David Goldblatt: Strange Instrument @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 45 black-and-white photographs, matted and framed in white, and exhibited on white walls in the three rooms of the gallery. All are vintage gelatin silver prints dated between 1962 and 1990. Physical sizes range between roughly 6×8 to 17×15 inches (or the reverse). No edition information was provided. Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: By the end of his long life (1930-2018), David Goldblatt had become South Africa’s most internationally acclaimed photographer, with honors that included a solo show at MoMA in 1998—the first South African to be so recognized—and the Hasselblad Award in 2006. It’s a status that Zanele Muholi (born 1972), with a  list of similar awards from European and U.S. institutions, has legitimate claims to have inherited. A summit meeting between the two, whereby Goldblatt’s prints would be selected and commented on by Muholi, is therefore a logical development and an intriguing prospect.

The pair were not strangers to one another. They had grown close beginning in the early 2000s, after Muholi enrolled in the Market Photo Workshop, which Goldblatt founded in 1989 in Newtown, Johannesburg. He soon became a mentor and father figure. “He was a chosen person in my life who made a huge difference,” Muholi has said. Neither of them viewed artistry and political convictions as incompatible; and neither is a propagandist. He documented the gross injustices and petty degradations of apartheid, while Muholi, who self-identifies as non-binary and thus uses the pronouns they and their, has addressed legacies of prejudice and oppression due to race, gender, and sexual orientation. The social gap between them was like-wise significant: although as a Jew he was considered an alien by the Afrikaners and subject to anti-Semitism, he was also, by accident of birth as a White man, a member of the South African ruling class. Muholi, on the other hand, was born a Zulu. Their mother was a domestic who commuted from townships to work for White families. Racial barriers in place under apartheid would have prevented Muholi from taking all but a handful of the photographs in this show.

Goldblatt was a hero to generations of photographers, and not just in South Africa. Susan Meiselas is one of many artists who have sought to infuse their pictures with a social conscience and who learned from his example. While suspicious of didactic photographs, he did not want his audience to forget how apartheid permeated every aspect of the society he had grown up in. His 1998 book, South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, is ostensibly about architecture but actually about levels of domination, as expressed over a hundred years in concrete, brick, steel, tin, and words.

Muholi clearly admires his philosophy of documentary and the nuances he was after. Goldblatt seldom editorialized but gave his photographs precise and sometimes lengthy captions that factually described what they depicted, and where and when they were taken. Only a few of the selections here comment overtly on the enforced divisions and gradations of privilege based on skin color and ethnic back-ground. One example is a sardonic photograph titled Racially segregated beach areas and the boundary between them. Strand, Western Cape. 16 April 1983. Two signs stuck in a flat strip of scrubby sand, and written in Afrikaans and English, indicate with arrows two distinct areas: “Beach and Sea/ Whites Only” and “Beach and Sea/ All Races.” The sick joke—not funny if you were not White—is that the separated sections appear to be indistinguishable in the photograph.

Goldblatt was not by the usual definition a photojournalist. Historical events don’t often turn up in his oeuvre. An exception here is The destruction of District Six under the Group Areas Act, Cape Town, 5 May 1982. The four planes of the composition—Table Mountain in the far background; then a series of dark high-rise rectangular office towers; followed by lighter one story buildings and shacks with crumbling walls; and finally a large patch of bulldozed dirt in the foreground. Over 60,000 Black people were forcibly removed from District Six by the apartheid government in the 1970s. Goldblatt’s multi-layered view suggests that invisible real estate interests encouraged this mass eviction to happen.

More characteristic is his Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition, 1980. All of the four tall women on the makeshift stage, wearing high heels and bathing suits cut high on the thigh, are White, while many of the observers in the background are young Black girls in dresses and cardigans: they have been allowed by the store owners to glimpse and aspire toward an ideal of beauty they cannot attain and from which they are legally forbidden to participate. It’s not clear which is more noxious to the eye of Goldblatt, the sexism or the racism.

In everything he photographed in South Africa during his lifetime—in his portrait of roughhewn slabs of wood for a barber’s chair at a miner’s camp, of three White National Party stalwarts atop three white horses, of a Black mother and her son, of a White ballerina on point—Goldblatt’s camera was almost always pressing on the invisible threads that bound together everyone and everything in the web of history.

Many of Muholi’s choices reflect their own with the body, naked and clothed. They have chosen seven examples from Goldblatt’s Particulars (2003), his square-format close-ups of hands, heads, chests, ears, legs, feet, hair. He aims his camera without bias, at young and old, Black and White, concealed limbs or exposed, sleeping or seated, making pictures that are as much about the sensual tactility of the detail photographed as they are about fragmentation and synecdoche.

Despite Muholi’s obvious high regard and affection for Goldblatt’s many-sidedness, the hoped-for synergy from the cross-generational reunion has not generated much of a chemical spark. Part of the problem is the layout of the pictures and the relatively small number of them.

They are arrayed in linear fashion around the walls, spaced comfortably apart. It’s a traditional display that might have been fine were it not for Muholi’s decision to group the 45 prints into 22 micro-categories, under charmingly personal but generally unilluminating headings, such as “On Nurturing,” “On Sleep,” “On Friendships,” “On Textured,” “On Poverty,” and “On Pulse.”

The splintering dissipates whatever momentum the show hoped to build, and the categories don’t give individual images a unique Muholi spin they didn’t have before. Two photographs of modernist Dutch reformed churches, and a third of the monument to the Dutch Voortrekker colonizers are presented on one wall under the title “On Architecture—Pokey Structures.” (The staff informed me that “Pokey” is not a technical term or South African slang but is Muholi’s whimsical reaction to a feature of the buildings: all of them are spiky.)

It could be argued that Muholi is now a larger art world personage than Goldblatt ever was, and that he needs them to add luster to his reputation more than they need him. Uplifting though it is to be reminded of Goldblatt’s sensitivity and range, and to see so many of his classic photographs again, I couldn’t help wishing for a doubling of their number and for a clustering of the prints in groups of three or four. Such an installation could have significantly magnified the impact.

Anyone hoping for a fresh take on or an in-depth revision of one of the towering figures in social documentary, or for a trove of recently discovered and unfamiliar images, should visit without those expectations.

Collector’s POV: Each of the prints in this show is priced at $30000. Goldblatt’s work has started to appear in the secondary markets with more regularity in the past decade. Recent prices have ranged between roughly $2000 and $60000.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (here). Hardcover, 285 x 235 mm, 112 pages, with 55 black-and-white reproductions. Includes a short afterword by the artist and a list of ... Read on.

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