JIMI Hendrix played a toy guitar. Jackson Pollock painted in the cheapest PVA. Lewis Hamilton wins races in a croaking VW Beetle, circa 1970.
And David Goldblatt’s camera is crap.
Don’t take our word for it. At least, not when it comes to that last ridiculousness.
“I use a 4×5, it’s not a very good camera,” Goldblatt said as he walked and talked his way around his exhibition, ‘Joburg’, at the Goodman Gallery in July 2008.
His words sent a disbelieving snigger shuffling through the room.
We were surrounded by evidence to the contrary, and we well knew of the respect that Goldblatt had earned the world over for a body of work that he began assembling in the ominous year of 1948. But who were we to argue?
Besides, we had come to see the fruit of Goldblatt’s vocation, not to consider the implements of its harvest. We had also come to hear him tell us what had made him release the shutter at the precise pinpricks in space and time that, once captured and reproduced, engaged hearts and minds far and wide.
We heard a man who wields his humility like a light sabre, someone who deals in the kitchen sink politics of the everyday.
“The matchbox houses of the apartheid era had four rooms. The RDP houses have one room. That, for me, is a cause for great anger.”
A picture of the grotesque opulence of Nelson Mandela Square shimmered with restrained indignation. “We’re on top of growth,” boomed an Old Mutual banner as it loomed deep in the heart of Tuscany-on-Sandton, many metres above a baby bundled tightly to a mother’s back.
Stifling growth, more like. Suffocating the very life out of it. Real growth, that is — the kind that tries to make our society a better place for all.
“And that statue [of Mandela] has to be one of the ugliest pieces of public art,” Goldblatt said as he turned away from his work without trying to stifle a shiver of displeasure.
In another photograph, an ADT signboard bolted to a tall, sturdy wall winked reassuringly from between a frame of fronds in Goldblatt’s deceptively idyllic garden.
Many of the scenes twinkled with subversive humour. Others, like the photograph of a Mrs Mazibuko watering her garden outside her RDP house, bristled with injustice.
“The matchbox houses of the apartheid era had four rooms,” Goldblatt said. “The RDP houses have one room. That, for me, is a cause for great anger.”
A brutal slab of grey nothingness dominated another scene from top to bottom. This, it emerged, was a picture of the base of the Hillbrow tower.
For millions the tower is a proud icon on the Johannesburg skyline.
For Goldblatt it is a symbol of something far darker.
He explained that, at the time that the monumental structure was sent soaring into the clouds, many considered it to be no coincidence that the apartheid government chose to stamp its jackboot in the heart of the most cosmopolitan area of the country’s most racially mixed city.
Absolute authority was poured into and onto the ground and up into the sky in the form of all that immovable concrete, and Goldblatt’s assertion should give us pause for thought.
But the exhibition spoke to us in far more varied terms than merely the political and the social. It was at once a collection of fine photographs, a homage to Africa’s modern metropolis, and a letter to a soulmate.
“We’ve been part of each other’s lives for so long,” Goldblatt’s pictures seemed to say. “But just when I feel there as is nothing left to discover about you — good and bad — you go an enchant me all over again. I wouldn’t be me without you.”
As such, some of the pictures walk a fine line between poignancy and sentimentalism.
A street scene in Fietas, an Indian residential area that was demolished to make way for housing for whites, would fuel this discussion. The charming blue pillars that dominate the foreground take the edge off the filthy, rutted road beyond.
A rundown cinema looks shabbily chic neatly framed, but it could hold less than endearing memories for those who spent time there dodging globs of spent chewing gum and fighting off the fleas.
There was undeniable warmth in an image depicting a down-at-heel Afrikaner family perched on a low wall. The father, tattooed and confident in his bare-bellied brawn, smiled heartily despite an empty eye socket. His gaunt wife kissed one of their children as passionately if she were saying goodbye forever.
In a photograph of a shebeen that had been rehabilitated as a family home, a deep shadow swallowed the luscious light of a sun-blessed morning as lustily as the patrons must once have slugged their liquor.
Architectural elements are central to many of Goldblatt’s pictures. We are what he build, he seems to say. The brutish instincts of the powerful, the romance of times past, and the triumph of spirit over squalor are often cast in brick, cement, wood and corrugated iron in his work. That makes the constantly heaving structural clamour of Johannesburg the perfect canvas for his art.
Goldblatt’s portraits are emblazoned with a signature, albeit subtly. The faces are almost always caught in limbo between emotions. We are seldom sure what might be going through the minds of his subjects. Whatever the setting, the people in his photographs are strikingly vulnerable as they peer out of their world into ours.
Perhaps that’s why Goldblatt’s pictures are so accessible. There are no barriers between the unvarnished humanity of the people sealed within them and us, the viewers. We have little hope of meeting them and entwining our respective lives, but at some level it feels as if we know them already. The same light shines in all of our eyes.
“Light is to a photographer what music is to a dancer; we can’t work without it,” Goldblatt said.
Besides the quip about his camera — which he delivered with the same slight ruefulness as someone bemoaning the fragile state of a favourite but aging teapot — this was the only comment Goldblatt made that could be construed as technical.
The rest of what he said was taken up with the relationship between a photographer, his images and the people who might take the time to look at them.
Perhaps this was because Goldblatt wasn’t in the company of fellow professionals. Some of our gaggle were students, a few were no doubt incorrigible gallery denizens, others had walked a long road with his work and loved it, and still others were lovers of those lovers on a sunny Saturday afternoon out.
We were a curious bunch, to be sure. But Goldblatt was as comfortable in the midst of this odd mix as he was in the lived-in jeans and jersey he wore. He told us about his pictures, which meant he told us about himself. But not in some grandiose way that made him the infallible centre of his universe.
That was plain from his story of a picture in which the icy eyes of a young man beamed disconcertingly. The implications of the photograph’s title, ‘Tsotsi’, had caused controversy.
“People asked me how I knew he was a tsotsi,” Goldblatt said. “I suppose I didn’t know for a fact that he was. But he spoke and behaved like a tsotsi, and he was in the company of men I knew to be tsotsis.”
Like the South Africa in which he lives and creates, change has also come to Goldblatt. Until around 1998, what he calls his “personal” (as opposed to his commercial) work was shot almost exclusively in black and white. Then, in Australia, he encountered the horrors wrought on the lungs and lives of workers in blue asbestos mines. “That’s when I got hooked on doing work in colour — you can’t make it blue in black and white,” he said at the time.
That typifies the everyman air Goldblatt exudes, and it belies his status as one of the most accomplished chroniclers of our times. He comes across not as a heavyweight authority on matters South African past and present, but as the kind of stranger you would agree to share a table with in a busy coffee shop, someone who would let you have the parking space you happened upon simultaneously.
This fits with Goldblatt’s reluctance to accept his standing as a prominent artist despite his successful solo exhibitions at such respected venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Winning the Hasselblad Award in 2006 elevated Goldblatt into the company of paragons of the art like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank.
But the modesty persists. Perhaps it is a consequence of Goldblatt biding his time until 1962 — some 14 years after he had first focused a lens in earnest — to make his passion his profession. Before that, he paid his dues in the family clothing business.
Perhaps Goldblatt’s feet have also been kept anchored to earth by his wont for finding inspiration among writers rather than other photographers.
His work has been influenced by, among others, Nadine Gordimer, Herman Charles Bosman and Ivan Vladislavic. Not least among the ties that bind Goldblatt’s work to theirs is the notion that the personal is invariably political.
There is plenty of Bosman’s sniping yet sensitive treatment of his characters in Goldblatt’s seminal 1975 book, ‘Some Afrikaners Photographed’. His contribution to the group show, ‘South Africa: the Cordoned Heart’ in 1986 ached with the angst that emanated from Gordimer’s writings. Vladislavic’s incisive views on South Africa today are mirrored in Goldblatt’s later work.
All of these artists wrestle with the symptoms and causes of a world in which equality and fairness float somewhere out there in the fog of unachieved ambitions.
We don’t have to negotiate the complex plots conjured by writers to appreciate Goldblatt’s pictures. It’s all there for our eyes to see in an instant and for our minds to analyse instinctively.
We don’t need Goldblatt explained to us, but he added an indelible dash of colour to our image of him that afternoon at the Goodman.
Goldblatt on Goldblatt stood in sharp relief, just like black on white.
His camera may be crap, but not his pictures. ♦