For the last few weeks millions of fevered eyes have been fixed on South Africa, host to the World Cup, which ends next weekend. For half a century the probing gaze of the South African photographer David Goldblatt has been trained on the same country, his self-lacerating homeland.

Sports events go for cheers and tears, delirium. Mr. Goldblatt’s art, avoiding the overt display of big feelings, goes for hard South African facts. A resonant survey of his work from 1948 to 2009 at the Jewish Museum, records the everyday particulars of a racially divided country in images of white suburbs and black settlements, Afrikaner nationalist political rallies and Soweto soccer games. The 150 black-and-white photographs also document institutions and individual lives that are now part of the historical past but that have, in complex ways, shaped lives in the present, including Mr. Goldblatt’s.

He was born in 1930 in the gold-mining town of Randfontein, near Johannesburg, the grandchild of Lithuanian Jews who immigrated to Africa in the 19th century. He began photographing in his teens, and even pictures from his high school years invite complicated readings.

One of the earliest pieces in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition, “South African Photographs: David Goldblatt,” is a 1948 shot of a black stevedore in Durban doing a springy little look-at-me dance. Only at a second or third glance do you notice what could be the picture’s real subject: a graffiti of a swastika scrawled on a wall, its pinwheel lines echoing the man’s leaping form.

Throughout the 1950s Mr. Goldblatt studied photography while running his family’s business, a men’s clothing store. By 1962, when he began taking pictures professionally, bruising political developments had been unrolled. In the late 1940s the ruling party, dominated by Dutch-descended white Afrikaners, had instituted a national policy of racial segregation, or apartheid.

Almost immediately, specific restrictions kicked in. In 1949 interracial marriage was made illegal. In 1950 cities were divided into districts by race. By 1951 blacks were required to move to government-designed reservations called bantustans, or tribal states, often far removed from jobs and services. By 1953 access to many public amenities — beaches, water fountains — was race-specific.

This campaign of exclusion is history now, and we have seen, partly through photographs, the shattering violence it eventually produced. What we are less familiar with is what it felt like to live in South Africa during the years when these measures were still relatively new, and organized resistance hadn’t begun.

On the one hand, South Africans were living a moral nightmare. A modern government — their own — was sorting out an entire population on the basis of skin color and afflicting much of that population with inconceivable disadvantages. Yet daily life went on. People got up and went to work, dealt with bosses, neighbors, family, money or the lack of it. It was as if institutional racism had become so encompassing as to be — particularly if you were white — invisible, normal, ordinary.

It is this South Africa that Mr. Goldblatt has photographed: not the struggle-era nation of heroes, martyrs and villains but a below-the-radar society in which everyday courtesies and cruelties papered over a system rotten at the core. In his own way Mr. Goldblatt exploited this model of layering. He created pictures that at first seem blandly anecdotal, generic, even contentless. Yet as you quickly discover by reading his written annotations, almost every image comes with a back story that deepens and darkens it.

In a sense his art is about back stories, about the coexistence of different, interactive realities, overlaid or set side by side. In a photograph from around 1955 a black family — the mother carrying a suitcase, the father tending to a child — crosses an empty Johannesburg street. They’ve just arrived in town, Mr. Goldblatt notes in a caption. They look confident, at home in the city.

From 1964 comes another Johannesburg picture far less optimistic in mood. Now there are many black people in the city, a crowd of them at the end of a work day, filling sidewalks as they head for trains back to Soweto (South Western Townships) and other containerlike ghettos. Meanwhile the street is jammed with cars going in the opposite direction, presumably to homes in white suburbs.

In 1972 Mr. Goldblatt spent almost every day for six months shooting in Soweto. He has always worked that way, by making extensive commitments of time and energy to a particular place or group of people, from which a thematically linked series of images emerges. Often the subject he chooses to focus on is fraught with difficulties: the place is dangerous or hard to get to; the people are puzzling or unsettling. But his choices are deliberate. Discomfort will keep his attitudes off balance.

He has published, several decades apart, two series on Afrikaners, a group of people he experiences in contradictory ways: as shapers and enforcers of apartheid, and as generous neighbors and friends. The nuanced array of Afrikaner series photographs in the Jewish Museum’s show, organized by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, gives a good sense of how he can keep his art both commentarial and open ended, as he also does in a 1979-80 series devoted to a white town, the Johannesburg suburb of Boksburg.

Life in this enclave of immaculate homes and well-watered lawns, which closely resembles the town he grew up in, seems ideally ordered. A genial town councilman enjoys afternoon tea at home with his wife. The Women’s Zionist League meets for a monthly discussion. A Dutch Reformed Church minister visits a parishioner at home and shares a joke. All of them are clearly at ease with Mr. Goldblatt, as if he were one of their own.

But there are the back stories. One of the councilman’s duties is to monitor segregation, to keep Boksburg white. The progressive women of the Zionist League will talk about anti-Semitism, but not about apartheid. The Dutch Reformed minister probably won’t talk about it either on his pastoral call, though his denomination, which is the official Afrikaner church, claims scriptural justification for the system.