David Goldblatt (1930–2018)

David Goldblatt, Uitkyk, Bushmanland. 27 June 2004, 2004. Photograph by David Goldblatt.

PERHAPS THE SUBJECT THAT DAVID GOLDBLATT MOST IDENTIFIED WITH was the Karoo desert, the Great and the Little, the desiccated stillness and the dusty roads that cross it. Farmlands Uitkyk, Bushmanland, Northern Cape, 27 June 2004, 2004, which he chose for the cover of the 2014 Steidl reissue of Regarding Intersections, was a sterling example of it, the kind of terrain Goldblatt privately called “fuck-all.” Was it the refusal embedded in these surfaces that induced him to stare so long, to dig so hard? Whatever the provocation, he was a photographer—and a person—who needed to get to the core of things. He chased essences; he sought a unifying logic beneath the multitude of the dissimilar and perplexing. If, to honor this impulse, I were to feel for the tough heart of his work, I’d point to his conviction, tested and retested over the his long and varied career, that whatever you make, whatever you take, you will be embodied in your work, however mangled or unrecognizable that self-portrait is.

William Kentridge, who has known Goldblatt since he was a child, has recounted how the photographer imparted this advice to him decades ago. It resounds through Kentridge’s own work, echoing in such exclamations as: “Every page you open, there you are!” This image of the endlessly refracted self illuminates how Goldblatt’s theory of displaced expression doubles as a license for projection, an invitation to acknowledge that we throw ourselves onto everything we do, make, or see. Goldblatt’s deceptively simple idea therefore salutes the boundless efforts of the ego to entice the world to mirror it even as his poetic notion accepts the forces of blindness that control seeing.

Most of all, Goldblatt’s notion poses the self as a hydra: slithery, dispersed, and infinitely generative. The generative part is key. Indeed, one might construe Goldblatt’s guiding premise as a poetics of exigency devised to navigate a local field of practice that for decades, from the 1970s until the 1990s, was dominated by the uncompromising aesthetics of “Resistance Art,” a strand of cultural policy which used as art as an instrument to record, publicize, and condemn the evils of apartheid in a clear and readable way. Notwithstanding his staunch opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa, Goldblatt believed that the aesthetic sphere should not be confused with the political realm; that photography should not be instrumentalized, no matter how worthy the cause; and that the art of the shaking fist, like all didactic aesthetics, flattened the richness of visual practice. With hindsight, Goldblatt’s notion of the self as formative, and as inescapably so, feels now like a lyrical yet pragmatic response to the moralistic aesthetics that dominated the South African art world for much of his adult life, especially after the 1976 Soweto uprising galvanized artists to fight apartheid. For if one comes to believe that the self is always the subject, then this theory (or enabling myth?) holds at bay the demand for graphic political content, and eases the pressure to articulate uncomplicated moral positions.

Despite Goldblatt’s sense of the self as unavoidable and ubiquitous, his work sidestepped the narcissism of much post-1990s photography by allowing him to focus on astonishingly diverse subjects and catholic positions that might appear apolitical, or lacking a studied subjectivity, yet which embraced a quietude and subtlety that may be his images’ greatest strength. The apparent withdrawal of the self in works like Uitkyk, Bushmanland—the lack of affect or emotion which confounded many American critics—could only be permitted (paradoxically) by a confidence in the authorial self as a functioning whole, operating with a salubrious fullness that runs against the grain of dominant postwar (Euro-American) understandings of authorial agency.

David Goldblatt, Hennie Gerber where he tortured and then murdered Samuel Kganakga, Heriotdale, Johannesburg. 14 April 2010, 2010. Photograph by David Goldblatt.

David Goldblatt, Yaksha Modi, daughter of Chagan Modi, in her father's shop before its destruction under the Group Areas Act, 17th Street, Fietas, Johannesburg, 1976. Photograph by David Goldblatt.

Moreover, from this understanding of the embedded self cascades a field of implications that defined Goldblatt’s work. They account for his conviction that the inanimate structures humans produce (whether art, architecture, or whole cities) express the needs, fantasies, and values of their makers. Landscapes, by this view, are presented as unwilling portraits, manifesting their structuring premises in spite of their stated intentions (essence, again, trumping surface). So too, the verso effect is evident in Goldblatt’s most iconic portraits, which usually depend on the subject’s enveloping field of space for contextual mooring. The intertwining of the portrait and its defining landscape is most explicit in the recent series “Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime,” 2008–16, but it’s quite legible in a photograph from forty years earlier, such as Yaksha Modi in her father’s shop before its destruction under the Group Areas Act, Fietas, Johannesburg, 1976, 1976. Indeed, if one posits (as Goldblatt did) that a terrain and its structures “express,” then politics infuses the most banal and quiet details of a landscape. All landscapes. A photograph like Uitkyk, Bushmanland pushed this supposition into a provocation, proffering the dusty bleached land that, as J.M. Coetzee had argued in White Writing (1988), refused to succumb to the expectations of the European gaze. Though the bisecting border lends the scene a nominal content, Goldblatt captured the resistance of his native terrain by reproducing its blank, unforgiving stare, resulting in an intractability that critics tended to displace onto his work, viewing it as anything but expressive.

The assumption that the politics of a culture infuses even the most unremarkable landscape, just as the self snakes its way into all we make, was Goldblatt’s guiding intuition and his most radical idea. Was it this belief that prompted him to shoot the grass beneath the monument, the man to the left of the leader, the pause before the announcement? For many, his oblique swerve away from action, his disengagement with the false clarity of the authoritative moment, rendered Goldblatt’s work apolitical. And if one equates politics with action, and with activism, it surely was just the opposite. It did not lock eyes with the wildebeest.

Yet Goldblatt’s photography was deeply, thoroughly political. His was a commitment not to slogans, but to dialogue. Not to dogma, but to ambiguity. Not to activism, but to pacifism. And in a time when everybody is an activist, and we are called constantly to “engage,” Goldblatt’s legacy asks us to pause from this manic activity. It asks us to be less activist, and more humanist. To disengage, to lower the gaze, to look to the left. To shoot less, and to think more.

Leora Maltz-Leca heads Rhode Island School of Design’s Department of Theory & History of Art & Design, and is the author of William Kentridge: Process as Metaphor & Other Doubtful Enterprises (University of California Press, 2018).