South Africa: The Truth Teller

South African Photographs: David Goldblatt

An exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City, May 2–September 19, 2010

Kith, Kin and Khaya: South African Photographs

by David Goldblatt
Goodman Gallery, 200 pp., $40.00 (paper)
David Goldblatt/Goodman Gallery, Johannesberg
David Goldbatt: Team Leader and Mine Captain on a Pedal Car in the Rustenburg Platinum Mine, Rustenburg, 1971. For a slideshow of the photographs discussed in this review, see the NYR blog, nybooks.test/blogs.

As a matter of crude shorthand, the South African photographer David Goldblatt might be described as his country’s Walker Evans. Though Evans was one of Goldblatt’s models when he was starting out more than a half-century ago, the comparison at this point serves only to hint at the moral clarity of his vision, the seriousness of his purpose, and the scope of his achievement. It does not prepare you for the stirring experience that awaits you at the Jewish Museum, where a copious exhibition of his black-and-white work, mainly from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties—the heyday of apartheid—will be on display through September 19.

Goldblatt, who never really considered himself a photojournalist, divides his work into two categories: the professional and the personal. The professional was what he did on assignment for some editor or corporation; the personal was what he did out of his own deeply felt need to engage his tumultuous land and its people. It’s an engagement that went far beyond racial conflict and oppression without ever becoming distanced from those unavoidable realities. He traces it back to his formative years in a mining town called Randfontein, outside Johannesburg, where he was occasionally singled out as a Jew and roughed up by Afrikaner schoolmates, and where later, serving customers in his father’s clothing store gave him daily exposure to the small courtesies, discourtesies, evasions, and casual inbred racism that set the tone of that time and place.

As a photographer, Goldblatt’s distinctive way has always been to go deeper, to find an oblique angle that went right to the heart of the matter: an image bespeaking loneliness, stunted aspiration, fragile pride on both sides of the racial divide, not infrequently with an intimation of imminent violence, or its result. A white boy on a picnic holds a toy pistol to his infant brother’s head; a seated black youth displays casts on both his arms, results of a security police beating; an Afrikaner soldier offers a stiff salute beside the graves of two boyhood friends killed in combat on the Angolan border.

The shadow of violence doesn’t preclude suggestions of intimacy. Consider the image of a white farmer’s son, his hands gently resting on the shoulder and back of a black nursemaid who can be hardly more than a few years older than himself; or a white shift boss underground in a platinum mine, grandly cruising through a tunnel in what’s called a pedal car, with a black mineworker beside him to do the pedaling; or a farmer knocking together a coffin for a neighbor’s indigent servant. In a self-assuaging manner not dissimilar to that of whites in the…

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