Imagine photographs by Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Wait a moment, then imagine some more by Diane Arbus and others by Sebastian Salgado. Good. Being the sort of person who reads this blog, you probably just conjured a dozen or more vividly remembered images in your mind’s eye.
Now imagine a photograph by David Goldblatt. Thought so. Unless you’re a fellow South African or one of his fans, you probably drew a blank. He’s one of the world’s most honored living photographers, a man who is greatly respected and, yet, is little known. It’s a paradox.
On Wednesday evening, when the International Center of Photography [ICP] confers on him its Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award, Goldblatt will collect yet another prestigious award. He’ll add this to his resume, right above the 2006 Hasselblad Award, 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, and the 2010 Lucie Award for Lifetime Achievement.
As prestigious as those honors surely are, they’re little more than the icing on a magnificent cake. Over a 50-year career, Goldblatt has been the subject of exhibitions at major museums in Europe, Africa, and North America, including solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1998, and the Jewish Museum, in 2010. In addition, leading publishers of photography have produced a dozen books devoted to his work.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments by any measure. So, why isn’t Goldblatt’s photography as well known as his name? And what’s his photography all about anyway? Addressing the second question will point us toward a solution answer to the first.
People who try to explain Goldblatt to American audiences often compare him to Walker Evans. Up to a point, it makes a certain amount of sense. Just as the true subjects of Evans’s greatest and most lasting work were Americans and the society they created, Goldblatt’s subject has been South Africa. His goal, as he once put it, was to make photographs “that were… penetrating of that time and the circumstances in which we lived….”
The defining feature of that time was apartheid, the notorious system of racial oppression that shaped the nation during the second half of the twentieth century. It was the desire to understand apartheid that made him a photographer. “If we had been a democracy from the beginning,” he once wrote, “I’m not sure that I would have become a photographer. …Apartheid sharpened my wish and need to probe with a camera.”
The quality of their vision — the uncanny ability to see below the surface of things and find deeper meanings — also links Goldblatt and Evans. Goldblatt, like Evans, is drawn, in his own words, “to the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and immanent.” He’s always been at least as interested in apartheid’s vernacular architecture as he is in its monuments. The people in his photographs are more likely to be whites who were complicit with apartheid than those who designed and perpetuated it. He made many more photos of blacks who endured its horrors than those who fought against them.
Finally, Goldblatt and Evans also share a photographic sensibility. In both there is a sense of distance, of an analytical step backward, that, in Goldblatt’s case, never threatens to become disinterest. There is also, in both photographers, an instinct to make understated images that refuse to draw attention to themselves, images that are much more about the subject than about the man behind the lens.
The comparison between Goldblatt and Evans can take us only so far, however. Goldblatt’s photographs are political in a way that Evans’ never were. Underlying everything he did, Goldblatt has said, “was an intense hatred or dislike of apartheid and of the whole system that had been built up around it and my work was a critique of that.” This doesn’t mean that politics entered his images overtly. That rarely happened. Instead, he approached politics obliquely, never feeling that “every time that I went out with a camera that I had to do something that was going to knock another nail in the coffin of apartheid.”
If we want to get a sense of the scale of Goldblatt’s achievement, we’ll compare him not to other photographers, but to novelists, to a William Faulkner or a Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South Africa novelist with whom he collaborated on two of his most important books. Like these writers, he finds his deepest meanings in ordinary people and things that he approaches with compassion, but without sentimentality. Like them, he discovers the universal in the particular, which is why his photography will resonate for a very long time.
All of this makes it seem strange that Goldblatt’s photographs, many of which have become iconic in South Africa, haven’t entered the popular consciousness outside of his native land. There are several reasons for this. First, it reflects the marginalization of African photography in the rest of the world. Photography from Africa just isn’t on the radars screens of many people elsewhere.
Second, Goldblatt, being white and Jewish, isn’t seen as African enough on those still-too-rare occasions when African photography is shown and discussed. This way of thinking is simply wrong, as everything I’ve said so far should make clear, but it’s shaped the way his work has been received.
Most importantly, the very strengths of Goldblatt’s photography make it unfashionable in the photographic world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His understatement and complexity place considerable demands on his viewers. His lack of flash denies them instant gratification. It’s slow photography in a fast food world.
For its 2013 Cornell Capa Lifetime Achievement Award, the ICP has made a brilliant choice. Goldblatt’s body of work is one of the finest contemporary examples of the greatness that photography can achieve, and wider recognition is long overdue.
–by John Edwin Mason
[John Edwin Mason teaches African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia.]
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