There are moments when we must all grapple with reality’s propensity to exceed even our wildest conceptions of fantasy; when we must concede, with great ecstasy – or perhaps great solemnity – that we truly did not have the capacity to imagine things as they have come about. This, of course, finds rather pedestrian articulation in the expression “stranger than fiction,” but I have always found that this sentiment misses the mark, ironically, for failing to capture the reality of that experience. Yes, of course, we have all known that which truly seems to bend the rules of time and space, but more often than not the experience more closely resembles the uncanny; paradoxical so as to be almost unearthly, defiant of the taxonomies we exercise on a daily basis to make sense of the world.
Often, I find I am most keen to this sensation when face to face – quite literally, or through art – with other people. There is something fundamentally sense-less about our human multitudes, and often the most visceral or essential expressions of humanity require a mental toying, simply because they did not come from us; are not reflective of our humanity. This proves its most moving, perhaps, when cast in relation to the indomitability of the human spirit: fortitude is not founded in logic, while dignity is more alchemical than it is simply the combination of traits.
When I view the late South African photographer David Goldblatt’s work, wherever it may be, this sensation sweeps over me, often bringing me to tears. Now the subject of a posthumous retrospective at the London branch of the Johannesburg-based Goodman Gallery, Goldblatt came to international acclaim during his lifetime for his ability to capture this indomitable spirit; his subjects, often black residents of the Soweto township who bore the yoke of apartheid, exude grace and dignity in the most trying of conditions, qualities Goldblatt graciously affords without casting them into the long shadow of pity.
In this vein, while his subjects pose before the camera, there is something unequivocally “real” about those pictured, and by extension, the photographs themselves. There is never any attempt to draw out more than what the subject already brings; no narrative to adhere to. Goldblatt’s subjects may fall victim to almost unthinkable bigotry, but they still exude a humor, while children cast in the crucible of the social margins still harbor a childish innocence. But then again, this ought to come as no surprise – the absence of agenda was a lifelong practice for the photographer, one he sought to manifest in each image he took. Vocal on his artistic philosophy until his death, Goldblatt remained resolved throughout his career to train his lens on the world simply as it revealed itself, unconcerned with artifice. “These things I capture in my work are real,” he said in the final interview before his death, adding “I’m not in the slightest bit interested in art and the glorification of art for art’s sake. It means nothing to me. I couldn’t give a fuck.”
Yet, to apply Goldblatt’s work – or, the spirit of his work – to the contemporary moment, for which it is ostensibly ripe, is a thorny task. While avowedly anti-apartheid and anti-racist throughout his life, Goldblatt was less than comfortable with elements of contemporary culture surrounding censorship, or more broadly, “cancelling,” even as they may have intersected with social reparations concerning race. This aversion came to a head most notably in 2015, when he re-gifted his archive to Yale University from the University of Cape Town in the wake of the #RhodesMustFall protests concerning a prominent statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes. Goldblatt had promised the University of Cape Town his archive upon his death, but as the administration heeded the demands of their outraged students – outrage we’ve seen echoed today, with regard to monuments to Rhodes and others – Goldblatt felt that “history [was] repeating,” deciding to instead gift his work to Yale’s New Haven campus. This move conveniently assuaged a number of other outstanding issues, notably UCT’s ability to properly house and maintain the work, but the impetus (and logic) was clear: rebinding history’s fissures and erasing its scars are not one and the same, and we must always work towards the former, while never slipping into the latter. Noble in its conception, surely, but one must ask if, at his death at the age of 87, Goldblatt was a relic of outmoded politics.
Yet, even this sentiment finds recourse in Goldblatt’s work. After all, the photographer was explicit in his aim to never weaponize his camera – ever the realist, he understood injustice was most troubling when delivered frankly, free of what he deemed “propaganda.” Take, for example, his photograph Young man at home, White City, Jabavu, Soweto (1972), picturing a young Black man sitting at his kitchen table, his wrist casually resting off the surface’s edge. Muscled with the raw power of the adolescent body, the subject meets Goldblatt’s camera frontally, exhibiting a comfort that belies his age. Upon first glance, the viewer wants to straighten their back and meet the sitter’s gaze – one ought to not look slovenly in eyes of such pride. But then after a moment, one remembers the currents of power as they drift away from this young man and back towards the viewer – even in their ability to go view the photograph, they enjoy a luxury that would otherwise have been denied to the subject. An injustice beyond the bounds of imagination, if it were not painfully true.
Goldblatt’s final place of rest is now the Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg, the city in which he is survived by his wife Lily and three children. Much remains unfixed in the country he left behind – after so much historical pain, the country is only now beginning to rid itself of the relapses of Jacob Zuma’s government. But while South Africa has yet to achieve the social equity for which Goldblatt spent his life in wait, it is fitting that the man is buried simply where he lived, able to keep a watchful eye – through a viewfinder or otherwise – on the streets that were his, and which he shared with the world.