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David Goldblatt and Beyond

A Panel Discussion with Gabi Ngcobo, Oluremi C. Onabanjo, and Jo Ractliffe

Recorded on March 23, 2021

Presented alongside the exhibition David Goldblatt: Strange Instrument in New York, this panel discussion brought together curator and educator Gabi Ngcobo, critic and scholar Oluremi C. Onabanjo, and photographer Jo Ractliffe for a conversation about Goldblatt’s work, life, and legacy.

Focusing on questions of ethics, empathy, care, and access surrounding Goldblatt’s work—and in documentary and photographic practice more broadly—the panel considers the lives and histories captured in his images, as well as the influence of his work on subsequent generations of photographers and artists working in Johannesburg, South Africa, and beyond.

Learn more about David Goldblatt.

Oliver Shultz (OS): Hi, thanks for joining us. We're just giving it a few more seconds for a couple more people to enter the room, it takes some time, as we all know by now.

Okay, well I'm going to jump right into it because time is short and I am very eager to be in conversation with these three amazing panelists that have joined us here today. Good afternoon. Good morning. Good evening. Whatever time zone you're in, I hope it's good. My name is Oliver Shultz. I'm Curatorial Director at Pace Gallery. Thank you so much for joining us for today's panel discussion to mark the final days of the exhibition, David Goldblatt: Strange Instrument, which is on view here at Pace in New York through March 27th. Pace is honored to participate in expanding the conversation around David Goldblatt's legacy and it was really thrilling for us to have the brilliant artist Zanele Muholi as a curator on this show. Muholi was not only Goldblatt's student, but also a close friend. They've put together what is, I think, a really remarkable show of forty-five photographs selected and arranged from across various bodies of Goldblatt’s work dating between 1962 and 1990, the year, of course, that Mandela was released from prison. Essentially, a period that tracks the height of apartheid policies.

For audiences outside of South Africa who might be less familiar with his work, Goldblatt is revered for having captured some of the most influential images of everyday life during apartheid. He did so with an uncommon sense of empathy, compassion, and care for his subjects. Goldblatt’s work is never not urgent, I think it's fair to say, but especially for those of us in the US and elsewhere who continue to contend with our own legacies of racism, colonialism, and state violence, there's certainly never been a time when it felt more urgent to attend to the many lessons, challenges, and revelations that I think Goldblatt's work lays bare.

It was extraordinary for us at the gallery to learn that this is the first time Muholi has engaged with or thought deeply about their mentor's work since his passing in 2018. The show is really a deeply personal and in some ways kind of elegiac meditation on the brutal beauty that Goldblatt’s camera captured. It interweaves his deeply arresting portraits with a wide range of subject matter from the close-cropped images that he called the “particulars,” to the landscapes and architectures that he called “structures of dominion and democracy,” to subterranean scenes of miners, to middle-class white ballerinas and their backyards, to all kinds of street photography, to neighborhoods that would be bulldozed shortly thereafter and exist only in the form of Goldblatt's documentation. All these were places to which what he called his “strange instrument,” the camera, granted some form of access, and the resulting project documented spaces of white privilege in segregated enclaves, but it also captured images of Black life under conditions of profound oppression, but also mobility and even joy. For Muholi, I think Goldblatt's enterprise really problematizes the very question of access, control of which was, of course, in many ways central to the system of apartheid.

Given that this show is so specific to the history of South Africa and also so personal, we're incredibly lucky to have here today three panelists who are, I think, uniquely positioned to speak to these dynamics, both in Goldblatt's body of work in particular, but also in Muholi’s framing and presentation of it to us. So before I introduce them, I want to just take a moment and thank a few people. Goodman Gallery and especially Liza Essers, who've done such a tremendous job of representing Goldblatt. Yancey Richardson, whose involvement has really made possible our collaboration with Muholi. And finally, and most importantly, Zanele Muholi, who, while they couldn't join us today, have given us a gift, really, in the form of this very moving and thought-provoking show in which I very much hope you'll be able to see if you're in New York before it closes this Saturday, the 27th. Now, our three brilliant panelists.

Gabi Ngcobo is an artist, curator and educator living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the past two decades, Ngcobo has been engaged in a range of collaborative, artistic, curatorial, and educational projects in South Africa and internationally. In 2018, she curated the 10th Berlin Biennial of Contemporary Art titled We Don't Need Another Hero, and was one of the co-curators of the 32nd Sao Paolo Biennial in 2016. She is a founding member of the Johannesburg-based collaborative platforms NGO, Nothing Gets Organized, and the Center for Historical Reenactments. Ngcobo’s writings have appeared in numerous books, exhibition catalogues, and journals. She's taught at the Wits School of the Arts and in November 2020 was appointed curatorial director at the Javit Art Center at the University of Pretoria.

Oluremi C. Onabanjo is a curator and scholar of Photography and the Arts of Africa based in New York City. She was formerly Director of Exhibitions and Collections for the Walther Collection and has organized exhibitions in Europe, North America, and Africa. In 2017, she co-curated Recent Histories: Contemporary African Photography, editing its accompanying publication, which was shortlisted for an ICP Infinity Award. Onabanjo lectures internationally on photography and curatorial practice, and her writing has appeared in Aperture, The New Yorker, Tate Etc., and many other publications and venues. Remi is an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grantee and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at Columbia University.

Since the 1980s, Jo Ractliffe's photographs have reflected her ongoing preoccupation with the South African landscape and the ways in which it figures in the country's imaginary, particularly the violent legacies of apartheid. In 2007, she began documenting the aftermath of the war in Angola and its repercussions in South Africa, which resulted in three photobooks, Terreno Ocupado 2008, ‘As Terras do Fim do Mundo 2010, and the Borderlands of 2013. Since 1985, Ractliffe has taught in a range of formal and informal contexts, including Wits University, the Market Photo Workshop and the Salzburg Summer Academy. She's also initiated independent public projects that engage photography to reflect on history and memory in South Africa. We're all very excited that a retrospective of Jo’s work, Jo Ractliffe: DRIVES is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through August, which you must see if you can, and Steidl has also just published a new book on her work.

So please join me in welcoming, virtually clapping, for these three very distinguished, wonderful panelists who have joined us today to talk about David Goldblatt, but also to go beyond that, to also talk about Goldblatt's legacy and his influence on other artists and practitioners, not least among them, of course, Zanele Muholi. Now Remi and Gabi, you've both engaged with Muholi's work as well as being aware of Goldblatt and thinking about his legacy. Whereas, Joe, I think you're also very aware of my Muholi's work and what they're doing, but also looking at it from the perspective of a practicing photographer and an artist. Of the three of you, only Remi was able to come and see the show in New York, so I thought maybe I would start with you, Remi, and just ask if you might share with us a few of your impressions of the exhibition and what you came away from it thinking.

Olumremi Onabanjo (OO): Sure, absolutely. And thank you so much for bringing us together, Oliver. But I think, yeah, the person who was able to go and see the exhibition, it did feel really like a gift. One insofar as Goldblatt is for me is significant to my understanding of South African photography and photography, full stop. He’s oriented my thinking and so to see work that is for me, emblematic of this practice and really gives us an opportunity to engage with the intersection of social critique and photographic form was really wonderful. But also, and I think we mentioned this a little bit yesterday in a brief conversation, it was slightly disorienting and in a really lovely way for me, the longer I spent time in space because this is Goldblatt's, but this is Goldblatt through the eyes of Muholi, right. So this is Goldblatt according to “On Textured” or “On Poverty” or “On the Margins”. So it's not necessarily Goldblatt for me, like, as the art historian who encounters Goldblatt through the Particulars, which is a series that is super close to my heart, or Goldblatt through In Boksburg or Goldblatt through On the Mines, it's like a reorientation to his vision and the scope of his work. So that felt really lyrical and poetic, and it gave me also a sense, like from the way I was reorienting and put myself through the space, it was a nice feeling of like walking with or walking in relation to Muholi's relationship to the work. So that was really nice. I mean, for me, the gracenote of the exhibition is sort of the last piece and it's one category and one image, “On Segregation, Racial Divides, Beaches Detected Social Distance Before We Knew About It,”, and that was a moment for me to say, OK, you know, this is the way we think about photography that can always speak to our context, always give us something. So that's my report to the group, I guess I would say, as a way to start us off.

OS: Thank you, Remi, for that, I wonder, Gabi, if you might say a few words about your understanding of Muholi's approach to photography as an artist and what it might mean to think about the work of Goldblatt as this sort of canonical figure in the history of South African photography through the very particular interests of Muholi. What does that mean to you?

Gabi Ngcobo (GN): Yeah, I think we're talking about two people who have really affected or changed the landscape of photography as we have known it. I know Muholi since they started with the Project, I guess 2005, they were always concerned about representation, because there's power in representation, and they entered the practice from that angle of wanting to see oneself represented in culture. And so, indeed, I have been following their practice from the beginning, from only half a picture and throughout through the projects that they are doing now, including painting, which has been quite an amazing journey also to follow. Of course, the shock, I mean, for me of moving from photography to painting and just seeing that relationship that have an image. So that has been quite amazing, a gift, so to speak. Of course, in the context of South Africa, Goldblatt is a very important figure who I think, of course, with his work, but I think mostly with the founding of the Market Photo Workshop, because also this has reshaped the way that we would thinking of photography before, and especially with young women, seeing the world through young Black women has been a major shift in an art form that has been so gendered in a way. So when I think about that space, I think a lot about a lot of people.

I was actually, when Goldblatt had an exhibition at the New Museum, I think it was 2009 or 2010, I was invited by Eungie Joo to put together a panel, which we titled Mandela's Ego, which is taken from a book by Lewis Nkosi. I brought together South Africans who were already in New York at the time I was in New York to not necessarily reflect on the work of Goldblatt, but also to show another picture in response to his work and really talking about Afrikaans as a language and how it is used in hip hop, especially in Cape Town, but also, intellectual history of South Africa. I think it's always important, of course, to look at David's lens in relation to other lenses and I think what Muholi has done, is basically like what we see in this show is like is Muholi’s queer eye. I think this is what they've been able to do, to queer the archive of David Goldblatt in very interesting ways, in ways that I have never seen the selection of work put together before.

OS: Absolutely, in ways that are, that was beautifully said, Gabi, thank you, in ways that are definitely so thought-provoking and provocative, perhaps, most for those who knew the work best, know it best, and knew David. Not to say that it necessarily is against the spirit of Goldblatt, but quite the opposite. I think it draws out so much that is at the core of what Goldblatt was trying to do, but at the same time, in ways that are very counterintuitive or certainly unusual for those that know his careful practice of, for example, giving long descriptive captions that identify the people in the photographs, which Muholi has pushed against with their own categories that they have introduced that reframe the meaning of the works and bring them into interesting conversations. Jo, I guess I would put to you, since you know the work as well, or maybe better than most, and knew David as a person, how did this strike you, this gesture? How did you respond when you saw these ways in which Muholi had engaged with Goldblatt?

Jo Ractliffe (JR): My initial response was that I just wished that David were here and in a room with Muholi and I could be a fly on the wall and listen to their conversation because I think... I mean, he always loved debate and engagement and I think one of the things that sometimes he found difficult is that people sometimes weren't critical directly towards him. Weren't, and when I say critical, not simply criticizing, but engage critically with his work, but he also was... I remember in my very first encounter of him, the word particular came up in relation to photography and I think that would particularity describes him. And it developed over the years, if you look at early work, it's less caption than later work, and I think that shows a different sense of a relation to what he's photographing and a sense of responsibility. He was at times... You know, all things had their place, and so to disrupt that, I mean, when I first saw that Muholi had disassembled Particulars, that particular's now was about texture, was about on being gendered, was about intimacy, that it had floated into very different categories, I was a bit shocked in a way because I think it's an important thing, and I say this as a photographer myself, who has started doing that with my own body of work and wants to do that, but at the same time, recently, in some conversations with curators, I find myself hanging on to my own little sort of capsules. I think this is very, very interesting because it forces you to look at the photographs in a very different way. You can't have the old frame in a way. It really does invigorate them. But I would be curious about what his response would be. I think you would enjoy the debate. I have no doubt.

OO: I love what you said, Jo, with this, about the question of critical engagement, because that is something I see with both practices, both Zanele and with David's work, it's the question of engaging and bringing things up to be questioned. Right, to present a tableau, to present a scene and allow a viewer to engage critically. I feel like this relationship also to text, like the refrain of “on,” on this, on this topic, moving that way, it's really, to me conceptually, it's such a nice, mimicking of the critical apparatus that is suffused in Goldblatt's work, but then suspended for me through Muholi's expression. I mean, to see Particulars in all sorts of places like seeping through, I think it speaks a little bit to the question of what can be categorized or made the subject of something and then what is everywhere.

JR: I think Gabi's point on queering would also be a really interesting thing for David. I remember once on a panel at the ICP and he was starting to do a series of work that I don't think had ever been published, but it was on naked people. I accused him of having artistic pretensions and disavowing them because he would say that he wasn't interested in aesthetics. But in the panel, and it was part of the performance of our relationship, which was always slightly argumentative and debating, I'd said that he wasn't known particularly for a sensual engagement, that he was seen as this archivist. He got really cross with me and and, in fact, referenced Particulars, and the sexuality of Particulars, and a number of other images. He would talk about those in terms of sexuality, and not simply about intimacy or closeness, it was about sexuality. I think that’s something... Particulars tends to, and in my view, I might be wrong, it tends to be received as a kind of formal project in a way, and not as a project in the way that Gabi, you describe it, and so, that’s something really interesting to think about.

GN: Yes, I read an interview where Santu is quoted saying that David Goldblatt, who was also the mentor of Santu Mofokeng, David Goldblatt is interested in the “thing-iness” of things and he is also interested in the “not thing-iness" of things. The poetries are different, but I still consider David’s work also very poetic in a way. I think the way that he's captured people in the parks, the images from 1975, the one that is on screen now, are quite beautiful which makes a lot of sense when people want to find apartheid in his work and they don't. So I think in terms of capturing the ordinariness of life, what Njabulo Ndbele has called “the rediscovery of the ordinary,” he does that in very beautiful ways and I think it’s in the titling that things become more descriptive.

JR: I mean that thing of poetics, if you look at Some Afrikaners, some of those works on this exhibition, but I'm thinking particularly of, I mean it's such a complex, layered, nuanced body of work. There's one photograph of a young boy with his nursemaid, and it's a young white boy in short pants, probably eleven or twelve and his nursemaid is this young woman, on the edge of puberty. There’s something about the gesture of the way she has her hand on his shoulder and he's reaching around behind her and he holds, he’s cupping her heel in his hand. It's a photograph, it almost makes me weep. It's a photograph of such charge of intimacy and tragedy because you know where the story is going to go, in that sense you know where the narrative goes. But there's something so beautifully poetic and nuanced about those tiny little observations that I think really what is extraordinary in his work. He often used to drive me nuts, we would go on a photography trip and he'd come back and we'd look at the work and he’d say “what's the point of that picture?” and I said, “I don't know, David, what's the point of the picture?” There would be a roundabout or a swing, and he would say, “Look at the ground. Everywhere the ground is loose, but underneath this roundabout, it's hardened. And that's millions of tiny little feet that have been running around in this playground.” And it's that attention to detail that just blows my mind.

OS: It seems like nothing was without meaning for him, he could find how social meaning existed in even the most seemingly background characteristics of a given scene. And I think that's also very apparent in his images of architecture, which he made, really throughout his career, but in the ‘80s, he starts to focus on these images of churches. And there's one point where he's talking about how they become increasingly bunker-like as the world is turning against apartheid and there's increasingly this global movement. You see the white South Africans hunkering down in these bunker-like churches, and I wonder, too, about how he treated just landscapes, buildings. He's very well known for his portraits and maybe a little bit less so for these other kinds of scenes. But for you, Jo, landscape has been very important in your work. I think that the question of landscape more generally and the politics of it are huge. So I wonder how we think about those kinds of images now, as well as not just the images of people.

OO: Yeah, I mean, I would say Gabi really got it with the quote from Santu Mofokeng on Goldblatt and the thing-iness of things. To me, that's where you get to the structures of life that Goldblatt is heralded for in my mind, is able to give you a sense, from a slightly dispassionate, mid-range image that gives you a sense of exaclty what is happening in this world, and that can be as structured, brick and mortar-wise as the churches that you referenced, Oliver, but also the spaces in between. Which I think, yeah, is what you get a sense of with these two.

JR: Is that the image you were talking about, Remi?

OS: Right. This is one of the more explicit images of apartheid in his work, because we were talking about this quote earlier, before the panel began. At one point, Goldblatt was having trouble publishing his work outside of South Africa with magazines that wanted to see documentation of apartheid because it wasn't explicit enough for them. There was no obvious violence, there was no obvious sort of oppression. Something like this is about as explicit as it gets. It's very interesting, as you pointed out, Remi, that Muholi presents this under the banner of social distancing before we had heard about it. But these empty landscapes, how does the landscape work in Goldblatt's work? He grew up surrounded by gold mines. The land is such a charged figure in South African imaginary, to use a word that's associated with your work, Jo, as a place that's constantly a site of contestation and struggle. Also, in the way he's documenting Black communities that are then bulldozed and destroyed, or communities of color that are bulldozed and destroyed. That feels like an incredibly important function in his work, in terms of documentary practice, but then those images, as has been pointed out, are so beautiful. How do we reconcile the beauty of them with the devastating truth that they reveal?

JR: I think certainly with the beginning of Structures, but actually even way before, I mean, his photographs of Fietas, the demolishing of that and that when he started working with structures, I think something crystallized in terms of his own understanding of his project. He talks about wanting to understand and know the world through photography. It was very much... that was the project. With Structures he starts talking about values, and there's something about how the values of apartheid are reflected in space. I mean, landscape is such a difficult word, and I wish somebody would find another word for it, but there's something really interesting in the way just that these bunker churches that you were referring to, Oliver, how it reflects values and that movement across the landscape. I can remember at one point, it took me aback, obviously, because my access across the landscape is one thing. I drive, and I can remember listening once to Santu, talking about landscape in his work, but talking about precisely that lack of movement and that landscape was actually quite a frightening, threatening thing. For me, it was the total opposite. I just assumed out in the landscape you can be free. So it was a big awakening, and starting to look at that quite early on and looking at Goldblatt's images, that landscape is not sort of simply there. There’s this is one photograph I was actually looking at Alex Dodd's the last interview and I was talking with Brenda [Goldblatt], but there's one photograph and I think it's in Leeu Gamka in one of the Karoo towns, in the middle of driving for miles nowhere. There is a pedestrian bridge that goes over the railway track and there are actually two separate... There's a barrier between Black people and white people. They would walk alongside each other, but there's a barrier between these tiny little things and you might not notice it. I mean, there isn't a sign, but if you really look at the photograph you see how deeply embedded apartheid ideology [is]. Its project, its enterprise, its everything was really inflicted in everything. Everything. And I think that's why there was no other project for him.

GN: That's why there was?

JR: No other project for him, you know. This was this kind of researching, investigating, trying to understand, being horrified and appalled, his own participation in this was really inexhaustible.

GN: Yeah, I feel that there's no photograph that he didn't take or he didn't make, when I look at Goldblatt’s work. I used to live in the CBD [Central Business District]––for a long time––of Johannesburg, and I walked the city everywhere. And I just remember how many times I would encounter a moment or a spot from Goldblatt's photographic history in the city as well. One project that I really also enjoyed is when he went back some years after to the same spots where he had taken the photograph in the ‘70s and going back in the 2000s and standing in the same place. Just to show the changes of of the city and how Johannesburg became the African city that it is now post-’94.

JR: That's lovely. I mean, that's how he began as well, walking the city, It's how you get to know a place. But it's just wonderful to hear you talk about the way that your experience framed by an image by somebody decades before perhaps.

OS: I think that was actually also one of the things that was most interesting to Muholi too, was thinking about these places that are accessible in a weird way across time, because they're still there and some of them are not all that changed even as others are, and also that so many of the conditions of that of life under apartheid are not gone or they continue, as you pointed out, Gabi, that persist in so many ways, especially in the ‘90s and 2000s. As we know and as so many of Goldblatt's series explicitly attempted to point out, like in the Transported series, I think that's all so central to thinking about his work. But I want to also think about an image like this, which I think is so extraordinary, not just because it's this amazingly sort of fashionable self presentation, in which he's captured these two individuals in a way that doesn't feel, at least to me, kind of invasive, even though he's coming into their home, which is clearly a place where he doesn't live and he's not from. But he's also in the photograph because he's reflected in this central column if you look and see his shadow there. There's something about Goldblatt's presence in the image here that to me reminds me that he is, as you say, walking through these, going to these places, going on his his bicycle, going around and physically engaging with the communities that he's portraying in his photos. So I guess that question of access is a really important one, too, for this show and the thorny, ethical questions of when does photography become an invasive or exploitative practice and when does it become one that grants a voice and a presence to the person or people or things that it's depicted?

GN: Yeah, I think you're right, it's really important to think about the economies of access when we think of Goldblatt, of course, he was a white man in a very divided society and this image in front of us right now, it just reminds me of a project that a young photographer, Sabelo Mlangeni, who also studied at the Market Photo Workshop, he undertook this project in a place in Johannesburg that is called Bertrams, which basically has a kind of low income, so-called poor white people around it. He would go to make photographs in there and it's really interesting to look at this project because I think there's only one image when he is allowed to come in the house. Most of the people, of his subjects, do not allow him to come in. So all the images are allowed, but they are allowed from outside. I think this is quite, I mean, of course it's interesting. It's interesting with Goldblatt’s that I think MoMA owns almost 200 images, maybe more of him. I understood that Goldblatt also would go to New York or to many other places and he would knock basically on the doors of MoMA and say, this is my work and then they would buy it from him directly. It's also important to know that so many other photographers, Black photographers, Alf Kumalo and Ernest Cole, didn't have the the same kind of access. Ernest Cole had to change his name so that it doesn't sound too African, change his identity, smuggle his negatives out of the country never to come back again and died in New York. Those things are interesting to also think about and they’re critical.

JR: I think he was very aware of that. I think certainly in these periods of the ‘70s when apartheid was so effectively managed to invisiblize anything outside of its own interests, but one of the things that really interests me, I mean, David was quite often criticized for standing apart, for not, certainly during the ‘80s when there was a real emphasis on on collectivity, and I think Gabi, what you are talking about, actually speaks to the Photo Workshop, and part of his motivation was, he was very involved in the beginnings of the Market Theatre and the Market Gallery and started the photo gallery and had and it was really about his own experience of talking with young Black people who came to these exhibitions and were interested in photography, but who had no access. He started classes and the initial classes were out of a room in the Market Theatre, and then it developed, and part of it was around people being able to tell their own stories and that their stories weren't being told by people like him. He had his own story and he was interested in the intersections of these stories. But I think that's the extraordinary legacy. His contribution of setting up and developing the Photo Workshop, and he was involved in it until died, and on the ground, and that speaks a lot to his engagement and development. I think that's quite an unparalleled thing.

GN: I almost don't know anybody who was not mentored by Goldblatt, you know.

OO: Indirectly, right? Every photographer who ...

GN: Indirectly, yeah.

OS: So for someone who doesn't know, what is Market Photo Workshop? I mean, how would you... because it's clearly a school, obviously, but it's much more than that.

JR: Well, it started out as providing skills, actually. I mean, part of the skill was photographic skills, part of it was providing literacy, and I think some of it was equipping people and in the beginning, particularly Black people. Young, emerging, starting to develop young Black photographers and I think some of it was if somebody wanted to pursue some kind of career in photography and sort of an enterprise, so the emphasis was very much on skills. Then it was a small space opposite the Market Theatre, which is all located downtown in Johannesburg, which is now a kind of cultural precinct. But it's in the old fruit market, that's why it's called the Market Theatre, and the Market Theatre was quite famous. It began in the mid-70s, started by Barney Simon, the playwright, and it was a space that so ironically, kind of flew under the radar, it seems, because it was really a place where Black and white artists came together. I mean, John Carney, some of the great actors in this country and in fact, in the Market Gallery. So many people had their first show... I remember [indecipherable] having his first show at the Market Gallery. It started really around practical, technical skills, and then it grew. We moved to a different premises across the road, the program expanded, it took on exhibition projects, curating mentorships that had a whole publishing program, I'm talking about it in the past tense, but it’s actually alive and well in downtown Joburg.

And Gabi you're right, he would come in especially with mentorships and group critiques. He would be present, but. I mean, there's the story about Muholi knocking on David's door and showing him their photographs and in fact, so many photographers. After he died, I remember we had a memorial at the Photo Workshop and I'm going to get teary now. I was struck. I mean, I mentored Sabelo during one of the fellowship programs and I didn't know this, but at the memorial, Sabelo spoke about how David had paid his rent for a year in Bertram’s, and it's not simply that kind of monetary generosity, it's also anybody he would have time for people. That was his gift. He was himself, but he was incredibly expansive in his commitment to photography and to... I think that, Gabi, you were talking about, and it was something that I was thinking about, you know, the expanse of publication and the access and the resources he's had, and it's not the same. I mean, it's starting to shift with photographers like Santu Mofokeng, but there's still so many photographers, Cedric Nunn, I can list the number of photographers who really also need their work to be seen. I think one of the things, the commitment behind David and Market Photo Work, that was precisely that was not to be part of the structures of dominion. Actually he would spread himself.

OS: And much easier said than done, but he seems to have been remarkably successful in that way, and for you to say, Gabi, that you hardly know anyone who didn't in some way touch the Market Photo Workshop is extraordinary. Clearly it's furthered, the legacy of David and his hopes for it beyond maybe what he even would have imagined, which is, I also think, what this show is about too. It's about looking at his work and finding things in it that are a plentitude beyond maybe what even he himself drew out of it, which was an enormous amount, which is all there for us and yet even more is there as we encounter it now. As an art historian who's thinking about, the histories of photography, Remi, in various other different contexts in Africa, in South America, in contemporary art, I think it's interesting to think, too, about how the reverberations of Market Photo Workshop hits the history of photography outside of South Africa for people who will never have heard of it. That, to me, is quite remarkable.

OO: I was going to note, the other thing I feel if we're talking also about access and circulation, something that I find really important with considering David Goldblatt's work is the relationship to text and also the photobooks, like the photobook-making practice is so significant. Even though this is on the occasion of an exhibition, but I do think in the way that for me, and I actually was in conversation with a Ghanaian photographer, Eric Gyamfi, a couple of weeks ago, and we were talking about engaging with photographs spatially and on the page and via a screen, but also in moments of immense social-political turmoil. What it means to be a photographer, who knows when it's time to put down the camera and start to pick up the pen to write, and we were talking about how Goldblatt and Mofokeng are two photographers who knew exactly how to do that. You know, they took unbelievable photographs that were socially critical and sensitive, but also had a power of the word and a recognition of how it works in tandem with the image that I do feel also because of the way that Goldblatt’s photobooks are amazing and so meticulous. Also collaborative, like he's working with Nadine Gordimer in the ‘60s. So you get this sense of a relationship of not only how to photograph as you see something, but how in tandem with text it gives you so much more. For photographers, I found that really instructive because to hear that coming out of Eric's mouth, I was like, yes, absolutely.

OS: Such an important point. Thank you, Remi, for that, and it couldn't be more relevant to this show and the additional layer of text that Muholi brings to complicate an already very richly complex configuration. As we're coming into our last few minutes of the panel, I want to just invite everyone in our audience to ask questions of our panelists using the Q&A feature on Zoom. A couple have already come through. Here's one that I think is important. Someone asks, “Do you think the Goldblatt's Jewish background and being partly an outsider and not fully an insider in South Africa contributed to his hyper-awareness of what was going on and his interest in documenting?” Goldblatt, of course, was Jewish, and in that way, though, he was white, which gave him access to all of these places that if you were a person of color or a Black person, you obviously would not have had access to. At the same time, it's true. He was Jewish, he was in some sense, apart from the Afrikaner community.

JR: Yeah, I was checking with Brenda Goldblatt, his daughter, about his growing up. During the war, two of his brothers even fought in the war and in a town where anti-Semitism ran rampant and was rife. I think he had a real sense of being outside of things and had an understanding of what that kind of prejudice could do, and I think it really honed his sensitivities and that does make a difference in terms of understanding your place in things. At the same time in a different context, being white, you occupy these positions both that are inside and outside of things, what we were talking earlier on about access. But I do think that it must have informed him.

GN: Yeah, I think the South African Jewish community, in general, and their role as allies of Black people, that can be said a lot in the history of this country. Ruth First, Helen Suzman, many, many, many people from that particular community who so, you know, an affinity with the struggle of Black people in South Africa. These are people you would find in the townships, you would find in so many spaces, trying to show a different kind of humanity than the dehumanizing one for apartheid.

JR: He worked in his father's shop and one of the things that Brenda was talking about the other day was, and it's something that I remember, the training that he got in that shop, but in the prison, a men's outfitters. Brenda was talking about how for her grandfather, every single person who came into that shop was a customer and it didn't matter who you were, where you came from, what color your skin was. You were a customer in that shop. I think that kind of humanism is really informed, but I think he was also deeply aware of his own complicity in things and I think at times that was something that he really struggled with. The limitations. It's not an easy position for someone who had this stature to occupy at times.

OS: Such an important point, I think, and I'm glad that you bring up his father and the shop because there's a question from someone asking whether or not his father, being a tailor, helped him see the details, like in the Particulars. I love that question because there is something about the way they cut into the image that maybe is like being a tailor.

JR He would boast to me that anyone could walk into the shop and he would know their shirt collar size, he would know all of those things. And in fact, I remember once we were in Freiburg and we bought a gift for the people we were staying with and there was this young guy at the table who was trying to wrap this as a gift and was hopeless at wrapping it properly. David got quite impatient and took it from him and wrapped up this bottle of wine and chocolates absolutely perfectly. I was horrified. I mean, it was absolutely impeccable, and he looked at me and said, “That's my training.”

GN: That's amazing.

OS: Amazing, I love that story. Someone asked whether David ever used color film, and the answer is yes, but not until later on in the whole history of use of color photography. In a way, we need a whole other panel for that. But it does remind me, though, of something we were discussing, which is the fact that David's work was presented here in an art gallery. Muholi, of course, has a show right now at Tate and describes themselves as an artist and an activist, whereas David seemed to be reticent to describe himself either as an artist or an activist. Yet, I think, clearly was both. What do these categories mean for us now? Artist, activist, photographer? I mean, you, Jo, I think, have thought about this and dealt with it, but I think all of you have thought a lot about these kinds of labels and categories that we use. What's at stake?

JR: I hate them. I think it's about your intention and the space into which you want to produce. So often these categories are determined by some kind of weird idea of formal aesthetics and binaries that cancel it out. The one thing that I can remember years and years ago, Muholi having an exhibition in a gallery and somebody actually being quite challenging if not critical about why they were exhibiting in the space. In this white cube. And Muholi’s response was, this is the space of activism for me and it's a safe space. This is the space where we are not attacked, where our body is not the subject of violence, and it was interesting. It really is about how you choose. I think this whole thing of is it art and that means... I don't know what fine art photography means or creative photography. These kind of things that we add as if there's not those things at play. So I think if you want to call yourself a photojournalist and you make work for a newspaper, that's great. And you can be a whole lot of those things. That's just my feeling.

OS: Gabi, you look like you have something to say.

GN: Always.

OS: I think someone had asked in the midst of when you were talking, Jo, is it correct to say David's work is conceptual? I feel it's post-traditional documentary photography and photojournalism, which I think you just spoke directly to that. Of course, it is documentary photography, in many cases it's photojournalism. Does that make it not conceptual? Definitely not! I think what we've shown here is that there's no way of disentangling those things, maybe. Maybe we bring our own conceptuality to it as well, that the work allows and offers that, and perhaps that's what's going on with some of these interesting ways that Muholi has suggested we might think about or engage with the work. In our very last few moments here, I'll just share for everyone who can't see the show, the first pairing that you see when you come into the show is this, Queen Monyeki in her kitchen and A plot-holder with the daughter of his servant, and the category that Muholi gives us “On Nurturing”. It's very clear from the first image why you might use that. But then, in the second image, it’s much more complicated. This is from Some Afrikaners photographed series and a very early work. The year before, actually, David closes down his father's shop and basically dedicates himself entirely to photography in 1963. So, there's a ten-year gap between these two images. They're from two different bodies of work. They're imaging completely different kinds of communities. They function in different ways. And yet, when you see them together, what does it mean to think about these both as images of nurturing? That, to me, was a very provocative way to start the show.

JR: It also speaks to the way that he approached photographing. Gabi, you were talking earlier about the threshold, or inside, of being able to get inside to photograph. Can I share an anecdote about observing him photographing people, because I think there was something quite extraordinary when he was working on his project around asbestos. We were in Freiburg and he was interested in photographing people who had asbestosis and mesothelioma, and he was working also with the Asbestos Awareness Group and we went to photograph a man who later died not very long after we went, and the woman was sitting and talking about what he wanted to do. The woman was sort of encouraging the man to say yes, making an argument that it would be a good thing for David to photograph him and David said, “No, this is not going to benefit you in any way”. It was very blunt and direct. There was something also about when he photographed people, he took time. I sometimes got twitchy in relation to the time that he took just giving people the space to present themselves. But he also waited because there was that [feeling] when you take the picture and you've got that external self of how you want to look. They would sink into themselves in a way I don't know quite how else to describe it, and he would wait for that. But there was always something very direct in that encounter of photographing people. You see it across the board of the people that he photographed, whether they were young, whether they old, whether they were white, whatever the station, there's something around the encounter which is very striking, and it's in those two images.

OS: You're so right and it's so important. Brenda Goldblatt just made a contribution by noting that David said, “all photographs are documentary in that they document something”. There you go, that is definitely a kind of underlying ontological truth about the way photography engages with the world and the way all of you have engaged with David's photography today.

So we're out of time, unfortunately. I want to respect everyone's need to get on to whatever next thing they have in life. But thank you all so much. Thank you, Gabi. Thank you, Jo. Thank you, Remi. It's been such a pleasure and a privilege to have the three of you together in conversation around Goldbart and around Muholi. This show has really taught me a great deal, and I'm very grateful to each of you for participating. So thank you.

JR: Thank you.

OS: Thanks everyone for joining us and please stay tuned for our next event and go see Jo’s show and follow the work of these three fantastic individuals. Thank you again.

Videos — David Goldblatt and Beyond, Mar 26, 2021