Zooming In On South Africa


David Goldblatt, the South African photographer, can paint two portraits of his father, a Jewish shop-owner in a traditional mining town. In one, Goldblatt tells how his father would drink tea with a white Nationalist, a member of the right-wing party that staunchly defended apartheid, outside behind his men’s clothing store. “He was friends with some of them,” Goldblatt says of his father. “Many Jews were.”

But the other story goes like this: One day, a different white customer came into his father’s shop and saw him sharing tea with a black miner. The white man noticed that his father kept only one set of teacups, which was, in the 1950s, unacceptable. Whites were served from one set of cups; blacks from another — and only if they must be served at all.

“The Afrikaner saw this and said, ‘I will never come into this shop again,’” Goldblatt recalled recently. “My father said, ‘That’s too bad.’”

These two portraits go a long way in explaining the contradictions that lie at the heart of David Goldblatt’s photographs, more than 150 of which are on display at The Jewish Museum. The new exhibit, “South African Photographs: David Goldblatt,” includes black-and-white images taken from 1948 through last year.

Many South African whites, Jews included, were not active proponents of apartheid. But neither did they actively oppose the status quo. Even if some whites, and the vast majority of Jews, sympathized with blacks, they went along with racist policies anyway.

This fact motivated Goldblatt, now 80, to document the apartheid years in all their wrenching banality — one of the first photographers to do so. Rather than photograph the political high or low points that are the benchmarks of history — the nomination of Nelson Mandela in 1994, say, or the Soweto riots of 1976 — he has instead focused on the quotidian existence of average South Africans, black and white both.

As Goldblatt says on the audio recording that accompanies the show: “You couldn’t draw a breath in this country and not be complicit in the system. And so the conundrum of Boksburg”— an average, white, middle-class town photographed in the show —“was this: How was it possible to be law-abiding, decent, upright, and even humane, and yet be complicit in this evil system, and possibly even actively support it? And there is no answer.”

Goldblatt recognizes that the Jewish community embodies these contradictions as much as non-Jewish whites. But he nonetheless credits Jewish values for inspiring his work. “I was brought up with a strong sense of injustice,” Goldblatt said, giving credit to his Jewish education, which included Hebrew school and membership in the Zionist youth group Habonim. His father’s example, he said, was also deeply influential. “My father wanted me to do what I wanted to do…[he] never put any obstacles in my way.”

Still, his father had hoped that he’d go into the family business. The clothing store he ran was inherited from his own father, a Jewish immigrant who left Lithuania in the 1890s. Like many Jewish-owned businesses, the Goldblatt’s depended on customers who worked in the mining industry. That meant that they were, in effect, complicit in the apartheid regime since mining depended on the cheap labor of disenfranchised blacks.

Goldblatt played a part in this system too. He worked in his father’s shop until his death, in 1962, then sold it immediately to begin his photography career in earnest. “There was no reporting from South Africa on what was happening here as the apartheid system developed,” Goldblatt says on the audio tour, regarding his decision to become a photojournalist. “I attempted to be a missionary with a camera.”

Though the exhibition shows work dating from 1948, Goldblatt’s most deliberate, politically conscious work begins in the early 1960s. One image from this period features a smiling white boy, with blond hair and suspenders, holding a toy gun in his hand. It’s aimed at the back of an older black man who, in jest, appears to play along.

Not all of the photographs portray white South Africans as villains. Quite the contrary: one section of the show is dedicated to Afrikaners, the name for white Dutch-descent South Africans, and often depicts them in a sympathetic light. Goldblatt writes his own wall text, which he insists is as critical as the photographs themselves, and notes that this series “grew out of many and often contradictory experiences and conflicted feelings regarding Afrikaners.”

The photographs themselves portray images like an Afrikaner making a casket for his black servant’s spouse, who was too poor to afford one herself. Others show black children playing with whites, or the poverty of some whites themselves, bringing to mind Walker Evans’ deeply affecting work from the Great Depression.

“It just hit me,” said Susan Tumarkin Goodman, the senior curator at The Jewish Museum who organized the Goldblatt show. She first saw Goldblatt’s work seven years ago, at an exhibition in Munich, only a few years after his reputation took off internationally. “It was some of the most moving contemporary artwork I’d seen … I started thinking then that I’d love to do a show of his work.”

Of course, Goldblatt is by now much better known in New York. The New Museum of Contemporary Art mounted a solo exhibit of his work last year, and in 1998, the Museum of Modern Art did the same. Recent accolades like the Hasselblad Award, something like the Nobel Prize of photography, have increased his stature too. Nonetheless, The Jewish Museum exhibit represents the largest display of his work in almost a decade.

Though Goldblatt is not known for taking portraits of famous figures, he has taken some. One in particular, from 1966, is of Harry Oppenheimer, the Jewish South African who is perhaps the quintessential example of white ambivalence toward apartheid. While he publicly denounced apartheid and lavishly supported liberal causes, he made his fortune in the diamond-mining business, an irony not missed by many.

In the audio guide, Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African author and a friend of Goldblatt, comments on this image: “Even if you were doing all sorts of good things, the fact is this money, this profit, came from the sweat and toil and the dreadful conditions under which the workers lived.”

The prominent careers of Gordimer and Goldlbatt — artists whose work is deeply identified with social justice — have led many casual observers to overestimate the involvement of Jews in the anti-apartheid movement. But by and large the Jewish community, which stood at 120,000 at its peak in the 1970s, was not a part of it.

Instead, Jewish leaders agreed that the best policy was to remain publicly silent on the wrongs of apartheid, even though most Jews privately sympathized with the anti-apartheid cause.

“There were no communal leaders who encouraged dissent,” said Gideon Shimoni, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an expert on South African Jewry (he is a South African Jew himself).

Shimoni explained that while Jews were disproportionately represented within the anti-apartheid movement, the vast majority of Jews did not participate in it. Instead they chose to look after their own interests. And because one of their leading interests was Zionism, Jews were often more concerned with getting the South African government to support Israel, even if it meant supporting regimes that strongly favored apartheid.

Though Goldblatt has only a few photographs of Jewish South Africans — a typical one, from the late 1970s, shows a group of Boksburg women at Zionist organization meeting — he says he refuses to cast aspersions upon them. “I would be reluctant to pass judgment,” he said.

In fact, he knows quite well the pressures Jews faced. Despite his commitment to the anti-apartheid movement, the outbreak of crime that occurred as the apartheid government crumbled caused him to question his own family’s safety there too. The Jewish community left in droves as the system collapsed, and today numbers about 70,000 — a little over half of its former peak.

“I don’t judge them, and certainly for a while we considered leaving ourselves,” he said.

Still, he remains something of an anomaly within the Jewish community that remains. Unlike the majority of Jews, he has become increasingly vocal in his criticisms of Israel. Not long after the Gaza war ended, in 2009, he signed an open letter that called Israel’s use of force disproportionate. “Obviously, Israel is a place of immense importance,” he said. “But I cannot say that I was ever a flag-waving Zionist … Over the years I’ve been critical of Israel, and indeed, I’ve seen my friends angry with me in recent years.”

But he stops short of comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa. “It’s very different from what we faced,” he said. Still, “There should be no space in Israel, in our lives, for injustice.” At that, he looked over at a more recent portrait he took in 2006, near the end of the exhibit. It shows a black woman standing outside her one-bedroom home, in Johannesburg. “She has four children and there’s one room in that house for which she had to wait eight years to purchase,” Goldblatt said.

Despite the end of apartheid, he is well aware that injustices remain. But he is not so naïve to think that they are the fault of white leaders alone. South Africa has been governed by black presidents since 1994, but crime, poverty, corruption and AIDS have ravaged the country like never before.

“If you’re asking me to articulate how I feel about the last 10 years,” he said, when prompted, “I feel great anger. But in particular I feel anger for the new leaders’ need to indulge in grandiose schemes that have no benefit for the vast majority of people.” He went on: “This for me is not a black-white issue. It’s a matter of the way the pendulum has swung.”

South African Photographs: David Goldblatt” is on view at The Jewish Museum, located at 1109 Fifth Ave. (212) 423-3200. The exhibit runs through Sept. 19. Call for more information about public lectures occurring throughout the exhibit’s run.

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