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David Goldblatt: Seven decades of Johannesburg

Johannesburg was the late photographer’s home for fifty years. Now, an exhibition at Goodman Gallery, London, charts his nuanced documentation of the city during apartheid and the post-apartheid period

Apartheid officially descended on South Africa in 1948, the same year that David Goldblatt (1930—2018) came of age. In 1893, his grandparents, Lithuanian Jews, had sought refuge in South Africa to escape persecution in their home country, and Goldblatt, the youngest of three brothers, was born in Randfontein, Gauteng Province — a gold mining city just west of Johannesburg. Growing up, Goldblatt witnessed the endemic racial discrimination that had pervaded South Africa since the late 18th-century with the arrival of Dutch colonisers. With the arrival of apartheid, however, segregation was institutionalised, marking an unprecedented entrenchment of discriminatory practices and ideals. Eighteen-years-old, and with a camera in hand, Goldblatt began to hitchhike from Randfontein to Johannesburg through the night, exploring the city through photographing it and observing the progressive hostility of a metropolis in which racism was becoming structurally ingrained.

Johannesburg was Goldblatt’s first crucial subject, and it remained a central preoccupation throughout his life. His sustained and perpetual documentation of it reveals both changes to the city during apartheid and the post-apartheid period, and the evolution of his style as it matured and shifted focus. Goldblatt was distinct from other documentarians of the era. He avoided climactic events, choosing instead to focus on the social and urban fabric of the city, describing himself as: “A self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born, with a tendency to giving recognition to what is overlooked or unseen”. His documentation of Johannesburg survives him as an incomparable archive of the city, and this is the focus of an exhibition at Goodman Gallery, London: David Goldblatt | Johannesburg 1948—2018 (08 July—25 August 2020).

© David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

“I am a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born, with a tendency to giving recognition to what is overlooked or unseen”

David Goldblatt
A young man at home. White City, Jabavu, Soweto. 1972 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

Without context, the conditions in which Goldblatt took a photograph are not always evident. Instead, they reveal themselves slowly through subtle details; an approach encapsulated in a selection of works from his 1972 photo essay, and the focus of the exhibition, documenting the then-township of Soweto, just west of the city. Soweto was designated by the apartheid government as a residence for Black people, many of whom served the wealthy white population of Johannesburg, and became the focus of global-attention following the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The rebellion began as a peaceful protest by several thousand students against the government’s enforcement of Afrikaans language as the medium of instruction in Soweto’s high schools but soon escalated into a violent uprising country-wide in which hundreds lost their lives.

The oppression, which provided a perpetual backdrop to Soweto’s residents, lurks within each of Goldblatt’s images: burnt-out cars surrounding playing children and cramped interiors, sparse and barely-furnished. However, it is not the focus. Instead, Goldblatt hones in on the individuals who feature; intimate portraits crystallising their sitters. One couple relaxes among their possessions, smiling into the camera, while another sit and stand in a strange formation, separated by a thin pane of glass in which Goldblatt’s reflection is ever so subtly visible.

Makana Tshabalala and Ntsiki Kabane, Rockville. Dube, Soweto.
1970 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.
George and Sarah Manyani. 3153 Emdeni Extension. Soweto. August, 1972 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.
Young men with dompas. 1972 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

On driving from Soweto through Johannesburg’s white-only suburbs, Goldblatt said: “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.”

A selection of eight works from the series Hillbrow, which feature on the gallery’s ground floor, capture one of those suburbs at the height of apartheid: the inner-city, then ‘white-only’ neighbourhood of Hillbrow. Today, Hillbrow, home to the infamous residential skyscraper Ponte City is known for its high levels of crime, overcrowding, unemployment and poverty, but, in the seventies, when Goldblatt was working, white lower-middle-class families were its primary inhabitants. Goldblatt photographed its residents and the Black subjects among them — individuals who would travel from much further afield to service the white population. The images are beautifully composed but capture the mundane; the everyday. And it is in their mundanity that they expose the depth of discrimination: a level of prejudice revealed by the extent of its normalisation. 

Rochelle and Samantha Adkins. Hillbrow, 1972 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

“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”

David Goldblatt
A domestic worker on Abel Road. Hillbrow. March. 1973 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

Goldblatt’s images from Soweto and Hillbrow are deliberate — they display a commitment to engaging with his subjects, which is often absent from his earlier work, a small selection of which, from 1948 to 1961, is exhibited elsewhere in the gallery. From the forties to the sixties, “he was shooting from the hip; snapping his surroundings,” says Liza Essers, director of Goodman Gallery. People are captured at a distance in this early work and landscapes dominate. A fascination with structures is also evident; a subject, which would give form to his later series Structures of Dominion and Democracy, from which several images are also on show. The extensive series, which spans the apartheid and the post-apartheid periods, explores how the climate of each era manifested in its urban structures. Goldblatt shot many of the images made during the post-apartheid era for the project in colour; a rarity for him during apartheid when he employed black-and-white: “Colour seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired,” he once said.

The show at Goodman Gallery is significant for many reasons. Aside from providing a long-overdue reflection on Goldblatt’s career, it acts as a reminder of the historical and enduring discrimination of Black people in South Africa, and beyond. The subtleness of Goldblatt’s images should remind us that discrimination can pervade society in the subtlest of ways and that photography can provide a means of exposing and recording prejudice — historically and today.

David Goldblatt | Johannesburg 1948—2018 (08 July—25 August 2020) is on show at Goodman Gallery until 25 August 2020.

Monolith and old man. Sanlam Sentrum, Jeppe Street, Johannesburg.
July 1984 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.
‘Location in the sky’: the servants’ quarters of Essanby house. Jeppe
Street, Johannesburg
April. 1984 © David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.
© David Goldblatt, courtesy Goodman Gallery.

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