Acclaimed South African photographer David Goldblatt has devoted his career to documenting his country of birth, during and since the fall of apartheid. As a new show featuring his work opens at Barbican Art Gallery, David talks about the role of captions and why a degree in economics is great training for a photographer…
How did your career as a photographer begin?
I became interested in photography when I was in high school in the late ’40s. By the time I matriculated I wanted to be a magazine photographer. I tried for about a year to learn something about it but at the time there were no avenues in South Africa. I wrote to a well-known photographer on Picture Post. He was encouraging and told me to get on a ship and come to London, work as a tea boy in the magazine office, and that I would gradually progress. But I didn’t have the courage. I went into my father’s business and while I was there I maintained my interest in photography. When he died I sold his shop and became a full-time photographer.
What compelled you to stay in your home country of South Africa and document life under apartheid?
It was quite a slow process of self-examination and understanding. At first my wife and I felt that we had to get out of South Africa, that there was no possibility of bringing up children in a country like that, but then I realised I was far too involved in South Africa. And probably from about 1968 I had no wish to leave.
How do you approach your subjects?
I very seldom talk. I don’t aim to make my subjects comfortable. I want some tension. I want to make the subject understand that for me, and possibly for them, this is a serious occasion. When I’m taking a portrait, I prefer to set up the camera and then not shelter behind it, but rather to engage directly with eye contact. That’s sometimes quite painful.
How important is captioning to conveying the historical context of your work?
The words I put with my photographs are an integral part of the process. I don’t regard my photographs as precious objects to be seen in a vacuum. They are part of the real world I live in. It’s very important that people who look at them know something about them other than what is inherent in the picture – a date, a place, a time, whatever it is – some vital information. I’m not interested in people outside of South Africa. I’ve learnt I can’t talk to them because if they weren’t born there, they don’t know the image of the place. But in order to talk to my compatriots, I need to give them a context in which to see the pictures. If people outside South Africa are interested in my work, I’m happy but I haven’t attempted to talk directly to them.
What was your first camera and what camera do you use now?
The first camera I had that was vaguely serious was an Argus C3. It was made in America and wasn’t a very good instrument. Now I mostly use a 4x5 view camera. It’s a 19th-century instrument similar to the one Henry Fox Talbot used, but it’s actually very flexible. But it depends on the subject. I’m going to be doing some work in England on this trip and I brought a Nikon for that.
Do you have some advice for young photographers?
What sort of work do you want to do? If the answer is that you want to become an advertising photographer, for example, then go to a good art college and learn all the skills: painting, sculpture, drawing, design, typography. If you want to do the sort of thing I do, my advice would be: if you can afford it, go to university but don’t study photography. Study geology, history or economics. I did a degree in commerce – not the most exciting subject – but it taught me economics. Learn the logic of thought processes that relate to a particular body of knowledge, so that when you go out into the real world you can apply an analytical approach.
David Goldblatt's work features in Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s, which runs from 13 September 2012 to 13 January 2013 at Barbican Art Gallery in London.
Main image of David Goldblatt © Copyright 2012 Jane Hobson
Image two by David Goldblatt. Saturday morning at the Hypermarket: Semi-final of the Miss Lovely Legs Competition. 1979-1980. Courtesy of the photographer and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg © Copyright 2012 David Goldblatt
Image three by David Goldblatt. Sarah and George Manyani in their house, Emdeni Extension, Soweto. August 1972. Courtesy of the photographer and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg © Copyright 2012 David Goldblatt
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