David Goldblatt and the Image of South Africa

David Goldblatt and the Image of South Africa (2005)

(an excerpt)

Intersections is what might be termed David Goldblatt’s soul-reckoning with post-apartheid South Africa, his native country.  Building on more than five decades of demanding documentary initiatives, the project is both a culmination and a new direction for Goldblatt, particularly in the embrace of color and digital printing technologies.  Both as a statement about the initial aftermath of the apartheid era, and as a prognosis about the future of a country whose social history is profoundly traumatized, the work is a compendium of markings and indices, some small and some monumental, some narrow and some sweeping.  This compendium includes densely layered urban vistas, panoramas of remote countrysides, plaques, tablets, plaster and tin, glass and fiber, walls, rooftops and thresholds, signs and directives, words in granite, words in paint and ink, dirt and stone and headstones and tombstones, piles and strewn configurements, and in the midst:  municipal workers held in the grip of their own new and transfixing authority.  I could go on for some time with this kind of recombinant list—and it would be just as close and just as poor a claim on the photographs as whatever fully-formed sentences I might write, with their subjects and predicates and action words.

The premise of Intersections is a certain preoccupation with the fragment:  what happens, Goldblatt asks, when informationally dense observations are allowed to search one another in controlled ways?  What sorts of narratives emerge when differential attention to territories, persons, structures and ruins are overlaid into a single phenomenon—the photograph?  What is it then to combine these image into the larger modulated events of a book and an exhibition?  What is their status as social evidence?  How to understand the resulting clarities and opacities, specificities and ambiguities as testimony?

As his title suggests, Intersections conceives of photographs as sites of inter-crossing meanings—communal, national, ecological and occasionally personal.  In a fundamental sense, the photograph for Goldblatt is a constant exchange between what an image manifests and what it points to outside of itself, its exergue.  Something like Paul Strand, with whom he shares an attitudinal affinity, Goldblatt’s document trades on the ways that social insight through pictures is at the same time fast and restless, a matter of the low-grade frictiveness that exists between photographs’ arrestedness and the change to which arrestedness constantly refers.  Like Strand, Goldblatt operates through what rhetoricians call paralipsis, or speaking through discerning withdrawals and omissions in information.  The outer, nameable content of Goldblatt’s vision defers steadfastly to a contemplative purposiveness, a type of attentive receptivity whose best analogue is silence—silence met, and silence practiced.  Acting with a quiet proneness to the evidentiary potential of all things, including absence, Goldblatt’s challenge is to control the associative consequences of what we call “the observable.”

Or to put the point somewhat differently, Goldblatt’s pictures do not cooperate very well with theories of what picture-testimony is meant to look like.  His vision treats photographs not as revelations or annunciations but as valences, encounters with the things of the world in various states of bond-formation.  As such, the pictures are taciturn and at the same time driven, exclamatory and also reticent, restless and heavy, questing and introverted.  They appropriate for documentary purposes a strategy usually associated with abstraction, namely to move the audience to the limits of language, and to ask simultaneously what the verbal “sees” and what the non-verbal “says” from that position.  For Goldblatt this does not mean making documentary pictures that abandon narrative—on the contrary, the stories that emerge from the pictures and the captioning information are critical to his project, particularly in the book form (published by Prestel in 2005).  Goldblatt’s problem—and his achievement—is to fold narrative into a pictorial communicativeness, perhaps a wholeness, that admits both incisive and inchoate names for South Africa’s present, and the not-fully-formed imaginations for its future.

*            *            *