'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.
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 tri- pod 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
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 fromthe 60s and 70s, Barbican Art Gallery (2012)
V Mark Gevisser, 'Figures & Fictions at the V&A', The Guardian (2011)
David Goldblatt (b.1930, Randfontein, South Africa) chronicled the structures, people and landscapes of his country from 1948—through the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism, the apartheid regime and into the democratic era—until his death in June 2018. Goldblatt's photography examines how South Africans have expressed their values through the structures, physical and ideological, that they have built. In 1989, Goldblatt founded the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg. In 1998 he was the first South African to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2001, a retrospective of his work, David Goldblatt Fifty-One Years began a tour of galleries and museums. He was one of the few South African artists to exhibit at Documenta 11 (2002) and Documenta 12 (2007) in Kassel, Germany. He has held solo exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and the New Museum, both in New York. His work was included in the exhibition ILLUMInations at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, and has featured on shows at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Barbican Centre in London and in 2018, a major retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Goldblatt is the recipient of the 2006 Hasselblad award, the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, the 2013 ICP Infinity Award and in 2016, he was awarded the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture of France.
Press release courtesy Goodman Gallery.