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David Goldblatt, Child minder, Joubert Park, Johannesburg, 1975, vintage gelatin silver print, 14-1/2" × 14-1/2" (36.8 cm × 36.8 cm), image 16" × 15-7/8" (40.6 cm × 40.3 cm), paper, signed and dated verso in pencil © David Goldblatt

Essays

Photography in Focus

David Goldblatt

By Lauren Panzo, Vice President

"I have never been able to decide whether my sense of people's bodies is something I share with others or whether mine is different or perhaps more acute. Nor am I sure for how long I have had it. What I do know is that it has been with me for a very long time and that it is often intense and 'detailed.' I seem to have an innate propensity which has been fed by life experiences and heightened by the kind of hyper-awareness that photography sometimes enables and demands."—David Goldblatt

For over six decades, David Goldblatt documented the social and political developments of his native South Africa with a critical yet compassionate eye, revealing the far-reaching effects of apartheid and the post-apartheid conditions that continue to impact the country to this day. In 1975, however, following a five-year portraiture study of his compatriots in Soweto and Johannesburg, Goldblatt distilled his vision to explore the details or “particulars” of his subjects’ bodies “as affirmations or embodiments of their selves.” For a concentrated period of six months, he photographed only the creases of skin, drapes of fabric, placement of hands, and weight of limbs that subtly impart cultural, economic, and social cues to the viewer. This heightened physical awareness was keenly informed by Goldblatt’s professional experience in his father’s tailoring shop, where he “acquired a consciousness of bodily particulars that was technical rather than subjective.”

In this tightly-framed photograph, the seated (presumably female) subject holds her arms modestly at her waist, causing the cloth of her stained covering to wrinkle and pull, accentuating its tears and the haphazard mending of a loose button. Her tattered topcoat may be that of a caregiver or nurse, and her humble, protective posture indicative of watching and waiting. Though faceless and fragmentary, the image invokes an empathic response through the universal language of the body.

Essays — Photography in Focus: David Goldblatt, May 7, 2020