David Goldblatt @Pace/MacGill

JTF (just the facts): A total of 26 gelatin silver photographs, from two series, framed and matted and exhibited on gray walls. Twenty-four of the photographs are hung in the two rooms of the gallery and 2 on the foyer partition. The 12 images from one series, The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey, 1983-1984, were printed at various times; some between 2000-2009, others between 2010-2015, with the majority dated 2016. All are 10×16 inches or the reverse. The 13 images from the second series, Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime, 2008-2015, were printed in 2016. All are 21×26 inches and are displayed with texts on a rigid panel that juts from the bottom of the print. Both series are published in an edition of 10+2AP. A related photograph from KwaNdebele but not part of the series was shot and printed in 2016. (Installation shots below, courtesy of the Pace/MacGill website.)

Comments/Context: To be an anti-apartheid photographer was riskier for those born inside South Africa. Magazines in the U.S. and Europe gave regular exposure in the 1970s and ‘80s to photojournalists who documented the humiliations of black and “colored” citizens, the brutal segregation, police and legal crackdowns against dissent, ideology of white supremacy, and the violence that routinely erupted in the Townships. There was a steady market for these pictures as they did not require a lot of effort from the magazine to explain them to the viewer. Any thinking person recognized that apartheid was abhorrent and had to be dismantled. Right and wrong could be clearly drawn in stark relief by any sentient hack.

As a native white South African, David Goldblatt was in a more ticklish position than most foreign photojournalists, who could take their pictures of the ugly racial situation and go home. Goldblatt chose to stay. He had to worry about the surveillance of a hostile government, and to answer to his conscience and the judgments of his fellow South Africans, including other anti-apartheid activists like himself.

The photographs he had made over several decades reflect the view of one whose mind isn’t wired for deadline journalism. His pulse is slower, synched to the rhythms of daily existence. Some of his human subjects he knew for years; the places that appear are the plain, nondescript landscapes and landmarks that only a native can feel in his bones. His pre-1994 pictures are less explicit or overtly violent than the photojournalism typically seen in American newspapers or European magazines from that period. He tried to depict apartheid as a daily ritual and dominant institution affecting all parties and accepted as reality by many of them. This less confrontational—and more sinister—pattern of behavior was harder to see and therefore photograph.

The Transported of KwaNdebele: A South African Odyssey, 1983-1984, is among his most famous series. An example of the humanist photoessay, it’s a masterpiece. Cheap black migrant labor, especially in the mines, formed the backbone of the South African economy during apartheid. Bantustans were created by the government in rural areas around the country, without economic opportunity for the inhabitants, so they had to travel vast distances to menial jobs.

Goldblatt photographed the passengers from the Bantustan of KwaNdebele on their way to work in the shops and offices of the administrative capital Pretoria. Their 6-hour daily journey (3 hours each way) is broken down into a sequence of 12 images. The first 6 photos were taken between 2:40 a.m. and 6 a.m. In the seventh and eighth, at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., the men are waiting to catch the bus home. In images 9 through 11, although time-dated 9 p.m., the passengers have yet to arrive home. The last shows a line of buses moving down the road at dawn, (5:52 a.m.) as the next day’s cycle begins again.

The title underscores the similarity between this form of labor and the history of state punishment used by the French and English in the 17th and 18th centuries. (Prisoners were “transported” out of the country.) We see neither the men’s homes nor their places of employment. They are depicted as perpetually in transit, a metaphorical truth that is practically a literal one.

As these men are heading off to work when most of us are in our beds, Goldblatt wants us to see them in a suspended and tortured state, desperate for a few hours of sleep and unable to get much because of bad roads, frequent stops, unheated buses, and permanent exhaustion. The light is “natural” in the sense that it comes from either the headlights of the bus, its harsh overhead bulbs, or the cold blank sky. His small hand-held camera treats their passive, curled up, groggy bodies with the utmost gentleness, as if it did not want to disturb what little chance for rest they might have.

His latest series, Ex-Offenders at the Scene of Crime, 2008-2015, is about crime and violence, mainly in the post-apartheid era, and not necessarily about South Africa. More than half the images were taken last year in England.

Goldblatt has asked convicted offenders to stand for their portrait at the scenes where they committed an illegal act. Their crimes range from disrupting the Oxford-Cambridge boat race on the Thames and perjury, to bank robbery, drug-dealing, armed assault, and murder. The perpetrators are both women and men, and of various racial backgrounds.

Other photographers have tried similar concepts. Joel Sternfeld’s series On this site: Landscape in memoriam, 1993-1996 photographed streets, sidewalks, patches of ground where momentous events had occurred, such as the razing of the town of Lidice by the Nazis or the beating of Rodney King. But once you studied the picture and noted the obvious fact that life has galloped along since the date of these violent acts, and that these places are no longer conspicuously marked by them, there wasn’t much to look at or think about.

Goldblatt’s portraits are good enough. I’m just not sure much is to be gleaned about either personality or terrain, or the relationship between the two, by asking someone to return somewhere that changed the course of his or her life. Not when the people here occupy so much of the frame that the place is hard to assess, and the texts are called upon to provide too much of the gritty detail of the dramatic recitation. I doubt that he or Sternfeld believe that landscapes have auras or that mediums can read them. But both projects suffer from the mystical notion that photography can expose hidden truths about human fate.

One misfire should not, of course, obscure the happier aspects of this show. Goldblatt is one of the great living photographers, with at least a dozen series deserving wider recognition. As these two series inaugurate what it is said will be an ongoing relationship with Pace/MacGill, the chance to see more of his work on a regular basis makes this modest beginning one of the most promising debuts of the season.

Collector’s POV: Each of the prints in this show is priced at $12000. Goldblatt’s work has started to appear in the secondary markets with more regularity in the past five years or so. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $2000 and $53000.

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