colonialism to a vigorous if sometimes chaotic Africa. There being few job opportunities, the informal economy grew exponentially. With a few apples and some sweets you could become a hawker. With a paintbrush, a cell phone, and some handmade advertisements on suburban sidewalks, a man could be in business. Meanwhile, most whites and well-to-do blacks moved to new suburbs where they entrenched themselves in fortress-like housing that is not quite impregnable against violent and ingenious criminals. Goldblatt's photographs have pinpointed some of these developments.
Much of South African society's ethos and values have been expressed nonverbally in its built structures, Goldblatt believes. In his book South Africa: The Structure of Things Then (1998) he attempted to elucidate this concept in black-and-white photographs of the structures of racial domination and apartheid. Many of his Intersections photographs explore these ideas in color in the land and cityscapes of post-apartheid South Africa, taking in, among other things, changes to old monuments, the coming of new ones, and the proliferation of personal commemorations.
With the coming of democracy there have been fundamental changes in the system and constituents of government. New officials and representatives have come into office and new power structures have been created. Goldblatt has looked at some of this transformation at the local, municipal level of government.
Goldblatt's most recent works have accented the most topical and urgent problem in South Africa: HIV-AIDS. South Africa has one of the highest percentages of HIV-AIDS victims in the world. Although there are signs of change, the government has reacted less than decisively, even to the extent of denying the problem. There are several public campaigns to heighten awareness of the disease and of safe sex, among them the "planting" of the "AIDS ribbon" in the social landscape where, as Goldblatt's photographs show, it is often submerged and seemingly forgotten.
Text adapted from Huis Marseille Museum for Photography, Amsterdam
David Goldblatt: Intersections was organized for the Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf, Germany, by Dr. Christoph Danelzik-Bruggemann, curator.