Few photographers can say they shaped the world’s perception of an era, but this is something to which David Goldblatt, who died today at 87 at his home in Johannesburg, could lay claim. His tightly composed photographs, many of them shot in black-and-white, stand today as some of the most compelling and disturbing documents of Apartheid in South Africa. They cemented his reputation as one of the most important documentary photographers of all time, and as one of the most important artists to hail from Africa.
Goldblatt’s subjects extended far beyond Apartheid. His camera captured various struggles facing South Africans, including gentrification, the AIDS crisis, and the legacy of colonialism. If there is one subject that binds his entire body of work, it is social and racial inequities—and the ways that they send tremors through everyday life.
“David’s passing is a significant loss to South Africa and the global art world,” Liza Essers, the director of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery, which represents Goldblatt, said in a statement. “A legend, a teacher, a national icon, and a man of absolute integrity has passed.”
Some of Goldblatt’s compositions from the 1970s and ’80s remain his sharpest. “The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey,” a series made between 1983 and 1984, documents the journey black workers took by bus every morning to get to work in the city of Pretoria. These people had been forcibly segregated from their white countrymen into rural settlements, and their bus rides could last anywhere from three and a half hours to eight hours each morning. Goldblatt’s camera registers their fatigue—some nap with their heads cocked back, while others look wearily at the floor of the bus, as though in anticipation of sleep. The images were sometimes shot in poor lighting—their titles often reveal the hour at which they were taken, which was as early as 5 a.m. in some cases.
These pictures are stark, and they feel somewhat detached in their aesthetic. To some extent, this reflects their subjects’ attitudes toward the photographer, according to Goldblatt. He often said that they were more interested in getting to their jobs than being in his camera’s presence during their commute. But his choice of black-and-white was purposefully distancing as well. “You need to work to look at a black-and-white photograph,” he told CNN in 2013. “It doesn’t immediately come to you. Color is much more sensuous, sweet and welcoming. [For] Apartheid and the anger and the fear that it stirred, there was no other medium than black and white.”
Goldblatt also trained his lens on white South Africans, examining the ruling class’s privilege and indifference to political struggle. He shot images of elderly white ladies dressed to go out for the day, their hands often sheathed in pristine leather gloves, and he documented couples practicing ballroom dances ahead of parties.
Though Apartheid as a legal system ended in 1994 with the formation of a democratic government, its effects continue to shape the society. Goldblatt worked to document its aftermath. For one ongoing series, he would photograph the current state of sites related to the history of Apartheid. For instance, a 2003 shot taken at Johannesburg’s Freedom Square, where, in 1955, 3,000 South Africans formed a democratic charter country that went on to inspire actual legislation, shows a man and a woman under a green and white umbrella in a makeshift marketplace. (The picture was shot in color, which Goldblatt took up in 1999.)
There was a personal dimension to Goldblatt’s practice. He was born in 1930 in Randfontein, South Africa, to Lithuanian Jewish parents who had fled their home country in the late 19th century amid religious persecution. He began taking photographs in 1948, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s, when the economist Francis Wilson commissioned him and several others to shoot images of poverty, that he realized doing so could be commercially viable. Much of his career became dedicated to examining prejudice.
Goldblatt’s work has been presented internationally. His work was surveyed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1998, and at the Serralves Museum in Portugal in 2008 (that show traveled to the New Museum in New York). Earlier this year, the Centre Pompidou in Paris held a 200-photograph retrospective of his work, and another major show of his work is slated for October at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. His work also appeared in the 2002 and 2007 editions of Documenta. Over the course of his lifetime he won the 2006 Hasselblad Award, the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, and the 2013 ICP Infinity Award.
Goldblatt’s activism continued through the final years of his career. Last year, Goldblatt announced that he would be moving his archive from the University of Cape Town to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, citing what he believed to be forms of censorship at the South African school. The decision followed the defacement—and, in one case, the subsequent removal—of sculptures that some university students argued had colonialist implications. “You either respect freedom of expression or you don’t,” Goldblatt told ARTnews at the time, adding, “We’re human beings—fuck it. We need to be able to talk and think of each other.”