David Goldblatt: Intersections

by Matt Damsker


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Published 2005 by Prestel. Essays by Christoph Danelzik-Bruggemann, Michael Stevenson, and an interview with the photographer by Mark Haworth-Booth. 124 pages; approximately 40 color plates. ISBN no.: 3-7913-3247-3; Library of Congress control no.: 2005900732. Prestel Publishing, 900 Broadway, Ste. 603, New York, NY 10003; phone: +1-212-995-2720; fax: +1-212-995-2733, http://www.prestel.com . Price: $60.

South Africa's David Goldblatt has spent more than three decades chronicling the soul and soil of his troubled native land, resulting not only in an internationally collected body of work but also a unique perspective on a unique corner of the world. Born of Lithuanian-Jewish descent in Randfontein, South Africa (he now resides in Johannesburg), Goldblatt brings a somewhat haunted sense of the outsider to his large-format, austere color images. They open out on a sun-bleached landscape intersected mainly by a poor, scuffling humanity--a human presence in uneasy harmony with the land. If Goldblatt shares that unease, perhaps it's a measure of his marginal identification with the white oppressors who perpetuated apartheid for so long, but his photography doesn't stoop to rhetorical statements or images of pathos. Instead, a suggestion of spiritual emptiness pervades.

Indeed, as Michael Stevenson essay's quotes the great South African author J.M. Coetzee: "There are, it seems, no angels in this part of the sky, no God in this part of the world. It belongs only to the sun. I do not think that it was ever intended that people should live here. This is a land made for insects who eat sand and lay eggs in each other's corpses and have no voices with which to scream when they die." Such a scathing meditation seems to suit Goldblatt's recent images of a post-apartheid country ("nation" seems the wrong word), in which the freedom of a black majority is stilled twinned with poverty and struggle. In Goldblatt's photos, the South African veldt stretches unforgivingly, and unchangingly, through the social upheavals that have brought its people into awkward truce with the 21st century.

In fact, the highest achievement of Goldblatt's recent photography may well be his exploration of interior scenes as complements to the dominant landscapes. These shots, from a series entitled "Municipal People," focus on the new generation of local bureaucrats, captured in stark, wide-angle solemnity in their offices, and with their certificates of officialdom hung alongside portraits of Nelson Mandela. Despite the dignity and pride we sense from these people, Goldblatt locates the modern void that envelops them--the mostly bare walls and sparely furnished surroundings, the inertia of civil service made manifest in drab settings.

In contrast, the great void of Goldblatt's landscapes dwarfs its people in a comparable way, as the flat, rocky scrubland stretches toward mountainous beauty on one hand, yet offers little nourishment. The shacks and shanties which (barely) house their poor inhabitants are stuck like thumbtacks to this land, it seems, while life goes on somehow. A young woman fixes her hair next to one shack; men rest in the meager shade of a tree with their dogs; a goat farmer plays solitaire under the flap of his tent; children make a playground of a roadside width of dirt. Bursts of color enliven the desert's ochre monotone--whether from the flowers of a highway memorial (barely noticeable as the road stretches endlessly and Goldblatt focuses on its infinity), or, ironically, from the beautiful sprinkle of blue asbestos fibers that mark the rocks of the Owendale Mine, a reminder of South Africa's industrial legacy.

Many of these photos are of monuments, handmade signs, cemeteries--all of them overshadowed by the indifference of the land. In one image, the hundreds of white crosses marking graves on a broad hillside are hardly visible amidst the bleached vegetation and in the broad context of Goldblatt's sweeping view, from short foreground to vast horizon, with a highway crossing the top of the photo and vehicles whizzing by, hopelessly distanced from the dead. It may be facile to connect Goldblatt's work with those of other contemporary landscape photographers--say, John Gossage or Marcus Doyle--who make potent statements about modernity and human presence mainly by photographing scenes of human absence, for Goldblatt's work stands further apart. Its rewards lay in his organic conception of land, social fabric and humanity in metaphysical coexistence, separated yet always intersecting, enacting an almost Biblical narrative of interior and exterior wilderness.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.