Style, June 2006
And The Guru Sails On
Why older bodies fascinate South Africa's most famous Photographer
Why he sometimes employs an armed guard
And what David Goldblatt will wear to the Hasselblad Foundation Award in Sweden
By Hilary Prendlnl Toffoll
Photography by Nick Aldridge of Hurricanes
THE BODY ON THE COVER of Antjie Krog's latest volume of poetry, Body Bereft, belongs to a woman in her 60s. You can't see her face. What you can see are her surprisingly young-looking boobs. The photograph was taken by David Goldblatt, who is more renowned for his unsettling portraits of ordinary South Africans in ordinary situations, clothed. Those iconic images, layered with meaning, are on another stretch of more political turf altogether from these ambiguous shots of naked people past their youth.
"As a photographer l have always been aware of our bodies," he says during a visit to Cape Town, where he has his prized printmaker, Tony Meintjies. "The marks that life leaves on our bodies, the tensions that exist between the various parts...It's something I have pursued over the years. When Antjie Krog wrote to me, wanting photographs of older people, we found a shared interest."
The interest did not, however, lead to a collaboration, as it had earlier in his career with Nadine Gordimer, whose short stories inspired two of Goldblatt's 10 books. "Suddenly I was reading in the most precise pungent way about the Witwatersrand we grew up on..."
Ironically, most of his books, though sought-after collector's items, have been commercial disasters. "Copies of In Boksburg now go for about R3,000, but at the time the book just about bankrupted my friend Paul Alberts who published it. I can't live off my books. Royalties bear no relation to what goes into them.
"On the other hand, what have become ridiculously lucrative are my print sales to collectors and museums. The art market for photographs has really taken off, though I suspect it might be based on fashion. It's a bubble. The people at Michael Stevenson and Goodman Gallery work very hard on my behalf. So here I am on the doorstep of dotage actually earning a living."
He turns 76 on November 29, when he'll be in Sweden collecting the 2006 Hasselblad Foundation Award from a member of the Swedish royal family'd0the kroner equivalent of R400,000. With him will be his wife Lily, a social worker with whom he lives in what he describes as "a comic book Cape Dutch house built in 1938 on the wrong side of the tracks, in a suburb called Fellside next to Houghton." They have three children'd0Brenda, the filmmaker, in Britain, and his sons, Steven the advocate and Ronnie the website designer, in Johannesburg.
Though South Africa's most famous photographer says he hasn't received many prizes, he's been the subject of two documentaries and 13 international exhibitions, as well as endless local ones. Between 2001 and 2005 a David Goldblatt retrospective was shown in New York, Barcelona, Rotterdam, Lisbon, Oxford, Brussels, Munich and Johannesburg, and he currently has work in major public collections in New York, San Francisco, Paris, Cologne, Vienna, Perth and London. Not bad for a Randfontein boykie whose Lithuanian Jewish father had a men's outfitting store. Goldblatt worked there till the age of 32, when his father died and he sold the business to devote himself full time to photography.
It was at the height of apartheid. "I had a sort of missionary zeal to tell the world what was happening here, but I soon realised I couldn't be an activist with a camera. I'm physically a coward. I shy away from confrontation. What I'm most interested in is photographing the underbelly of society."
The pioneer of this type of reportage in his homeland, he remains careful not to exploit his subjects. "As a photographer you have considerable power. You can see what your subjects look like but they can't. You can do a hatchet job, which I confess I have done in some of my political portraits in Leadership magazine. My overriding wish is to present the complexities of reality. We're all a mixture, not wholly good or wholly bad. The challenge is to allow the viewer to find his own way into the photograph, unless it's a shot like the one I did of a Pretoria policeman in Church Square. There's no way you can read anything but evil into that face."
He's been mugged twice while working. "Now, when I work in central Johannesburg and the townships I have an armed guard. Thabo works quietly, doesn't make himself obvious. But still it's a step backwards. I always felt if I showed people I trusted them, they'd trust me."
Though he attended tbe openings of his retrospective he tends to find overseas travel disruptive. "The threads that you work with, that exist in your conscious mind, are fragile. They get lost, buggered up by air travel."
More rewarding is driving around South Africa, capturing his visions upside down and the wrong way round on large-format film. Often alone.
Though the Hasselblad invitation says 'black tie' he feels he's entitled to a certain amount of license. "I have reduced my life to the bare essentials, nothing I regard as fat." So he might opt for something traditional, like a Mandela shirt.
Love and a very special thanks to Ann in SA for feeding my interests.