Aaron Kohn’s African Lookbook interview with David Goldblatt covers a wide swath of subject matter—from childhood experiences, how he began working as a photographer after his father’s death, and why he was never cut out to be a “political” photographer (because “I am a coward,” he says, and because “I’m interested in the underbelly” of things, rather than surface tensions). We learn, also, about the details of how the influential Market Photo Workshop came into being—through a mixture of informal networks between friends, fundraising, idealism, and actual work, making the ideals an ongoing reality. His deep, respectful collaborations with writers like Nadine Gordimer are borne of his belief that “writers in this country came to grips with this society and tried to unravel it and pierce it and ponder it and sum it up and look for relationships in ways that other people weren’t doing,” and that writers were doing this difficult work in ways that “photographers weren’t.”
And we learn that despite accolades, awards, shows all over the world, he regrets travelling as much as he does. It is the light in winter—working with the way it spreads out on the Highveld in June and July—that he wishes to spend time with.
We hear some things we’ve probably heard before from other interviews, but many of the anecdotes Goldblatt provides to Kohn’s prompts include details that I’ve never heard: Goldblatt’s work was never banned, and he generally skirted trouble, though once, afraid of an arrest and confiscation of his rolls of film, he misinformed his hotel clerk about catching a flight in the morning, and drove all night in a rental car, accompanied by his beloved rolls of film. Although he “never hid his views”, or his “associations with people”, the apartheid regime was apparently rather confused by his subject matter (loving portrayals of rural Afrikaners doesn’t exactly speak firebrand). But fear was always there. What did happen was that he self-censored: “You do become afraid…You don’t want to be detained. So you don’t do it, or you do it in a modified way.” Though he was never arrested or harassed too much by the police, he was always aware that his colleagues lived far more troubled lives as photographers. Omar Badsha, Peter Magubane, and Alf Khumalo “were often in trouble with the security police, and much more seriously. You know Magubane was shot, imprisoned.” He also remembers his failings: Peter Magubane, who had recently been imprisoned, wanted a darkroom to work in. But at the time, people on the Left “felt that he had become a sellout and wasn’t to be trusted.” Goldblatt was worried; he didn’t allow Magubane to use his darkroom. “I’ve been ashamed of that ever since.”
Years ago, when I was first interviewing David Goldblatt in his modest flat on Cape Town’s Long Street, he told me an anecdote about a series of close-ups of people he photographed outdoors. Many of the photographs focused on the men’s and women’s thighs and midsections, not shying away from bulges and protrusions. On the women, his attention focused on the fat that spreads out from the back of the thighs when they sat on park benches. He pointed to the spread of fat (which usually mortifies women I know) with obvious relish, and spoke of its allure—it was attractive, he said gently. This intimation came along with dozens of other detailed anecdotes about the circumstances surrounding each of his photographs: Glodblatt has a razor-sharp memory. Somehow, I felt that this particular detail was not one he repeats at every interview—perhaps it was his way of slowing down his speech, the small smile that overtook his lips, and the clichéd twinkly eye; perhaps it was his way of wording the beauty of desire for a thing that the object of desire often does not like about herself. In any case, I later heard him speak about those photographs at a Cape Town book festival on the occasion of the re-launch of his Some Afrikaners. I admit to being surprised when he used the same word arrangements, the same syntactical strategy to point the audience’s attention towards the fat on women thighs as he had done during one of my first interviews with him. Again, I heard the same gentleness, dissociated from the violence usually attached to desire, the same admiration usually reserved for a finely turned breast or bottom. The room was packed with older women, perfumed and wearing their Sunday best: they were mostly Afrikaners, and here to see themselves “revisited” and revived. They took his words with the delight of schoolgirls, tittering naughtily. Then I realized what all interviewers must: Goldblatt, like all writers, artists, performers, gives hundreds of interviews. He has to repeat stuff. And because he has a superb memory, he literally reproduces, like a litany, what he says about each photograph. But more than that: he re-performs the same emotional communiqué with his audience, be it an audience of one, or a roomful. And he is very savvy about intended effects, about controlling the frame of his images, and his narratives about them. (His stipulation for reproducing his photographs is that they are not cropped in any way; he will read over your article/interview and ask that parts of it be slightly amended, not just for factual inaccuracies, but also for ensuring that the particular story he wants comes through, just so.)
Here, in Kohn’s interview, too, we see evidence of that same gentle shaping: Goldblatt tells Kohn, when asked about his views of the enormous protests surrounding Brett Murray’s painting of an exposed President Zuma: “So I initially phoned Brett Murray and suggested the painting should be taken down,” because of the furore it was causing: the anger was not worth the trouble. But later, writes Kohn, DG “added on the phone that despite thinking the painting should have been taken down originally, he was also unhappy with the way that Jacob Zuma handled the situation.”
The full transcript of African Lookbook’s interview with David Goldblatt is available here.