Sunday, November 26, 2006
David Goldblatt | Photographer | South Africa
The Humanity of Forms
South African photographer David Goldblatt exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alex Dodd speaks to him about the structure of things then and now.
The thing that sticks in my mind about that first conversation with photographer David Goldblatt is his insistence on the absence of a colon. He titles his exhibition, due to open at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York this month, South Africa the Structure of Things Then. Under the circumstances, his particular zealousness about the fact that there should be no colon after the words South Africa seems intriguing - even a little amusing, at first.
But, once I start paging through his books, halted for minutes at a time by the stark and soulful images before me, a clue emerges. In Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975), I notice the way "the ladies from the office staff of the Mine Workers Union" fold their hands on their laps and consciously keep their knees together beneath the hems of their crimplene dresses. In On the Mines (1973), his beautifully real exploration of life on the Reef, I'm moved by the painful aptness of a quote by Albert Camus: "This people, plunged wholly in the present, lives with neither myths nor consolation." In Lifetimes Under Apartheid, "a maid on Abel Road, Hillbrow" protests against the blankness of the standard maid's overall with her furry hat and her distinctive spectacles.
Goldblatt's rigorous, almost religious attention to detail - whether it be in a seemingly innocuous comma or the Coca-Cola sign in the window of a corner café - is one of the things that makes him the artist he is today.
Not only is he the only South African photographer whose work is part of MoMA's permanent photographic collection. When his exhibition opens there in mid-July he'll become the only South African photographer to have a solo exhibition at the museum - one of the world's greatest repositories of modern art.
The images on show will be a selection of about 40 to 50 from a body of 135 images that make up a book due to be published by Oxford University Press in South Africa and Monacelli Press in New York.
South Africa the Structure of Things Then Goldblatt explores a wide variety of structures - "anything from churches to shops to huts to houses to government buildings to monuments to scrap to vehicles". He has sought out "the structures in South Africa which gave expression to or were evidence of some of the forces that shaped our society before the end of apartheid".
Although his work has been widely published and appreciated in Europe and the United States, Goldblatt has always made his photographs with a South African audience in mind. His work is proudly parochial, yet deeply universal in its concerns.
Writes Susan Kismaric, the curator of the MoMA exhibition: "As an American, my first reaction is to respond to the photographs with a kind of chilled revulsion. As I continue to look, I find them to be increasingly complex. The aspiration toward 'higher goals' - spirituality, striving, courage, refuge ... - as expressed in many of the buildings initially appears as something separate from or in violation of the land and its people ...The work resonates for me in many ways, not the least of which is that it captures how absolute, how pervasive the evil of apartheid is. The contrast between these structures and those that were destroyed reveals yet another aspect of the story."
A little nervous of terms like "the pervasive evil of apartheid", I find myself sitting opposite Goldblatt in his garden in Fellside, Johannesburg, and noticing the way my fork enters the tomato on my plate. I'm certain it is his way of speaking, his way of articulating himself so consciously that has brought my attention to the tomato and the way I am cutting it. I'm aware of the vertical and the horizontal that make up the table and of the limitless expanse of winter sky above us. "Structures?" I ask. "What motivated your decision to move away from human subject matter?"
"I don't see any difference between these structures and humanity - they are really an extension of each other. I've always felt that if you wanted to do a portrait of a person, why the face? What's peculiar about the face? Why not the foot, the backside, the back, the arm? And, by extension, why not the things people value and build? People put emotion into the things that they build.
"So to me buildings are real extensions of us. If I'm photographing a person, I'm very interested to see their home. It's a part of them. These things to me are very important and always have been. They're simply an extension of the human being."
I am reminded of a phrase from In Boksburg in which Goldblatt writes of his search for "intimacy and dispassion". It's the dispassion I'm interested in. It recalls an idea put forward by American cultural analyst Susan Sontag in her book On Photography. In it she speaks about how the action of shooting a subject distances the photographer from the reality of the moment. So, in a sense, the photographer ends up processing the image chemically instead of metaphysically.
"I think Susan Sontag touched on some valid matters. It is very easy to take shelter behind the lens - to look at the subject from behind this machine so that the subject is naked and you're protected," says Goldblatt, "But what she didn't explore is that in photography it's possible to become aware of these things and work with that awareness.
"Once I became aware that this was happening to me, I deliberately reconstructed my way of working. If I'm doing a portrait, for example, as far as is possible I don't look through the camera. I set up the camera, I frame the picture and then I'm one-to-one with you."
Sweet elucidation - Goldblatt's words shed light on the honesty, the directness of the gaze, the openness and trust in his portraits. Looking at them, one is overcome by a sense of miracle - that people have allowed him in. That, despite our ruthless divisions, Afrikaners and Jews, Italians and Zulus have granted him access into their most private worlds - their once necessarily sheltered South African ghettoes.
And yet, says Goldblatt, "I very seldom try to build up a relationship in the sense of talking and putting people at ease. I don't want to. For me the most interesting photographs have tension in them and tension doesn't come from comfort.
"Not that I deliberately try to make the subject feel ill at ease. But I want to retain a certain kind of tension so that the subject feels he/she is actually on view. And 'how shall I show myself if I'm on view?' It's a very subtle thing that happens. This is the way I work."
I am drawn in by this austere love with which Goldblatt seems to approach the world - again this notion of intimacy and dispassion. "They have to go together. There needs to be a certain distancing. In the sense that you're aware of what you're seeing. You're seeing perhaps a woman who is broken by all sorts of personal things - her marriage is on the rocks ... You need to see how this is actually working. At the same time you need to become quite intimate with her.
"It's almost a sexual thing. Not because she's a woman. The subject might be a man, a woman or a building. It's sexual in the sense that you establish a very strong momentary relationship with the subject. I think the photographic act is very close to a sexual act. When the photographic act reaches its climax and it's a good one, it's like a sexual climax.
"And things that might turn you on in photography might seem very strange, but to me they're very sexual. Light! I mean I can wake up in the Highveld light and become almost maddened by the quality of the light. So this is part of being alive. Sex is part of being alive. To me these things are not separate compartments. They're one."
In terms of what he says about this "sexual moment", does Goldblatt experience a difference between photographing a human being and a building? "It doesn't differ at all," he says, "because in both you have to try to penetrate the nature of what you're seeing. You have to somehow grasp its essentials. Exactly that has to apply to a building. The essential difference is that the building is completely inanimate. It doesn't respond to you."
So you're in greater control? "Yes, but at that same time, you're in a much more difficult situation. Because the building will do absolutely nothing for you. You have to walk around it, walk through it - in it. Smell it, touch it, look at it from different angles, climb a koppie. So you have to find those aspects of a structure. And usually you'll find there's a way of looking at the building that seems logically, emotionally, in every way to bring it all together.
"Even though it might be a higgledy-piggledy structure, there were certain human needs that had to be met, so they built it in a certain way. Now you've somehow got to find, by looking at it, how that would best be shown in a photograph."
The building might be a Dutch Reformed church and it might be a grass hut built by a woman in KwaZulu. Either way, engagement with the building is, to Goldblatt, a kind of indirect relationship with the architect. This is the essence of his exhibition - to explore the human ethos behind the structures he photographs.
"Very often," he says, "the more sophisticated a building becomes, the more obfuscated its meaning is. Then you're dealing with the architect's understanding of what the client needs or wants, and the architect's desire to impose on that his own expressive needs, professional prerogatives or politics.
"In South Africa I feel this has happened to a far lesser extent than it has in, say, Europe or America. Our structures tend to be quite bare, quite naked. We declare ourselves with extraordinary frankness in what be build. It's as though we hold our souls up for the rest of the world to see."