David Goldblatt

Johannesburg

Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, was founded in 1886 after the discovery there of large underground deposits of gold. Almost from its beginnings, the geographic demography of the city was largely determined by the reluctance of the white population to live among or in proximity to people of color. Whites controlled government and the mines and they required Blacks, Asians and Coloreds, people of mixed race, to live on the less salubrious fringes of the city – though not so far as to deny them the benefit of their labor and the spending of their income. The demography of Johannesburg was shaped by racial segregation long before apartheid.

For 17 year-old David Goldblatt, it was a shock when the National Party, many of whose leaders had supported the Nazis, won the 1948 parliamentary election. Born to Jewish parents of Lithuanian origin, he had witnessed racism and experienced anti-semitism in his childhood in Randfontein, a gold-mining town near Johannesburg. For a young man from a liberal background, a future under an openly racist regime was a gloomy prospect and Goldblatt seriously considered emigrating. But he stayed in South Africa and still lives there today. He became the most important chronicler in the country. For twelve years, he worked in and eventually managed his father’s men’s clothing shop. But after his death in 1962 he was able to fulfill a long-held ambition to devote himself fully to photography. In the years that followed, he came to realize how much his home country meant to him, despite his abhorrence of the political situation. His personal work has consisted of a series of critical explorations of South African society. One of these is an essay on Afrikaners – the section of the population whose influence on society he most disliked and feared, but who nevertheless fascinated him with the physicality of their presence in and deep-rooted ties with the country. He became aware that he himself was part of the complex structures whose values he has persistently probed and explored with the camera. Not as an activist or radical – his photographs are not of demonstrations or spectacular events – rather, in tranquil yet unsettling images of everyday life that draw the viewer in as a witness to the state of South African society. The restrained and subtle language of his pictures does not dilute their political significance.

“Johannesburg has changed,” David Goldblatt says today. “Everyone may live and work where they wish. But the demographics of the past will haunt us for many years to come. The city is still deeply fragmented. That, tragically, is its nature.” He knows what he is talking about. After all, he has been photographing there for some 60 years.

Biographical information

1930

born in Randfontein, Soth Africa in a Jewish Lithuanian family

1948 - 1962

tries to work as a photojournalist for magazines while running his father’s men’s outfitting business

1963

sold his fathers shop and works full time as a professional photographer for international magazines (Life, Picture Post)

1989

founded the „Market Photography Workshop“ in Johannesburg as a lyceum especially for members of discriminated social groups

1980’s

began working on a 15 year project that would culminate in the publication of “South Africa: The Structure of Things Then” (published in 1998)

1998

he was the first South African to be given a one-person exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

2001

received an Honorary Doctorate in Fine Arts at the University of Cape Town Publication

2008

received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of the Witwatersrand

2006

received the Hasselblad award

2009

received Cartier-Bresson Award

2018

died in Johannesburg, South Africa.