David Goldblatt’s South Africa

09/02/2009 4:00 AM |

To say that the subject of photographer David Goldblatt’s work is South African apartheid is misleading: scenes of violent demonstrations, rebellions and suppressive movements by uniformed forces come to mind; one anticipates the difficult imagery of mutilated bodies and displaced communities. Rather, the unnerving normalcy of his street scenes, portraits and landscapes over the last half-century – initially in elegant black and white, more recently in crisp colors – portrays daily South African life during and after apartheid. The political policy and military rule become features in the backdrop, ominous forces lurking at the edges of the frame and a looming threat or unshakable trauma that tinges even the sunniest vistas with an air of sorrow and shame.

Goldblatt, the subject of the major retrospective Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt (through October 10) at the New Museum, never reduces his visions of apartheid to a “Where’s Waldo” type of search for clues, asking us to find the symbols of segregation and control within the composition. His photographs show apartheid as a way of life, a shared national burden some bare with less difficulty than others. Even the relatively recent series entitled In The Time of AIDS – wherein every image features one or more red ribbons more or less prominently – finding that iconic symbol never takes precedent over the quiet devastation of the surrounding scene and the knowledge that the deadly virus is not a dramatic outbreak, but something that’s become as familiar and customary as the weather.

Goldblatt’s restraint and subtlety has its American equivalents both in the segregation and car culture that provide the backdrop to Robert Frank’s seminal series on Eisenhower America, The Americans (which The Met is presenting in full for the first time in New York later this month), or the drugs and open road that keep the beautiful misfits moving in Dennis Hopper’s photography of the 60s counter-culture (currently on view at Tony Shafrazi Gallery in Chelsea). Beyond the formal beauty and historical interest of these artists’ work, each assembles an elusive portrait of the broader culture that only appears in glimmering fragments and gradually comes into focus over the course of hundreds of images.

In the New Museum exhibition, Goldblatt provides sparse notes to accompany each piece, giving viewers just enough information without unnecessarily editorializing his own work. Alongside a spectacularly tense yet very casual image of four white women in bathing suits with their backs turned to a black audience, Goldblatt simply notes that these are the finalists in a Miss South Africa competition. Portraits from the 1960s of young black women with white children, similarly, require virtually no explanation, but plainly attest to a nanny culture eerily similar to our own, a symptom of all-pervasive inequity.

Goldblatt’s work through the 60s, 70s and 80s, especially, privileges a casual realism that evokes the Farm Security Administration photographers of the 30s (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Marion Post Wolcott especially). His recent series, large-scale color images more often portraying rural landscapes and street scenes, have a grittier, documentary quality. Here, he addresses the lingering wounds and persisting injustices that have remained untreated since the end of apartheid in 1994. Sites where construction began on low-income housing for displaced communities sit unfinished, vacant and overgrown with vegetation. Today, many of the same racial barriers still separate the haves from the have-nots.

In a way, Goldblatt’s evolution from black and white to color marks the perfect formal parallel to the end of apartheid. The South Africa he portrays in colorful images from the last few years is a nation no longer explicitly organized by a division between blacks and whites. That separation has broken down into a spectrum of dispossession, destitution, poverty, fear and entitlement. The social barriers aren’t so plainly defined, but they’re still very much present. Goldblatt’s shifting focus towards the poorest, most marginalized and rural communities in his latest photographs bares testament to the enduring and far-reaching suffering of an abused nation.