Critics’ Picks

David Goldblatt, The farmer’s son with his nursemaid, on the farm in Heimweeberg, near Nietverdiend in the Marico Bushveld. Transvaal (North-West Province), 1964, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 13”.

David Goldblatt, The farmer’s son with his nursemaid, on the farm in Heimweeberg, near Nietverdiend in the Marico Bushveld. Transvaal (North-West Province), 1964, black-and-white photograph, 9 x 13”.

New York

David Goldblatt

The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
May 2–September 19, 2010

For more than half a century, David Goldblatt has patiently stalked his country from behind a lens; this past year, his output has witnessed renewed and deserved attention. Rather than offering a comprehensive survey, “South African Photographs: David Goldblatt” focuses on a few interrelated themes of the photographer’s remarkably consistent oeuvre—from his early depictions of the brutal racial politics of South Africa’s mining industry to his frank renderings of Afrikaner life in the 1960s to his evocation of the nation’s history through its landscapes and architecture. Goldblatt counts himself both an involuntary agent of apartheid’s regime and a victim of anti-Semitism (he is the son of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants); his ambivalent identity decidedly informs his ease with a range of subjects, as well as his visual idiom. Yet his images, whether single shots or photo essays, appear remarkably unrhetorical, even as they evince the most chilling and insidious of phenomena. How to tease apart the mix of sweetness and injustice, of personal affect and ideological abjection, in an image like the tellingly titled The farmer’s son with his nursemaid, 1964?

Apartheid, for Goldblatt, consisted not of images to be captured but rather of a way of being in the world. “To draw breath here was to be in it,” he once stated. Images don’t tell the whole story; a cross section of an all-white Dutch Reformed Church congregation in 1965 doesn’t bear evidence of the church’s ideological support for apartheid. Even when Goldblatt’s photographs frame their subjects head-on, they reveal history as viewed from the wings. It is a history not of “decisive moments” but of time charged even as it seems slackened.