|David Goldblatt, Two people buying bus tickets in PUTCO, Pretoria, 1983|
I was blown away by the exhibition of David Goldblatt’s photographs at the Centre Pompidou. I have seen his work before, but never within a retrospective that traces the arc of his career. This overview of the oeuvre is necessary because his life’s work follows the troubling history of the region in South Africa where he was raised and lived. And like Goldblatt’s photogrtaphs, while the history of late twentieth century South Africa might be familiar to all of us, when it is seen in these photographs it takes on a whole new level of meaning. As they are laid out here, the photographs tell a devastating and sobering story.
The exhibition begins with Goldblatt’s photographs from the series On the Mines. Here we see the gaping chasm between the lives of the white industrialists and the black workers. Every aspect of the black workers’ oppression is documented by Goldblatt, from the danger of the work itself through the 8 hours of travelling to and from the mines thanks to the zoning laws that did not allow blacks to live in the cities. In images that represent a privileged access to black South Africa for a white man, Goldblatt’s images extend to the effects of racism on every aspect of the lives of black and white alike, the shape of their communities, the physical landscape, and the identity of South Africa. If ever there was a question about the poisonous results of racism, Goldblatt’s photographs remove all doubt.
To give one example, there are a few photographs in which the miners are shown as a group, from behind, working on lowering the apparatus into the shaft. Their heavily clad figures are hooded and blurred through their motion and, we presume, the difficulty of getting close to their working bodies. Their facelessness, and their representation as if they are being wiped away from the image are in stark contrast to the single shots of the industrialists and the mine owners in the perspicacity of key lit, day time shots, in which they sit well-dressed in luxurious offices. The extremes of their lives are thus accentuated through the photographic composition.
Goldblatt captures the devastating and wide ranging ways that violence and racism are inscribed in and on the social and individual body politic. For example, in the images of Kas Maine, we see a poor —but unusually lucky—black farmer, his land and his meagre possessions and shelter crowded into a dimly lit frame. The series of the poor farmer directly follows a series of images in which official public buildings and monuments from the colonial years onwards emphasize the sleek lines, modernist structures of the outward facing South Africa. Similarly, we see white people in their gardens surrounded by infinite space, light and the glorious South African climate made visual. The freedom and power of the white man and the structures of his authority are shocking visions of white supremacy next to the crowded darker frames of Kas Maine’s farm showing the limitations on his movement, his ability to work and succeed, let alone move beyond his circumstances.
Even images that depict black people are working in the more recent photographs of post-Apartheid South Africa are disturbing. Huge malls are not shown as a world that we would want to visit or live in, despite the light, space, and the claim to be post-apartheid, non-segregated South Africa. In an image of a Soweto mall car park, a black man collects trolleys while a white woman sits in her car. Yes, the two may be in the same image, but still today, they are hardly equals.
Goldblatt's images and their political opinion are not without complications in South Africa. None of the tensions and discussions about the ethics of a white man building his career and renown on images of black men are addressed by this exhibition. And neither are Goldblatt's vociferous and not always unanimously accepted political views. However, this is a viewing must for those of us who have not previously acknowledged the brutal reality of Apartheid South Africa. There's no escaping it at this excellent Pompidou exhibition.