New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

David Goldblatt
South African Photographs
David Goldblatt, “The farmer’s son with his nursemaid, on the farm in Heimweeberg, near Nietverdiend in the Marico Bushveld. Transvaal (North-West Province), 1964”

This is David Goldblatt’s largest exhibition in New York City since 2001 and these 150 black and white images were worth waiting for. The show is wide ranging, enlightening, and at times, maddening. And for good reason. In “South African Photographs,” which encompasses Goldblatt’s work from 1948 through 2009, he matter-of-factly explores the darkest period of South Africa’s history, as well as the years after apartheid. You won’t see any violent scenes or political protests here—just careful, mostly undramatic but still powerful documentation of life the way it was for whites and blacks together and apart. Goldblatt says, “I was neither an activist or a missionary. Yet I had begun to realize an involvement with this place and the people among whom I lived that would not be stilled and that I needed to grasp and probe.” And that he did.

Goldblatt grew up in Randfontein, a segregated gold-mining town near Johannesburg. As a young Jew, he endured anti-Semitic incidents and witnessed the discrimination that blacks faced; his early experiences have had a strong impact on his work. He shows children, black and white, happily playing together while some other images are more telling of the hard truths of South African society. For example, in one taken in 1963, a young white boy is riding in a wagon, with a black boy sitting behind him. In the next photo, a long shot from behind shows the black boy dutifully pushing the wagon down the dirt road, his “master” riding inside. The title “Kleinbaas with klonkie” confirms your gut feeling.

Here, “Kleinbaas” means “Little master” (White). “Klonkie” is Afrikaans for “Boy” (Black).

 by unidentified photographer.
David Goldblatt, “Dominee S. M. van Vuuren of the Dutch Reformed Church, Witfield, makes a pastoral call on a family in his congregation, Boksburg, 1979–80”

The exhibition is divided into seven sections, with captions under every photograph and translations for some words in Afrikaans. He explores life in the mines, in Boksburg, a middle class white community, in the Bantustans or “puppet states” where blacks had to live in sub-standard housing, and in Johannesburg. There are dozens of images that tell a story in a single glance. The close-up of a Black worker’s armband that says, “Boss Boy.” The text underneath explains, “The rank of Boss Boy, later renamed Team Leader, was the highest then attainable by a Black man in South Africa’s mines.” Goldblatt shows South African society from the inside out. White working class families at home; Dutch Protestants in church; segregated beaches with signs telling who goes where; crowds of Black gold miners walking to the bus station for a long ride home; Black families living in squatter camps. “Farmers” is a 1965 portrait of five Whites wearing hats, with grim faces that will stay with you. So will much of this exhibition. Note that Nelson Mandela is nowhere in sight, just a photo of a sculpture on Robben Island where he was imprisoned.

The use of Goldblatt’s captions and notes add context to his photographs and more understanding of them. A short film and a time line with milestones in South Africa’s history add to the experience. There’s a lot to see and absorb here.

Plan on spending an afternoon with David Goldblatt’s South Africa: it will be time well spent.

David Goldblatt
South African Photographs

Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Ave.
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212 423 3200

Sunday, May 2 to
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Hours: Sat-Tues, 11 to 5:45; Thurs, 11 to 8; Fri, 11 to 4.