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Goldblatt sweet and angry

3 May, 2010

My colleague Trevor Smith goes way back with the South African photographer David Goldblatt. In 1998, when Trevor was still at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, he invited David on a visit that resulted in him visiting the blue asbestos mines at Wittenoom, a project that helped sparked David’s interest in color photography. Or to be more precise, his interest in color photography for exhibition – as David pointed out, he has photographed in color throughout his career, though previously only for commercial work. I (but mostly Trevor) hosted David and his wife Lily at the museum this last weekend, and this afternoon he gave an informal talk to museum staff. David is one of those people who speaks with such intelligence and clarity of purpose, it is hard not to be moved by his words or affected by his work.

David believes a culture expresses its values in the structures it builds and the way it alters the landscape. The consumption of land in South Africa followed a unique trajectory, and David explained this is never far from his thoughts when making landscape photographs. During the Apartheid years he never felt free to photograph as Edward Weston did – making beautiful pictures of nature regardless of who owned the land it was situated on. Places were always politically charged, and ownership of the means of production was one of the supporting pillars of the Apartheid regime that David railed against.

Describing his work over the years, David said that in his opinion, black and white is better for expressing anger than color is, at least for his purposes. When I asked him what he meant by that, he explained that there is a kind of separation from reality, an abstraction, that happens in black and white that lends pictures a special vibrancy. Color, he said, has a tendency to be a little sweet, or at least, there is a sweetness in color photography that one can never fully escape. He went on to explain that South Africa has ‘Kodachrome skies,’ but that he doesn’t see it that way. So in his color prints he alters the balance to make the skies a little dirtier.

When I asked David if working in color meant he wasn’t angry any more, he said that in fact there is a lot he is still angry about. He is angry about the mining concerns in South Africa that he says murdered hundreds of thousands of people over the last century. He is angry about corruption in his country and failure to basic deliver services to the people who need them. He is angry about people who are still failing to get good educations. And he is angry about crime.

Though he joked with me that he would soon be ‘approaching his dotage,’ David clearly hasn’t mellowed much with time. Trevor and I are working on plans for an exhibition with David at the Peabody Essex Museum. When asked about his favorite photographers, David mentioned two in particular – Robert Adams, whom David described as ‘confronting many of the same questions and making similar decisions,’ and Ray Metzker, hugely underappreciated in his view, but who David pointed out, works in a completely different style.

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