As a matter of crude shorthand, the South African photographer David Goldblatt might be described as his country’s Walker Evans. Though Evans was one of Goldblatt’s models when he was starting out more than a half century ago, the comparison at this point serves only to hint at the moral clarity of his vision, the seriousness of his purpose and the scope of his achievement. It does not prepare you in any serious way for the stirring experience that awaits you at the Jewish Museum where a copious exhibition of his black-and-white work, mainly from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties—the heyday of apartheid—will be on display through September 19.
Goldblatt, who never really considered himself a photojournalist, divides his work into two categories: the professional and the personal. The professional was what he did on assignment for some editor or corporation (I first met Goldblatt—a long-time friend and collaborator—in 1965 when I was a correspondent for the New York Times in South Africa). The personal was what he did out of his own deeply felt need to engage his tumultuous land and its people. It’s an engagement that went far beyond racial conflict and oppression without ever becoming distanced from those unavoidable realities. His way was always to go deeper, to find an oblique angle that went right to the heart of the matter: an image bespeaking loneliness, stunted aspiration, fragile pride on both sides of the racial divide, not infrequently with an intimation of imminent violence, or its result. A white boy on a picnic holds a toy pistol to his infant brother’s head (slide 1); a seated black youth displays casts on both his arms, results of a security police beating (slide 2); an Afrikaner soldier offers a stiff salute beside the graves of two boyhood friends killed in combat on the Angolan border.