“If I had to report on my activities to a heavenly labour ministry, I would, under the heading of job description, say that I am a self-appointed observer and critic of the society into which I was born, with a tendency to doing honour or giving recognition to what is often overlooked or unseen.” — David Goldblatt
Goldblatt was not a chronicler in the documentary sense. He photographed neither racial violence nor political events, but supplied—as a white South African—a social diagram of his country by focusing on its people, of whatever color. He attempted neither to confirm clichés nor to propagate social revolt, although he did greet the end of apartheid with great relief. The quality of his images derives from the fact that, quite apart from their historical context, they represent magnificent studies of the human condition.
Goldblatt shows people at home or at work in a way that lends even the most ordinary of details eloquence. In his portrait of Miriam Diale in her bedroom in Soweto (1972), the elegantly dressed woman appears before an unpapered wall with a simple tulip-shaped lamp beside her. There could be no greater contrast than to the many living rooms of whites, which are veritably stuffed with mementos. Occupational portraits of blacks show domestic workers, cleaners, a broom saleswoman, a "boss boy"; those of whites a township superintendent, a chairman and business manager of a mining company. Although August Sander's occupational portraits reverberate here, an even closer parallel is seen with Diane Arbus's psychologically charged portraits from 1960s New York.
Goldblatt's masterworks include a series of photo reportages, especially the one on "shaft sinking" at the President Steyn No. 4 Shaft at Welkom (Orange Free State), images of great atmospheric density that reflect men's stamina under adverse conditions. This series is the South African counterpart to Salgado's much later photographs of a gold mine in Serra Pelada, Brazil (1986).
Even more unsettling are Goldblatt's 1983—1984 pictures of commuters from the homeland of KwaNdebele, who every morning at 3 a.m. boarded a bus for a several hours' ride to their workplaces in Pretoria and returned by the same route every night—permanent residence in white neighborhoods being prohibited by the Group Areas Act. Anyone who infringed on this ruling risked a considerable fine or even prison, as reflected in Goldblatt's portrait series on punished individuals and families (1981). Entire housing developments, city districts and buildings were demolished when they were declared "black spots," and reopened for white settlement. In 1977, Goldblatt created a memorial for one of these areas, Fietas, before the razing of its private residences and commercial buildings began. Another series documented Protestant churches in South Africa, proving that towards the end of apartheid, the churches grew increasingly windowless and fortresslike.
The new South Africa also gave Goldblatt an opportunity to explore the "social landscape" and its faultlines. In large-format images he recorded historical places and landscapes redolent with the absurdity of white urban planning. A further series was devoted to views of streets "in the time of AIDS."
Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan