David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt has been photographing South Africa for over five decades. His dedication to photography has seen him become one of South Africa’s most renowned photographers and his work is internationally acclaimed. In 2002 he released his retrospective book ‘Fifty-one Years’ and in 1989 he founded ‘The Market Photo Workshop’ based in Johannesburg. His work avoids an active political involvement, freeing himself to explore unorthodox themes and ideas.

View his work through the Goodman Gallery here. 

This conversation happened after an invitation to meet David at his house in Johannesburg. He welcomed us in and was ready to give a little of his morning to intrigue my self and a research partner, Emma, with answers to our questions.

Febby:

How would you describe yourself as a photographer? Documentary? Portrait? Political?

David:

I think of myself simply as a photographer, part of that is historical, because I’ve done all kinds of things in the last sixty odd years. Partly, it’s because I don’t want to be limited by somebody’s definition of me in what I decide to do tomorrow. I want to be free to do whatever I like and I won’t concern myself with what people are going to call it. Tomorrow morning I might decide, it’s a lovely day, what about photographing some flowers? The world is very wide and cameras are amazing instruments. So I refuse to define myself.

Febby:

Do you find it strange that people try and ask you what type of photographer you are?

David:

I find it very strange frankly, sort of interesting and at the end of the day, not really meaningful. If they really want to know what kind of photography, they must go and look at my work. And then there’s the whole question of being an artist. To me, there are two definitions of art, one is that it’s a craft, and I would like to think that I’m a good craftsman. I often make mistakes and bugger things up, but I’m a craftsman. But people seem to think that that’s not a very satisfactory definition, and frankly I don’t mind at all. But alternately, what is art? In another sense, in my opinion, it is a work that is somehow transcendental. It takes you beyond the ordinary manifestations of thinking and seeing, and perhaps it brings together a whole lot of ideas. I think it’s rather arrogant to think that your work is transcendental, I certainly don’t make that assumption. If the world out there and people who review books and exhibitions choose to call it art, that’s their business, I’m not terribly interested in that. So I refuse to be defined by the term ‘artist’ as well as the term ‘documentary photographer’. I’m a photographer, and I’m quite happy to be that.

Febby:

Your earlier works were a lot more about photographing people, and now it feels like it has progressed to focusing less on the physical presence of people.

David:

Let me argue with you. If I do a photograph of this house, how would you define it?

Febby:

As a home.

David:

What is a home?

Febby:

 Where people live.

David:

Who can build a home?

Febby:

People.

David:

Can horses build a house? People are part of the machinery of the photograph. But if there are no people there, the structures are still peopled because only people could have made those structures. And those structures tell with remarkable clarity the values of those people, particularly in this country.

Febby:

A lot of the bodies of work that you have are of found scenes and situations. You don’t alter or interfere with them. For example, your series ‘The Ex-offenders’, stands out completely, in that you positioned the people in these settings and influenced what we see.

David:

That’s because of the nature of the beast if you like. We have a very high crime rate here. In the course of my work, I’ve been held up many times.

So I was interested somehow in looking at crime. I wanted to know who these people are that are doing this to us. So then I decided I would try to find these people that have been in trouble with the law. I don’t want to photograph them in prison, because there, they wear overalls and they all have numbers. So if you had committed a crime, I want to meet you and find out about you, your life, how did you come to do this? So I set about meeting ex-offenders and I had a sort of a deal with them. I said I want to take you back to the scene of the crime, we’ll get permission from the principal or the governing body and I want to do a portrait of you there.

The reason I wanted to do it there, is that that place was a life-changing place for you and if you had potentially been violent and killed somebody, for your victim as well. So I wanted to take these people back to the scene of the crime and I wanted to know about their lives. I’ve been doing that for a period of time and I’ve also been doing that in England. I had an invitation from an organisation, a community arts organisation in West Bromwich, to do some photography in the black community. I went up there to visit and it’s very interesting, but I wasn’t born there so I can’t photograph that place. That would be arrogant on my part, presuming to do that. But I’d like to do in England what I’ve been doing in South Africa and I told them about this project.

Going back to ‘Ex-offenders’ in South Africa, I would get them to sign a release allowing me to exhibit and publish the material. The deal was that we’ll talk about your life and I’ll record it. I paid them R800, not a huge amount of money but a significant amount to somebody who’s just come out of prison. Because in South Africa when you ask somebody whether I can take a photograph of them, the first question asked is, are you going to make money out of me? And that’s a very important question because it’s possible. It’s often very difficult because I might take a photograph of you and then maybe in fifteen years time there’s a lot of demand for that portrait and it sells for a lot of money and I can’t go looking for you then. So I made a public undertaking that in this work, I will make no money at all. I’ll give it away. So my work is handled by a gallery and nowadays the money that comes to me is from the sale of prints. After paying the gallery its commission I give the money to organizations dealing with ex-offenders. At least, that’s what I’ve done up until now, but I might change that. I might give to individuals that I think I’d like to help.

Febby:

This made me think about how crime has no face. Upon our visit to Johannesburg, hearing about all the bad things that happen here and the different types of crime. Walking down the streets you’re trying to be careful and aware but you can’t identify the crime because it’s just people around you.

David:

From what I’ve noticed and it’s very difficult to say, on a whole the people that I’ve photographed and interviewed, it is the first time that they’ve been able to tell their stories without being judged. I don’t come to them as a journalist or a magazine photographer or a social worker, or a policeman or a magistrate, I come simply as a guy who’s interested. And they really open up and speak. And I think that I made it clear that I’m not going to judge them, I’m not going to splash these stories everywhere, I’m not looking for publicity. So they often talk very freely.

Febby:

Do you think that there’s a difference in the emotion or the aesthetic quality of your work when you photograph in colour compared with black and white?

David:

 I think there is a difference in the two media. I use them both. I enjoy using colour, but I probably have a built in preference for black and white.

During the years of the apartheid I was asked to work in colour. So professionally I used colour, but I didn’t for my own personal work at all. I think I made one, possibly two photographs in that whole time in colour. There were two reasons, one was that there was a technical reason, at that time colour was very limited in its ability to handle contrast. I had got used to working in all kinds of light. It doesn’t worry me whether I take a photograph at midday and there was some sun, or in the late afternoon or early morning. Depending on the subject it might not be suitable to do it at midday or it might be suitable to do it in the early morning, but I’d work in any light.

Colour at that time was very limited in that regard, if you use colour transparency there was virtually no latitude. You either hit it right or wrong, there was very little you could do about a colour photograph that was over-exposed. But colour negative on the other hand, which should have been a more pliable medium was not very pleasant. The film at that time had costs, you’d get a blueish or greenish effect so it was not a very malleable medium. But in the late ‘80s and ‘90s Kodak, and Fuji I think as well, came out with new colour emulsions and these were very good. They made it possible to photograph in almost any light with virtually no colour costs and you could deal with the contrast situations particularly in digital production, very effectively. So that opened up a whole new field for me.

So I started using colour also as an expression of liberation at the turn of the century and for about a decade I mostly worked in colour. And then I felt that I wanted to photograph structures again as I had done in the earlier period, so I started working again in black and white. I use a digital camera and mostly I select black and white. If I decide to shoot in black and white and it makes a very good colour picture I don’t switch. I’ve got to follow through with the medium that I’ve chosen. So for me, there is an inbuilt factor in black and white photographs that colour can’t match and that’s a certain kind of tension. Our minds are able to look at a black and white photograph and without thinking we know what it’s about. So skin tones, trees, flowers, all sorts of things are photographed in black and white, often very effectively and we don’t think that there’s no colour. But there is a necessity in the mind’s eye or deep in our subconscious to match the image without experience. So there’s kind of a tension built into a black and white image that you don’t get in a colour.

Colour describes the world as it is. Full on, there it is, beautifully described. To me, that’s not quite as interesting as the black and white.