In Conversation with David Goldblatt
“Art does not lie in the medium, it lies in the work itself. You can express yourself in whatever medium you like. The medium carries the work and that’s how it should be judged.”– David Goldblatt
The history of contemporary photography in South Africa cannot be written or told without David Goldblatt. His professional career spans several decades and he has exhibited extensively around the world,
What were the major decisions, events or people that influenced your decision to pursue photography as a career?
In the 1940s when I was in high school, I collected stamps and began to photograph my collection in order to document them. I borrowed cameras from family members, my mother and brothers. The images were poor in quality but they served my purpose. Around 1947, I became interested in photographs as things in themselves. At the time television was not in existence; in Europe people were still using magazines as their windows to the world. The most prominent magazines were Life and Look, and Picture Post from London, that covered remarkable things, did remarkable work and had the best images. After I left school, aspiring to be a magazine photographer, I spent about a year trying to work on my own to break into the field. My technique at that stage was amateurish and I found that I didn’t really grasp what it was that editors wanted and this proved to be quite challenging. At that point, there was no one in South Africa who had the professional capacity to teach me. I continued to take photographs but not with any strong sense of purpose.
It became obvious to me that to gain the right skills and technique, I needed to be in the magazine world. After a year of trying on my own without much progress, I decided to shelve photography for a while and get involved in the family business. This was meant to be an interim arrangement. My father ran a men’s outfitting store. Unfortunately, he became ill with cancer and I became responsible for the business and managed it for 12 years. In that time, I continued to take photographs to improve my technique. Photography is a skill than you can acquire without any formal education. It doesn’t require a PhD, you just need practice and dedication. I continued managing the family business but it became clear to me that to work as a magazine photographer, I needed to be free to pursue that dream. In 1962, after my father passed, I sold the business, and the proceeds from the sale allowed me the freedom to set-up and work towards being a magazine photographer. At this stage, I was married with children. I sent work to a number of magazines but particularly to one that was established in England called Town. It was a highly sophisticated magazine that published work by excellent writers and had very strong visuals; the content and design were of high quality. It was a reputable magazine and I was fortunate that they were interested in my work. They commissioned me to do some work on the Anglo American Corporation, which they published. It was a major step for me professionally.
Another significant break in my professional career as a magazine photographer was the appointment of Sally Angwin as the Editor for the South African version of Town, known as the Tatler. Angwin was South African and the Assistant Editor of the popular Town magazine before her appointment. The publisher’s brief to her was to turn the Tatler into a local version of Queen, which was the women’s equivalent of Town. Sally Angwin commissioned me to do a lot of work and it was a major shift for me because up until then, I had not photographed any human subjects directly. I was also exposed to a variety of subjects like fashion, furniture and so forth. It was almost like force-feeding because, in a short while, I became adequate at least in these kinds of photography. I worked with Angwin for a while. She used other photographers but for me, working with her was a significant step-up. She was a highly competent magazine editor, took no nonsense and was very critical. I learnt a lot from her. Sally Angwin died in a freak accident and the Tatler rapidly came to an end. I became a freelance photographer specializing in magazine work rather than news work, and got commissions from publications, and gradually developed a professional practice.
What were your sources of inspiration and motivation, were there any particular individuals, professionals or events that inspired you?
There were many individuals and professionals who inspired me. Most of them were not from South Africa, and there’s a qualifying clause to that. At that stage, that kind of photography was not available in South Africa and was virtually unknown until the publication, Drum. Drum came about 1951 or 1952, I can’t remember. It was like an injection of adrenaline to me; it was very exciting to see that kind of amazing work. I never worked for Drum and I never tried to work there as I didn’t think I had sufficient skills at that stage to do so. I think they were adequately served by the highly skilled professionals they had at that time, people like Jürgen Schadeburg, Ian Berry, Peter Magubane, Alf Kumalo and Bob Gosane, They were very professional and did very fine work. One particular individual that had a considerable influence on me in South Africa was Sam Haskins but this was much later in the late 60s. At that time, I was very keen to publish a book on Afrikaaners. Then they were the driving force of this society mainly through the National Party and the Afrikaner Protestant Churches. I had a collection of essays on Afrikaners, that I wanted to publish in a book but had no idea how to achieve my objectives. It was at this point I was introduced to Haskins and his wife Alida, who were Afrikaaners. Haskins referred to himself and his wife as “excommunicated Afrikaners”. He was a particularly remarkable photographer and was also an established and recognised publisher. His publications were real advances in book publishing because he was very adventurous with type and design. His books were very influential in South Africa, Europe and America. He was also very popular and influential with editors and the best magazines in the late 60s. He offered to design my book and that was very significant for me because I had no idea how to compile the photographs I had taken into book format. I gave him my rough proof and contact prints and he designed a Marquette and template, which he eventually sent to me. I was amazed at how the photographs I had taken were by judicious placement and croppings, given a life of their own. Sam Haskins was an incredibly generous man, he held nothing back and wasn’t territorial about his contacts. He introduced me to his publisher in England and I went to England with a dummy of my book. At that time if you wanted a book published, you literally had to do it yourself.
Around this time, I met Barney Simon and Manny Manim, who founded the Market Theatre. Simon and I became good friends and he became interested in my book. He was very critical of the design and layout. I was impressed by what Haskins had done in terms of design and layout. He had put two pictures together in a way that they spoke to each other, often dramatically. Eventually, I recognised that the predominant voice in my book was Sam Haskins and not me. I had taken these photographs, not with the intention of creating those kinds of conversations between the pictures. So I eventually discarded his layout and its underlying philosophy because I realised it didn’t speak in my voice. I then adopted a completely different approach in the layout; putting a picture on the right, with a caption on the left, and vice versa. I used a more conservative approach in my layout as opposed to his very strong visual approach. I created a rhythm in the book developing the layout to have specific relationships to each other that were not apparent unless you were prepared to spend time studying the book closely. I started to understand that if my work was shown publicly, there were certain dynamics in them that required the viewer to have the patience to look with particular attention. It’s not ‘quicklook’ photography. Haskins had given me a tremendous gift because the opportunity he provided to use his design as a basis for creating a layout that was more in keeping with my own philosophy, made me realise the importance of photographs in relation to a book and in relation to each other. As I previously mentioned, Haskins exerted considerable influence on my professional career as a photographer in this country. He also printed in a particular way and my photographs for a time were printed in a way not unlike his, with the high contrast. I had over time started to really understand what I was doing and had now developed my own way of printing. Other influences at that time were literary. I developed an inclination to have the ability to translate into photographs, the kind of observations I found in literature about South Africa. I didn’t want a literal interpretation of what I had read in my photographs. What I wanted was to find a way of photographing this country, in this country, in a way that reflected the depth of understanding that you found in literature at that time in South Africa. I refer to the works of notable writers like Nadine Gordimerher earlier work in particular and stories by Herman Charles Bosman and J.M.Coetzee. In the early days, those were the writers that inspired me.
Were the images for your proposed book part of your collection from your commissions from magazines and corporates?
No, they were not. It took me a long time to understand this but I eventually understood that in work I did for a client, it was the client’s imperatives I was attempting to put into the photographs, while in the work I did for myself it was my own imperatives that were reflected in the photographs, and the two were not the same. Therefore, to successfully execute an assignment, I had to understand what it was that the client really wanted. I found that clients working in big corporations and certainly at the magazines didn’t always understand what they wanted. Or rather, they knew what they wanted but it wasn’t easy to translate their requests into photographs. The onus fell on me to try to grasp what clients wanted and deliver photographs that would meet those needs. More often than not, those needs did not necessarily correspond with mine. In this country particularly, it was a difficult minefield because I would not accept work that was in anyway supportive of the regime, and quite often the brief was couched in terms that didn’t directly say that one is in support of the regime. One also had to understand the nature of what you were dealing with here in this country during the apartheid era. Trying to define my own imperatives was not easy and I had to decline assignments quite frequently. I also had problems with magazines overseas because they tended to dramatize events or to couch them in their own terms, which reflected their views about the regime. And quite often that didn’t correspond with the views about those particular events. For them, it was black and white but for me, it was many shades of grey.
Is there an underlying philosophy that guides and informs your creativity?
You are asking a very broad question. I suppose what drives me to take photographs is an excitement and provocation in something outside of my own inside. I need to be stimulated by what I see to the point of taking photographs. It’s a very unsatisfactory way of putting it but that is the truth of it. For example, in 2001 had a strong desire to take photographs that reflected the new dispensation in this country but I had no idea what I wanted to photograph. I knew that I wanted to be free of the constraints of my previous work so I began taking colour photographs. I had used colour for my professional work almost from the time I started working as a full-time photographer. From about 1964, I’d done work in colour for magazines, corporations, and institutions but not for myself. During the apartheid years, black and white for me was the only appropriate medium, colour was too sweet. Now I wanted to take photographs in colour and I knew that I wanted to photograph within South Africa. There was no question about that but I was lacking what I had in the apartheid years, which was a clear-cut sense of direction in terms of certain types of subjects. So I decided to photograph intersections of whole degrees of longitude and latitude in this country.
Full article published in Omenka Magazine Volume I Issue III.
Images are courtesy of Goodman Galley.
November 26, 2020
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