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David Goldblatt: A Life in Photography

Time-Office Clerks and a Miner, City Deep Gold Mine, JohannesburgIn 2018 the Gallery acquired an outstanding collection of over 700 photographs by the acclaimed South African photographer David Goldblatt (1930–2018), who devoted his life to documenting his country and its people. Known for his nuanced portrayals of life under apartheid—the official system of racial segregation against Black, “Colored” (a term South Africans use for people of mixed race), and Asian populations instituted in South Africa by the country’s white minority between 1948 and 1989—Goldblatt covered a wide range of subjects, all intimately connected to his country’s history and politics. His influence and prestige as a documentarian proliferated, both within his own country and internationally, through his many groundbreaking publications, which sought to illuminate the ways in which the country’s formal system of racial segregation impacted nearly every facet of life in South Africa. In the series Structures (ca. 1980–99), for example, Goldblatt photographed buildings and monuments throughout South Africa to demonstrate the ideological systems of power employed by those who built and used them.

Goldblatt was born in 1930 in Randfontein, a gold-mining city roughly 25 miles west of Johannesburg. His Lithuanian Jewish grandparents fled religious persecution and came to South Africa in the 1890s, during the Witwatersrand Gold Rush. This region would provide rich subject matter for Goldblatt’s book On the Mines (1973), which records the period when he photographed in and around the Witwatersrand gold mines, documenting poor black miners and white mine bosses and descending thousands of feet into the mines to capture the dangerous work itself. In 1948, the same year as the formal adoption of apartheid in South Africa, Goldblatt began taking photographs while working in his father’s tailoring business and completing his studies. He sold the family business in 1963, and up until his death in June 2018, Goldblatt photographed life in South Africa, including its people, landscapes, and built environment. He adopted color photography in the 1990s, after the fall of apartheid.

Going to Work: Standing Room Only Now, on the Wolwekraal-Marabastad Bus, Which Is Licensed to Carry 62 Sitting and 29 Standing PassengersAs a white South African citizen, Goldblatt endeavored to understand the variety of experiences of his countrymen and women from a perspective of religious, cultural, and racial equality. For Goldblatt, this meant avoiding overtly political events or scenes of physical violence. Although he was sometimes criticized by activists and journalists for not being more strongly political, he was firm in his belief that his photographs should not attempt to pass judgment but rather show the complexity of a situation. Ranging from portraiture and landscape to architecture and the built environment, Goldblatt’s photographs are captioned with straightforward but revealing commentary. He consistently employed a documentary approach, uncovering the ways in which the lives of black and white communities were interwoven but distinct. In his powerful series The Transported of the KwaNdebele (1983–84), Goldblatt recorded the twice-daily commute made by black laborers between the Bantustan, or homeland, of KwaNdebele and their work in the city of Pretoria, while in the series In Boksburg (1982), named for the whites-only town near Johannesburg, he turned his gaze on the lives of privileged white South Africans. 

Carpet Bowls at the Good Companions Club, BoksburgAs South Africa’s most highly acclaimed photographer, Goldblatt was also an important teacher and leader in the field. In 1989 Goldblatt founded the Market Photo Workshop, a photography school that has played an essential role in training a generation of South African photographers. Focusing initially on documentary photography as a social and political practice, the workshop offered courses at minimal cost to ensure that visual literacy reached underserved communities. Today the Market Photo Workshop continues to influence practitioners and remains an important cultural space in South Africa for photo curricula and public programs. 

The Goldblatt collection primarily comprises black-and-white photographs taken between 1950 and 1990 as well as color photographs taken between 1990 and 2010. It also includes three handmade book maquettes assembled from vintage photographic prints made and mounted by Goldblatt, which offer a look into the photographer’s process, the evolution of his sequencing and layouts, and the role of writing in his practice. Along with the extraordinary exhibition prints at the Gallery, Goldblatt’s archive is now housed at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, making Yale the definitive repository for research on the work and life of this major 20th-century photographer.

Judy Ditner

Richard Benson Associate Curator of Photography and Digital Media

Photos: Top: David Goldblatt, Time-Office Clerks and a Miner, City Deep Gold Mine, Johannesburg, from the series On the Mines, 1966. Gelatin silver print. © David Goldblatt Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg | Middle: David Goldblatt, Going to Work: Standing Room Only Now, on the Wolwekraal-Marabastad Bus, Which Is Licensed to Carry 62 Sitting and 29 Standing Passengers, from the series The Transported of the KwaNdebele, 1983. Gelatin silver print. © David Goldblatt Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg | Bottom: David Goldblatt, Carpet Bowls at the Good Companions Club, Boksburg, from the series In Boksburg, May 1980. Gelatin silver print. © David Goldblatt Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg

This article was first published in the Yale University Art Gallery Magazine (Spring 2019) and was updated in June 2020.