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Goldblatt, David

Biography

South African, 1930–2018

Details

Born into a family of Lithuanian Jews who had fled to South Africa in 1890 to escape persecution, David Goldblatt has continually documented his country through a sustained photographic practice that spans more than half a century. His pictures of South African mines, townships, buildings, and monuments may be read as a series of meditations on the conditions and spaces of interior and edifice: for every intimate portrait of an African in her apartment, there appears an implied counterpart: an earnest shot of a councilman or bureaucrat Afrikaner, seated at an imposing (yet strangely modest) desk. Likewise, pictures dating to apartheid-era township meetings resonate with more recent photographs of vast expanses of the South African landscape. Such structural binaries may easily be extended to accommodate readings of subterranean/streetscape, urban/suburban and, even formally, black/white. 

In short, Goldblatt's images alternately portray the order and ruin that lie at the heart of South African modernity, suggesting that any investigation of apartness must also account for a deeply internal register. Yet just as the images foreground a sense of the inside-yet-outside—a condition that speaks to the photographer's own complicated personal history within that of South Africa's—they neither editorialize nor endorse, a quality that updates Eugène Atget's long-ago adage ("These are documents I make") with a deeply existential valence. Informed by U.S. Farm Security Administration photographers Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and Walker Evans (1903-1975), and drawing more proximal inspiration from South African photographers working for Drum magazine in the 1950s (including Jürgen Schadeberg, Peter Magubane, and Bob Gosani) Goldblatt's images eschew the sensational, opting instead for the everyday. 

Dedicated to democratic representation in the fullest sense of the word, Goldblatt has worked endlessly as a principled photographer, mentor, educator, and supporter of South African photography. In 1989 he founded the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, a social, cultural, and technical center intended to educate young photographers who were otherwise excluded from formal training. Goldblatt's photographs have been exhibited throughout the world in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including a major retrospective exhibition, "David Goldblatt: Fifty-One Years," organized in 2001 by the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. In 2009 Goldblatt was awarded the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award for TJ, an ongoing examination of the city of Johannesburg.

– James Merle Thomas

Artworks by Goldblatt, David

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