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David Goldblatt (1930–2018)

David Goldblatt, a titan of photography who bore witness to South Africa’s daily plights—from apartheid and poverty to AIDS and gentrification—to become one of the world’s most renowned documentarians, has died at the age of eighty-seven. Goldblatt became internationally recognized in the early 1960s and ’70s for his powerful, understated black-and-white images that captured South Africa’s repressive regime of forced racial division. For over six decades he reflected on the resounding social tensions of South Africa with deep empathy, through images that were often formally deadpan and quiet. As Leora-Maltz Leca wrote in Artforum’s November 2009 issue, “Goldblatt refuses the drama of the clash for the stifled pain of its aftermath.”

Born in 1930 in Randfontein, South Africa, to Lithuanian parents who fled Jewish persecution in 1893, Goldblatt first started taking photographs at age sixteen. He began using his camera professionally in the 1960s by shooting landscapes and portraits for various magazines. In the early ’70s, he spent six months taking portraits of mostly segregated people in Soweto, a township of Johannesburg. The resulting series invites viewers to contemplate the subtle and profound ways his sitters composed themselves for his gaze. Although his work has entered the permanent collections of museums throughout the world and has appeared in countless newspapers and magazines, Goldblatt identified as neither an artist nor a journalist, instead pledging his allegiance to “no one other than my subjects and myself.”

Those subjects ranged widely. Goldblatt sought to document contrasting experiences in his country and created series of photographs of gold miners, farmers, the white middle class, and ex-prisoners, among other people. For the 1982 photobook In Boksburg, he turned his lens on the white-only suburb of Boksburg to examine insidious white privilege. In the 1990s, after apartheid in South Africa officially ended, Goldblatt began working with color photography, a medium he considered too “sweet” for the injustices he documented. He eventually returned to black-and-white photography. “Apartheid has gone,” he said. “Its half-life will continue beyond knowing.”

Goldblatt continued to take photographs in his final years. Last summer, he moved his archive from the University of Cape Town to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, claiming that he faced censorship at the South African school.