Attempting to impose a working structure on a proposed new series of images which would take the photographer right across the country, David Goldblatt bought a Global Positioning System and a series of survey maps. His concept was to pinpoint the exact intersection of every latitude and longitude line in South Africa, and standing on that point, let his eye roam until it framed an image he wished to record on camera.
'Intersections', one of three Goldblatt photographic essays now on show at the Michael Stevenson Contemporary, is a partial result of that ongoing exercise. But Goldblatt found that in the execution of his project, standing on that precise intersection, the view that presented itself was not always one which really held his interest. He started by dutifully taking a photograph anyway, fulfilling the task he had set himself, but increasingly it felt to him as if this was an assigned task, rather than his personal work. An image he really wanted to capture would appear at some other point, kilometers away from that intersection, so he would take that image too.
Goldblatt's description of his working method reminds me of something I once read about the approach of Robert Rauschenberg in the 60's, where the artist would select a New York city block and walk around it once, picking up objects to use in that day's 'combine project'. Should he not find that sufficiently productive, he would take one corner of the block and strike out in a second direction, and that was it. For that day. Thus do artists attempt to limit the infinite choices which present themselves, and apply their intelligence and their eye to an arbitrary selection.
'Intersections', then, is a result of the GPS photos, and the others. Blown up to the largest scale Goldblatt has worked on so far, 1.2 x 1.6 metres, digitally printed in colour by Tony Meintjes on archival art paper, the landscape of South Africa has never looked quite like this. Quite as clear, quite as infinite, details of grass and rock shown in crystalline detail. Each shot perfectly framed. Colour photography is relatively new for Goldblatt, who for years worked solely in black and white. For him, images in colour were unsatisfactory, the colours too sweet. Radical improvements in film quality and developments in digital printing have led to Goldblatt in the last years in a new direction, to an engagement with colour.
'Asbestos' is a damning indictment of the mining industry, which for decades exploited the land and the workers to extract blue asbestos from the land. A single strand of blue asbestos, inhaled, can lodge in the lungs and cause mesothelioma, leading to a lingering and painful death. Before starting the series, Goldblatt asked his doctor what his own risk was, and was told that at his age (Goldblatt was born in 1930) even if he did inhale the dreaded blue fibres, natural causes would catch up with him before mesothelioma took hold. Those who worked in the industry were not so informed as to the dangers surrounding their daily labour. Goldblatt's photographs show victims of the disease weeks before their death. Have companies like Anglo American taken responsibility for their actions? Far from it. Court ordered payouts to victims of asbestos related illnesses will not take place because the Anglo American subsidiary company has shifted funds so it is now "bankrupt" and thus legally unable to pay compensation.
Today, although a mine like Pomfret in the Northern Cape was closed down in 1978, the surrounding landscape is still toxic, lethal. Goldblatt photographs the deadly blue fibres caught in the roots of a tree upended in a river, carpeting a landscape, present unseen in water in which three boys stand at play. As in the past, the photographer's forensic vision has given us a new insight.
Quite different, the third body of work,'Particulars' are closeups, in black and white of details of human bodies - hands resting in a lap, a bulging crotch in Crimplene shorts, crossed legs on a park bench. Vintage Goldblatt, this series has been collected into a handsome volume with 27 16 x 20 inch images, launched at this exhibition. A full review of this extraordinary collection will appear in ArtThrob in November. In the meantime, all the images from Goldblatt's show can be viewed on the gallery website at www.michaelstevenson.com.