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David Goldblatt, Speculative development by a property developer in supposedly “authentic Cape Dutch” style, Agatha, Tzaneen, Transvaal, 10 April 1989, black-and-white photograph.

David Goldblatt, Speculative development by a property developer in supposedly “authentic Cape Dutch” style, Agatha, Tzaneen, Transvaal, 10 April 1989, black-and-white photograph.

David Goldblatt

Axa Gallery

There is a photograph in this retrospective of a spacious white house on a hilltop overlooking a vast terrain of forcefully rolling country, dotted with tree and bush and climbing to mountains along the distant horizon. The upper half of the picture is clouds and sky. Below the house are traces of hedgerows and fields, but all else is extravagant emptiness; except for the building and its plot, there is no obvious human sign in the entire wide land—no home, no road, no railway, no smoke of fire, no smudge of town. But for the unfarniliar, bell-shaped profile of the house’s architecture, the place might be an unspoiled stretch of Montana, in which case this image would partake of an American sublime—a sublime cut down to unlimited solitude and a great view.

But the place is South Africa, not America, and the photographer is David Goldblatt, not Ansel Adams. Goldblatt’s title for this image reads Speculative development by a property developer in supposedly “authentic Cape Dutch” style, Agatha, Tzaneen, Transvaal, 10 April 1989. The photograph’s subject now shifts: There is the openness and scale of the landscape, but there is also overarching economics, the developer’s skill in capitalizing on infinite space by carving it into parcels. Surely other houses must be planned for these hills, in styles of equally questionable authenticity—and even if the style were “authentic Cape Dutch,” would that make it proper to the place? What put this “Dutch” house in Africa? An intimation of the sublime has triggered a meditation on colonialism and its result in apartheid. Part of the harshness of the picture, though, is the alien house’s imperviousness to all this: It still commands its view.

To say that apartheid marks all of Goldblatt’s pictures seems no reach, though some were taken before it had fully arrived. Born in 1930, Goldblatt left school in 1948, the year the National Party came to power. A photograph from 1949 shows a shabbily dressed woman on a bench penned into a stony corner of a city street; a plaque on the seat’s back reads EUROPEANS. The picture now seems eerily predictive—in fact Goldblatt must have remembered it nearly twenty-five years later, in 1973, when he photographed a bench labeled EUROPEANS ONLY in a Johannesburg suburb. Less tensely framed, the scene is now casually everyday, and whereas the earlier subject conveys a clenched exhaustion, this time the bench holds a child, whose contingent future is for her simply the normal.

By the early ’50s, Goldblatt has said, he was explicitly trying to make people aware of “some of the awful things that were happening” in his country. His achievement, though, is as a photographer not of large or terrible events but of conditions and states. Part of his impulse is documentary; his titles suggest his experience in magazine journalism and show his desire to tie our interpretations to specific people and places rather than let our imaginations run. And what he chose to document was the workplace, the home, and the street, the way people walked and sat, their postures and bodies, what they wore, how they spent their leisure, under apartheid. (Only a few pictures here postdate 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president.) At the same time, Goldblatt is sharply sensitive to the symbolic potential of structures and situations. He spent much of the ’80s and early ’90s photographing architecture, whether permanent or provisional; images like that of the “authentic Cape Dutch” house examine precise sites but point to worlds of ideological assumption and lived habit. A shot of miners holding shovels to shield their faces from flying grit, or of frayed fabric stretched tight around a button on a woman’s mended coat, occupies simultaneous dimensions of hard experience and metonymic sign.

Goldblatt saw little of Walker Evans’s work until he was in his late thirties, but Evans would have confirmed his impulse to try to deal compassionately with the disadvantaged while skirting sentimental condescension through a certain formal distance. Evans would also have proved the possibilities of architecture as a subject. Goldblatt’s images in this vein range widely; the most dramatic are starkly angular compositions of Afrikaner monuments and churches, buildings he shows as near-abstract expressions of social power. In the same section, meanwhile—“Structures”—the show includes a photograph titled Luke Kgatitsoe at his house, bulldozed in February 1984 by the government. . . . We see a man sitting in ruins; the “structure” is a chaos of stones. Public and domestic are one here; home is no refuge from politics. The inextricability of their relationship is inescapable in this particular photograph, but Goldblatt’s work in general insists on the pervasiveness of the apartheid system, which left nothing it governed untouched.

Goldblatt went just as far in his response. Depending on the photographer, we might easily view an American street scene without necessarily thinking of Wall Street or Washington, but it is hard to look at any photograph in this show without trying to summon up whatever knowledge we have of the social, economic, and political context that would have framed it. By focusing not on the central events of a nation’s chronic crisis but on the specific textures, objects, and incidents of its daily experience, Goldblatt has compiled an overall indictment and a panoramic history,

“David Goldblatt: Fifty-One Years,” cocurated by Corinne Diserens and Okwui Enwezor, travels to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Feb. 8–May 14; Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles; Museum Africa, Johannesburg; and the South African National Gallery, Cape Town.

David Frankel is a contributing editor of Artforum and a senior editor in the publications department of the Museum of Modern Art.