Beauty and resilience

2008-02-22 00:00

There is a quote by South African writer, Herman Charles Bosman, which appears at the beginning of photographer David Goldblatt’s book, Some Afrikaners Revisited.

From Bosman’s A Cask of Jerepigo: The Cape Revisited, the quote goes like this: “About the vlakte there is no spirit of a wanton invitingness. But there is a clinging bitterness and a straightbrowed austerity; a stone, sterile bosom that holds out no beguilement. And when the message of these harsh places of the Earth has got into your blood, and the mystery of things come to you unrefined, and not wrought into a pattern, then it is only with an effort, and at first but reluctantly, that you can bring your soul to an acceptance of beauty that has got resilience in it.”

When, at the beginning of an interview with the internationally acclaimed Goldblatt, I refer to the quote, the award-winning photographer’s eyes light up.

“That quote shaped my view of things. It echoes exactly what I experienced and what I was trying to grasp in my photographs,” he says.

We are meeting in Cape Town where Goldblatt’s exhibition Intersections Intersected — an exploration of the intersections between people, values and land in post-apartheid South Africa — is currently under way at the Michael Stevenson Gallery. Walkabouts with the photographer have been packed affairs, with Goldblatt explaining how his work, over the last decade, has taken into new terrain the approach underlying his major essays on the years of apartheid.

Goldblatt, who for more than 50 years has been examining South African society through his lens, is, in his work, concerned with land and landscape, not as nature, but as places which humans occupy.

He takes pains to point out that creativity is not his aim. “I never want to make a different view from what appears,” he stresses.

Indeed, a study of his Some Afrikaners Revisited reveals a collection of photographs which are moving because they are authentic and unrefined, images which include Piet Swanepoel clearing the ground for planting on his farm in Gamkaskloof; Frik Loubser of the Marico bushveld, sitting in front of a bakoond; Farmers at a cattle auction in Vryburg; a photograph taken during apartheid, of a white child, with his hand nonchalantly and affectionately placed on his nanny’s shoulder.

It’s easy to understand why Goldblatt would have been influenced by a man like Bosman. Both see people and landscape for what they are and have captured these in their respective crafts. “Words are important to me,” says Goldblatt. “Certainly South African writing has had a major influence on me — Bosman, Nadine Gordimer, especially her early stories, the early plays of Athol Fugard, Barney Simon, Lionel Abrahams, Douglas Livingstone, John Coetzee and, more recently, Marlene van Niekerk, author of Agaat, a most extraordinary book.”

Goldblatt’s skill lies in his ability to document people face on, while preserving their dignity. And when the pictures are of simple country people, they have a special poignancy because of their directness and the photographer’s obvious respect for his subjects. This does not mean Goldblatt is naïve or sentimental. The sharp ironies of the South African situation emerge clearly in the photographs.

In 2006, Goldblatt became the 26th recipient of the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography — a photographer’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize. The foundation’s citation stated that almost all of Goldblatt’s photographs unravel a tale. “Behind each of Goldblatt’s images, there are several stories, most of them related to vital questions, which affect in a direct or tangential way, the values by which the country moved and moved.”

“My interest is in how we shape the land and how it has shaped us,” says Goldblatt. “This has been a concern for many years. It is nothing new. I spent a lot of time in the seventies and eighties photographing people for myself and professionally, and, for the past 20 years, I have spent much more time looking at what people have made and the land they have occupied.’’

Born in 1930, Goldblatt is the son of Lithuanian Jews who fled the pogroms in the 1890s. His family ran a small menswear business in Randfontein, outside Johannesburg. He worked in the family business until his father, Eli Goldblatt, died in 1962, when he sold the family business to work as a full-time photographer.

A key area of Goldblatt’s work is to explore the relationship between individual subjects and the structures in which they live. His work through the years has commented on the symbolic significance of the country’s architecture, in both a personal and socio-political way.

When I ask him to name some structures which, in his view represent the “now” in South Africa, he responds quickly: “The most glaring example is in Orange Street, Cape Town, just around the corner from Parliament, where the synodal hall of the NG Kerk was recently demolished and they have put a hotel in its place. That structure talks about the past, the present and the future.”

He continues: “Johannesburg has some disgusting new structures. Look at the Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton. It has an appalling statue of Mandela, which I have photographed.

“The developers of Sandton Square paid money to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and got the rights to call it Nelson Mandela Square. They commissioned some awful sculptor to do a towering statue of Mandela. First of all, I think this kind of prostitution of Mandela is gross and sad. At least if he is going to be immortalised in a place called Nelson Mandela Square, then for God’s sake do a decent job. It is an appalling statue, really it is.

“And then there’s Montecasino, which is ... I won’t talk about it. It’s appalling,” he says.

He moves to another place he has photographed, Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. “I took photographs there when it was one of the few places in South Africa where Africans were permitted freehold title. The township is worse now than it ever was. It is more crowded. The only thing that has improved is the sewerage.”

So, what intrigues him about South African society at the moment? “I can’t answer that,” Goldblatt responds. “I keep an open mind and I open myself up to anything. I get very bored with myself. It is too easy to stay engaged by the same things. There are a lot of things happening in our society and I need somehow to stay receptive to them.”

In order to stay engaged, he explores his home city, Johannesburg, constantly — and takes long road trips through the country. “I go off for about 10 days at a time.”

One principle he is adamant about is to stay true to his subjects.

“I try to convey somehow the complexity of an experience. But the camera, unlike the paintbrush, is a very limited instrument, because I can only convey what is in front of me. I am not a creative photographer. I do not cook things up. I do not make imaginary things happen in front of the camera. I photograph what is there. The struggle then is how to convey a deeper, rounder sense of reality.

“I no longer feel I have to show people in order to speak about people,” he says.

Nevertheless, he remains interested in doing a series of portraits one of these days. “I once went from town to town and did a series on municipal officials as they are part of a new dispensation. Perhaps one of these days I will go and do a series of portraits.”

Does he try to get to know his subjects when he photographs them?

“I might want to speak to them about what they are doing, but I don’t do that while I am photographing them. I prefer to be quiet. It creates a certain amount of tension and I want tension. I don’t want people to feel very comfortable and in any case the exposures are very long, so they have to keep very still. It is partly deliberate and partly technical as I don’t work with lights,” says Goldblatt.

His trip to photograph municipal workers took him to places such as Poffader, Loeriesfontein, Suurbraak and Koffiefontein.

How was he received when he told the municipal staffers he wanted to photograph them?

“Unless you have been a highly exposed public figure, we are all very pleased to be noticed. Some of them react with an attempt at outraged pomp, but not many, because I say I am a photographer travelling the country and am very interested in municipal affairs, and that I would like to spend time with them and take some photographs. Mostly they accede. We all have that gladness when somebody notices us and this goes for these people too.”

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