Looking at the series of large color photographs called “In the Time of AIDS” by the South African David Goldblatt, you may wonder why they are so titled. They depict rural, suburban and semi-industrial landscapes, some with people, but no one in them appears to be sick.
Some of the prints, which date from 2003 to 2007, include a looped and crossed red ribbon, the universal sign of the fight against AIDS. In an image of a man watering his lawn, it is painted on the side of a small white building down the street. Elsewhere a sculptural version is erected on a high pole at a truck stop. On close inspection, in fact, every picture yields a ribbon, one of them almost undetectable on the letterhead of a memo taped to the window of a municipal office cashier. Studying the series is like a game of Where’s Waldo?
Unlike many of the works in “Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt,” a slow-burning, two-floor exhibition at the New Museum, for which Mr. Goldblatt wrote informative labels, the AIDS series has no written explanation. But in an interview available as a podcast at the museum as well as on its Web site, newmuseum.org, he explains that the ubiquitous red ribbon symbolizes for him what a horribly banal fact of life AIDS has become in his country, where, he says, 1,000 people die from the disease every day.
Mr. Goldblatt’s oblique approach to AIDS is typical. Born in 1930 to Lithuanian Jews who had moved to South Africa to escape religious persecution, he is internationally celebrated for the socially engaged photography he has been producing since the early ’60s. But none of his works picture the kinds of horrific scenes you might expect of witness-bearing photography in the land of apartheid and its violent aftermath. If you didn’t read his labels and didn’t know anything about South Africa, you’d have no idea how troubled its history has been. The 114 pictures here give the impression of a dry, dusty, underdeveloped but basically peaceful place.
In the podcast Mr. Goldblatt explains that many other photographers have done fine jobs of showing terrible events and conditions in South Africa, so it is not an approach he feels compelled to pursue. He also declares that he is not interested in making conventionally artistic photographs, and that he intends his flatly reportorial words to be integral to the experience of his work.
His strategy is effective and often quite moving, though it can leave you with more questions than answers. A black-and-white photograph from 1984 shows a black woman and her child lying on a bed surrounded by their possessions.
The lengthy label describes how a team of five black men, supervised by an armed white man, all working for the Western Cape Development Board, have just dismantled and destroyed her makeshift house and moved on to do the same to another group of shelters. The text concludes, “For a while the woman lay with the child. Then she got up and began to cut and strip branches of Port Jackson bush to make a new framework for her house. The child slept.”
This is heartbreaking, but also puzzling. Presumably the woman was in violation of some ordinance — this was before apartheid ended in 1994 — but we don’t know what the law was or what it was intended to do.
A color photograph from 2003 shows a black woman sitting proudly by her vegetable garden, a cake marking her 53rd birthday in her lap. The text reads, in full: “Anna Boois was one of 14 people — all women — who had been given land in this area under a government scheme. About a year after this photograph was taken her source of water dried up, and she abandoned her farm and went to live in Garies, the nearest village.” Again, a sad state of affairs, but what are we to conclude? That even benign government programs are often misconceived and incompetently carried out is not news.
Yet something else happens because of this vagueness. Just as particular characters and details in a novel can evoke whole worlds, Mr. Goldblatt’s words and pictures suggest more than they explicitly show or tell. Much of the power of his work comes from the feeling of being in the mind of a thoughtful narrator who chooses his words with an almost painful economy.
A 2006 landscape shows an abandoned housing development. In the distance row after row of small, roofless, concrete-block buildings spread out on an arid plain. In the foreground there is an irregular arrangement of stones on the dirt, remains of a children’s game called onopopi.
“The houses were part of an effort by the municipality to accommodate people living in shacks,” the label reads. “Eight years after approval the scheme had stalled.” Despite his avowed lack of interest in aesthetics, Mr. Goldblatt’s picture of the resulting ghost town has the intensity of a haunting dream.
In a number of cases Mr. Goldblatt has paired old and new images. In a black-and-white photograph from 1985, a boy of 5 or 6 holding his fist aloft in a revolutionary salute stands before fresh grave mounds where antiapartheid activists known as the Cradock Four have just been buried. Next to it a color picture from 2004 shows the same site with stone columns and tombstones marking the graves, surrounded by an iron fence. A cheap painted sign in front proclaims the memorial as the work of the South African Resources Agency. Together the photographs exude a sense of waste, futility and bureaucratic stupidity.
In another pairing a black-and-white picture from 1989 shows a rural shack with laundry hanging on a curved clothesline out front. It was the home of a man who worked for yet another failed government program. In the color picture next to it, from 2006, the tiny figure of a bungee jumper falls from a sleek modern bridge whose supporting arch inversely mirrors the clothesline. Mr. Goldblatt’s laconic note reads, “This jump — 710 feet (216 meters) — is said to be the highest in the world.” The leap from the rough house to the multimillion-dollar bridge and its recreational diver is even greater.
The effect of Mr. Goldblatt’s understated, antisensational photographs and the spare words that accompany them is cumulative. They build into an infectiously mournful beauty. Even in pictures that seem almost nondescript — like his recent large triptychs depicting dirt streets, old cars, low buildings and a few people here and there — Mr. Goldblatt’s compositions have a classical elegance and a reticence that speaks volumes.