David Goldblatt is one of South Africa’s most significant artists, and one of the most influential photographers in the world today. For almost 35 years he has produced images of startling clarity and vision, ranging from nuanced and evocative portraits to striking explorations of the structure of urban and rural inequality in South Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s, some of his most haunting photographs came to provide complex evidence, for a world outside, of the texture and meaning of human displacement in this country.
Born in Randfontein in 1930, the third son of Eli Goldblatt and Olga Light, refugees from Lithuania in the 1890s, Goldblatt became interested in photography at an early age. After working in his father s outfitting store and graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Wits University, he set about teaching himself basic photographic skills. Since 1963, he has devoted all of his time to photography. Working almost entirely outside of the studio, his professional career has involved a broad variety of assignments for magazines, corporations and institutions in South Africa and overseas. His personal work, however, has focused on what he terms “a series of critical explorations of South African society”.
It is the clarity of these critical explorations that has made him famous and many of them have been published in book form. On the Mines published in 1973, accompanied with text written by Wits alumnus and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, offered a remarkable account of the architecture and social relations of life under and above ground. On the other hand, Some Afrikaners Photographed published in 1975, and In Boksburg published in 1982 introduced an experimental manner of representing social divisions through the objects and landscapes which provide metaphors for these divisions. Throughout these works Goldblatt paid scrupulous attention to the quality of the print, and to the control of the meaning of the image through radical cropping and angles. It is in these publications, too, that Goldblatt elaborated his method of juxtaposing extended captions against open and unusual images.
The collections Lifetimes: Under, Apartheid published in 1986, The Transported of KwaNdebele published three years later and South Africa: the Structure of Things Then published in 1998 assured his reputation as one of the important contemporary photographers working with large and medium format cameras and attending to social issues in a philosophical manner. His turn to colour digital photography in recent years has helped that medium to come of age.
The critical role that Goldblatt has played in training and influencing younger photographers is often ignored. In 1989, he founded the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg, with the purpose of providing skills to the next generation of young artists disadvantaged by apartheid. This institution now graduates some 250 students per annum, a number of whom now work as professional photographers.
Over the past decade, Goldblatt’s groundbreaking vision has been recognised by the most significant global institutions of photography. Channel 4 in Britain flighted an hour-long documentary about his work in the 1980s. Goldblatt is also the recipient of a range of awards, and amongst others, holds the Gahan Fellowship in Photography at Harvard, the Camera Austria Prize and an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town. In 2006, he was awarded the most prestigious photography prize in the world - the Hasselblad Photography Award.
In 1998, David Goldblatt became the first South African to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His work is represented in many of the most significant galleries in the world today, including the South African National Gallery, Wits University, the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the French National Art Collection.
Every aspect of this exemplary career has been associated with artistic excellence and innovation in the manner of his social commentary; in his composition and darkroom: technique; in his attention to the aesthetic qualities of the print; in his complex use of metaphors, landscape and architecture reference; and in the use of accompanying text.
In recognition of his outstanding contributions to world class photography and to the advancement of the profession of photography, the University considers it fitting to award him its highest honour.