David Goldblatt, ‘Boss Boy’ detail, Battery Reef, Randfontein Estates Gold Mine, 1966, carbon ink on paper, 14 3⁄8 × 11 3⁄4".

David Goldblatt, ‘Boss Boy’ detail, Battery Reef, Randfontein Estates Gold Mine, 1966, carbon ink on paper, 14 3⁄8 × 11 3⁄4".

David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane

This was long slated to be David Goldblatt’s year: He was the subject of a career-defining retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in the spring and of a biographical documentary at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa in July, and he featured in the inaugural group show of the A4 Arts Foundation near Cape Town in September. The anticipation surrounding these appearances gained new poignancy this past June, when the South African photographer died at the age of eighty-seven. While “On Common Ground: David Goldblatt and Peter Magubane,” was a fitting tribute, it also marked a crucial bridging of two worlds, drawing together as it did two legends of apartheid-era imagemaking. As quintessential Johannesburgers, Goldblatt, white and working in the “typological” mode of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Magubane, a black photojournalist, shared a broad social and political orbit over some six decades but were shown together here for the first time, under the curatorial direction of Paul Weinberg.

“On Common Ground” offered an important chance to see apartheid and its aftermath through the complementary lenses of photographers whose personal histories exemplified the logic of a brutal system. South Africa had long been defined by careful spatial segregation—who could go where, who could marry whom, who could study and make art. While the free elections of 1994 nominally marked the end of official policies of separation, old legacies die hard; physical and psychic cleavages still define the body politic. In material terms, such divisions meant that Goldblatt and Magubane played to divergent audiences and worked under markedly different circumstances. Having grown up on the edges of the gold-rich Witwatersrand, on which the city was founded, Goldblatt recalls being free to roam among the vast fields of industrialized extraction. These and the communities of what was then Transvaal Province—from its working-class centers to its suburban white enclaves—quickly captivated his attention. He and his large-format camera were free to roam, and to approach his subject matter at a stately pace and in minute detail. Goldblatt’s pictures of the built environment still resonate, but this show focused on portraits—of black domestic workers, of the Indian residents of the demolished area of Fietas, and of Afrikaner farmers (the last of these in color, a rarity in this photographer’s oeuvre).

Magubane, by contrast, grew up in the mixed area of Sophiatown and faced limited prospects. Learning to shoot on a Kodak Brownie, he was a driver and darkroom technician at Drum—an urban African lifestyle magazine with a global audience—before becoming one of its premier contributors. But Magubane, born to Zulu-speaking parents, had to be more circumspect in his movements than Goldblatt, and faster behind the camera: Once, early on, he hid his Leica 3G in a hollowed loaf of bread; he later repeated the trick with a modified Bible. Briefly jailed and banned from taking pictures during the early 1970s, Magubane went on to describe his camera as a weapon that he used to help dismantle apartheid. Indeed, his most celebrated series remain the kinetic and harrowing reportage of the Soweto uprising of 1976, when the youth of the famed township faced off against the National Party, meeting attack dogs and troop carriers with hurled stones and steely defiance. Such images are counterbalanced with those showing quieter moments of black life—a young boy cradling a puppy (“his best friend”) or a toddler drawing water from a spigot, jubilant and drenched amid the corrugated settlement of Orlando West.

Neither Magubane nor Goldblatt saw themselves as artists, yet few are as esteemed in the circuits of contemporary art—or in the history of struggle photography. “On Common Ground” demonstrated the technical virtuosity and political acuity they both shared, and juxtaposed their divergent formal approaches. This was especially evident in a pairing of images of black gold miners. The figure shot by Magubane, in a tattered shirt and neat fedora, is drenched in sweat. He is captured in media res, drawing a cart in a blur of motion. Goldblatt’s ‘Boss Boy’ detail, Battery Reef, Randfontein Estates Gold Mine, 1966, is a faceless overseer, framed by the photographer as merely an array of instruments—ruler, watch, pipe. One sought to channel the human face of South African life, the other to catalogue the quotidian elements of its machinery of oppression. Both methods, it’s clear, were necessary to take on the beast.

Ian Bourland