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David Goldblatt’s lens is fixed on South Africa

When he saw the Soweto stadium that was built for soccer’s World Cup, photographer David Goldblatt could not participate in the almost universal South African exultation, the celebration of the structure. Instead, he felt angry.

Goldblatt (who turns 70 on Monday) has spent his life portraying South Africa — not just its people in all their banal ordinariness, but its memorials, houses, shacks, churches, cemeteries and even latrines. Not only did he find the stadium ugly, he despised everything it stood for.

“I can’t tell you how angry I became when I saw that stadium. It’s like a huge squashed testicle on the landscape,” he said last week in his studio. His calm, soft voice was suddenly sharp. “To me, bringing the World Cup here was an attempt by the fat cats to keep the masses happy. It became an exercise in mass hysteria.”

During this past summer’s World Cup, there were countless photographs of the stadium taken from beneath its towering walls, making it loom gigantic, filling the frame. But his portrait of the structure makes it look small and drab, roosting morosely behind the ruins of a doomed 1980s theme park named Share World. Opened a decade before Nelson Mandela’s release, the theme park was open to everyone — “an effort … to make Soweto palatable,” says Goldblatt. It went bankrupt.

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The vanity and deceit of Share World seemed mirrored in the stadium, almost three decades later, so he paired the two. The photograph was part of a recent critically acclaimed exhibition at the Goodman Gallery here titled “TJ: Some things old, some things new and some much the same.” (TJ is the old car number plate prefix from apartheid days that stood for Transvaal, Johannesburg.)

In 1994, when Mandela was elected the first black president in free elections, Goldblatt felt elation and hope. His contemporary work conveys the ashes of disappointment and hurt. He is deeply disturbed by the inequality in South Africa and the vast underclass of unemployed people.

One of the most evocative is his haunting photograph of Zimbabwean refugees huddled in the pews and aisles of Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church, trying to sleep, some with their faces covered, like corpses, others twisted awkwardly.

One of Goldblatt’s themes — the reason some people find some of his works disturbingly depopulated — focuses on the structures South Africans have built, and what these say about people’s attitudes. These photographs, like the soccer stadium image, have often portrayed alienation: soaring Dutch reform churches with grandiose interiors, a huge phallic monument to the Afrikaans language, a looming skyline with squinty-eyed buildings and one ant-like figure below, speared by a shaft of light. His early work is black and white. Much of his later work is in color but color that looks washed out like a faded photograph.

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Goldblatt has been taking photographs of South Africa for more than 50 years: pictures so close to apartheid’s skin they leave a feeling of prickling unease yet intimacy: a mine company executive in pin-neat office, cup of tea before him, his face almost — but not quite — smiling complacently; three black nursemaids on a park bench with a white baby and two dogs on a blanket; an elderly white plot holder seated in a room with a girl — his servant’s child — beside him, sucking her thumb, both staring wordlessly into the lens.

There is no thundering message and no photographs of the township violence, the black protest marches, or bloodied corpses being carried away. To Goldblatt, the protests against apartheid were only the effects. And he was more interested in the causes — in the thousands of commonplace daily actions in people’s lives that constituted the giant evil that was apartheid.

At the beginning, he had dreamed of being a magazine photographer, until he realized that magazines wanted photographs of violence, protest rallies and conflict. “The events were not the interesting thing. The interesting thing was what lay behind the violence; what were people’s attitudes and how did they form those attitudes.”

The photographs often suggest the likability of the white person portrayed: a white man knocking together a primitive timber coffin for a neighbor’s black servant or a Dutch reform minister in the white, middle-class area of Bokburg, in laughing conversation with a member of his congregation. The unstated question beneath these images is how law-abiding, respectable people who believed their values to be decent could have been hard-wired into a system of such evil.

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His photographs often portray fragility and alienation. People are frequently shown from a distance, moving out of the frame, or from behind: a white man in a bleak suburb, mowing the lawn; a black woman lying quietly on a bed in the open air with her child among her few belongings — in a calm moment after the violent destruction of her home. Or more recently, a black woman selling food in an empty street, dwarfed by a large building.

Goldblatt’s work has been seen around the world. He recently exhibited 150 works at the Jewish Museum in New York. He’ll exhibit some of his works from the “TJ” series and from his recent Prison series at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris in January, after winning the Henri Cartier-Bresson award last year. The same month he will exhibit works at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris. In February a group of his works will be exhibited at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He will receive an honorary doctorate at the San Francisco Art Institute early next year.

Goldblatt grew up in a mining town, Randfontein, where his father owned a store selling clothing to everyone from Afrikaner farmers to black miners. His parents had fled Jewish persecution in Lithuania with their parents in the 1890s.

Despite his fame, he’s humble about his work, which he calls “bits and pieces” or observations. “I had no message, and I have no message. I am not a message carrier,” he said. “I am not a missionary with a camera. If I have to describe what I am, I’d say I’m a critical observer of society, unlicensed and unappointed.”

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He is expanding a recent series called Prisons, prompted by the impact that violent crime has on South African lives. Goldblatt wanted to understand who the criminals were. Monsters? Ordinary people? He met dozens of ex-offenders and took them back to the scenes of their crimes. Then he gave them a tape recorder and asked them to tell the story of their lives.

“Almost invariably these people come from dysfunctional families. There’s often no father in the home, and there’s very little money,” he said. “Increasingly I am coming to realize that in regard to these young men and perhaps women, they could usually be me, or my kid. If we weren’t white and raised in security and stability, yes, it could have been me.”

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Dixon is The Times’ Johannesburg bureau chief.


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