In a videotaped interview with David Goldblatt that is included in his current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, the South African photographer ponders how it is possible to be decent and normal in a world that is mad, even evil. For him, at least, one answer is to bear witness by taking pictures. “I must proceed,” he says, “on the assumption that photographs do make a difference.” For more than six decades, Goldblatt has documented the everyday, insidious manifestations of apartheid and its aftermath, rather than violent clashes and dramatic conflicts. But his plainspoken images powerfully convey the scars, large and small, that apartheid has left on his homeland.
Goldblatt was inspired early on by the photojournalism epitomized in such publications as Life and Look, and he embraced the ethos of the concerned social documentarian. His exhibition last year at the New Museum included silver gelatin and color C-prints, most of it recent work. The current Jewish Museum show consists entirely of modestly sized black-and-white prints, 150 altogether, dating from 1948 to 2008. Understanding the full significance of the photographs, which are arranged by theme (Mines, Johannesburg, Afrikaaners and so on), depends on the information presented in wall texts (written by Goldblatt), one reason that many of his series work so well as books. Suburban Garden, Bloubergstrand and Table Bay, Cape Town, 9 January 1986 shows a manicured lawn leading down to a beach and spectacular ocean view of the city’s famous landmark. The wall text explains that a large coastal expanse was proclaimed a white group area in 1971, and thus we grasp the image as a reference to the forced removal of black South Africans from whole swaths of the country. Other pictures need less explanation, like one showing a farmer’s son, a white boy, standing behind his black nursemaid in Heimweeberg. There is clearly affection in this relationship. His hands rest on her back, and she reaches behind to lightly grasp his foot. But so much more is implied: the troubling history of poor black women raising privileged white children, and the probability that, soon, whatever bond they have will be impossible to maintain.
Goldblatt is descended from Lithuanian Jews who fled Europe for South Africa in the 1890s to escape religious persecution. As well as institutionalized racism in South Africa, anti-Semitism was also a factor in daily life, and Goldblatt has said that he perceived himself to be something of an outsider. Perhaps it is this sense of otherness that has led him to create such sharply observed photographs that are, cumulatively, so devastating.