South African Photographs: David Goldblatt Exhibition at the Jewish Museum

New York, NY – The Jewish Museum will present South African Photographs: David Goldblatt, an exhibition of 150 black-and-white silver gelatin prints taken between 1948 and 2009, from May 2 through September 19, 2010. The photographs on view focus on South Africa’s human landscape in the apartheid and post-apartheid eras. South African Photographs: David Goldblatt is the largest New York City exhibition of Goldblatt’s work since 2001.

For more than half a century, David Goldblatt has been photographing his native South Africa, documenting the social, cultural and economic divides that characterize the country. Recipient of the 2009 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award and the prestigious 2006 Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, David Goldblatt is his country’s most distinguished photographer.

Goldblatt’s photographs expose the complex and evolving nature of apartheid through the diversity and subtlety of his approach. He has not documented major political events or horrifying incidents of violence. Instead, he focuses on the details of daily life and the world of ordinary people, a world where the apartheid system penetrates every aspect of society. He is constantly searching for the substance beneath the surface of human situations. As Nadine Gordimer comments in the exhibition audio guide, Goldblatt captures “…these moments when everything that has happened to an individual is somehow in that image at that time. All the person has felt and known is contained, indeed, in the way he comports himself, the way he’s sitting, the way he looks, and the kind of setting in which he is.” Goldblatt frequently addresses a complex question in his work: how is it possible to be reasonable, decent, and law-abiding, and at the same time, complicit in and even actively supportive of a system that is fundamentally immoral and evil? Each photograph in this exhibition is an intimate portrayal of a culture living with racism and injustice.

David Goldblatt has used his camera to explore South Africa’s mines; the descendants of seventeenth-century Dutch settlers called Afrikaners who were the architects of apartheid; life in Boksburg, a small middle-class white community; the Bantustans or “puppet states” in which blacks were forced to live; structures built for purposes ranging from shelter to commemoration; and Johannesburg, the city in which Goldblatt lives.

The photographer once wrote, “I am neither an activist nor a missionary. Yet I had begun to realize an involvement with this place and the people among whom I lived that would not be stilled and that I needed to grasp and probe. I wanted to explore the specifics of our lives, not in theories but in the grit and taste and touch of things, and to bring those specifics into that particular coherence that the camera both enables and demands.”

David Goldblatt has been photographing the changing political landscape of his country for more than five decades. He is descended from Lithuanian Jews who fled Europe in the 1890s to escape religious persecution. His father passed on to him, the artist said, “a strong sense of outrage at anything that smacked of racism.” Growing up in segregated South Africa, he witnessed the deep humiliation and discrimination suffered by blacks and experienced anti-Semitism personally. These experiences have informed his work.

Goldblatt’s written commentary is an essential part of his work and is presented throughout the exhibition in the texts and labels that accompany the photographs. A context room in the exhibition features a timeline juxtaposing events in South African history and David Goldblatt’s life; books published by the photographer; photography magazines that inspired him; a large map of South Africa; and a 22-minute excerpt of David Goldblatt: In Black and White, a 1985 film originally aired on Channel 4 Television in Great Britain.

The exhibition has been organized by The Jewish Museum’s Senior Curator, Susan Tumarkin Goodman. All the works in the exhibition are silver gelatin prints on fiber-pressed paper.

Produced by The Jewish Museum in association with Acoustiguide, Inc., a random access audio guide using MP3 technology has been created for the South African Photographs: David Goldblatt exhibition. Available to visitors for $5.00, it features an introduction by The Jewish Museum’s Director Joan Rosenbaum. Visitors taking the audio guide will hear from David Goldblatt, who continues to lecture and talk about his body of work even as he produces compelling new images, as well as Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who has been writing about the racial and political complexities of South Africa for more than 50 years and is a close friend of David Goldblatt. Commentary by Sean Jacobs, a Professor of International Affairs at the New School who was born in South Africa in 1969, is also included.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg has published a related 200-page book with 150 black and white plates, Kith, Kin & Khaya: South African Photographs: David Goldblatt, which is available at The Jewish Museum’s Cooper Shop for $40.00. In its introduction, writer and critic Ingrid Sischy writes, “A highly sophisticated, even strict, sense of aesthetics, combined with a rigorous moral stance about what it means to take somebody’s photograph, is what sets Goldblatt’s work apart.” She also observes that “the glue that holds this broad body of work together is a mix of Goldblatt’s highly attuned eye and his razor-sharp mind. His photographs are objects of thought, as much as they’re objects to behold.”

South African Photographs: David Goldblatt is made possible through the generosity of an anonymous donor in memory of Curtis Hereld; the Joseph Alexander Foundation; Goldie and David Blanksteen; Nisa and Bradley Amoils; The Long Island Community Foundation – Stanley & Marion Bergman Family Charitable Fund; the Robert I. Goldman Foundation; the estate of Rhoda Cutler; and other donors.

About David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt was born in 1930, the youngest of the three sons of Eli and Olga Goldblatt. His grandparents arrived in South Africa from Lithuania around 1893, having fled the persecution of Jews in the Baltic countries. David’s paternal grandfather owned a general store in Randfontein, a gold-mining town near Johannesburg. Eli Goldblatt built the business into a respected men’s clothing store and for some years David assisted with the running of the shop when his father’s poor health necessitated it. But he was only biding his time. He had become interested in photography in high school, and after his father’s death in 1962, he sold the business to devote all of his time to being a photographer.

David Goldblatt’s works are held in many collections, including the Johannesburg Art Gallery; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the French National Art Collection; and the Bibliothèque National de France. He has published several books, including On the Mines, with Nadine Gordimer (1973); Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975); In Boksburg (1982); Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, with Nadine Gordimer (1986); The Transported of KwaNdebele with Brenda Goldblatt and Phillip van Niekerk (1989); South Africa: The Structure of Things Then (1998); Particulars (2003); Intersections (2005); Some Afrikaners Revisited (2007); and Intersections Intersected (2008).

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