Reflections on life in a rearview mirror

David Goldblatt celebrated his 80th birthday in November last year. He tells fellow photographer Jo Ractliffe about his journey.

I’d like to start with your 80th birthday — that Sunday morning when a group of us were summoned to your house at the crack of dawn in an atmosphere of great mystery and suspense. We were piled into a Kombi and driven north to the Shell Ultra City where we had breakfast. Anyone who knows you would smile because it was the obvious place — you are the ultimate long-distance-driving photographer. And you take great pleasure in the idea that every waitress in every Shell Ultra City across the country knows you so well that all you have to do is walk in and ask for “the usual”.
You’re exaggerating. I would never be so presumptuous. There are one or two waitresses who recognise me. And there’s a garage attendant in Kroonstad who, as soon as I drive up, makes himself available. He is David Mokoena and I am David Goldblatt and we greet each other.

And there’s the girl who overtook your truck on the road and flashed a message, “I love your work”, and you ended up going to her wedding.
Yes, although not yet; she’s not married yet.

Ville de Fleur, Sunward Park, Boksburg. December 17 2008

But these encounters speak about how you inhabit the landscape; you’re all but embedded in it. I’ve always thought of you as more than a photographer. I often describe you as an archivist, the chronicler of our landscape. Others do too — at your opening, John Fleetwood made the point about your work being very located in the world of contemporary photography and yet at the same time it constitutes a major archive.
You’re talking about a “me” that I can’t visualise. You’re seeing me in the landscape, in a particular way. I don’t see myself that way. When I come from overseas on a plane and if I sit next to a window and look out and it’s a clear day or when I used to go out on jobs, flying in small planes to mines and power stations, I would look out on the Earth and I’d think, “I made love there” or “I pissed there”. I can see those places and have a kind of propriety sense of them. Not that I have title to them but I feel an association with them that’s physical.

And is this relation to place always personal, separate from photography?
No, the two things are indelibly, indissolubly together in me; I don’t distinguish between them. They’re a part of how I see the place and how I see myself. So when I take photographs I take them with the greatest sense of “oneness” — if that’s the right word. And I don’t have to take the photograph; just to see them and recognise an association is in some ways sufficient. The photograph is a second-order manifestation. The main manifestation is to see something there that I can associate with.

Rea Vaya bus stop and the former Poswohl Synagogue, now a shop, Mooi Street, Johannesburg. January 3 2010

But it extends further than just you. Sometimes I get irritated by your humility. You have to recognise your influence; it’s more than 50 years of persistent and dogged pursuit, which carries great weight in terms of how we have come to see and reflect on ourselves, our histories — I mean I had to go all the way to Angola to find my own landscape.
I hear you and obviously I’m pleased when I hear the work has influence beyond my own head. That it resonates is a matter of great importance and pleasure for me. But it’s not that I’m humble. I’ve done the work. It’s there. I return to it and regurgitate it for various purposes — a book or an exhibition, or simply because sometimes I see something that triggers a response and I go back to prints I did years ago. These things are continuous, a part of me. The existence of the work in the public domain is difficult to describe because I seldom have a real sense of how people view it. So this exhibition is a very special one and I’m especially interested in getting a sense of how students see the work.

So let’s talk about Fale le Fale at the Market Photo Workshop. It marks your 80th birthday but it’s not what many people would expect; it’s not a major retrospective at a big international museum or major commercial gallery
For me this exhibition is, in one breath, a return to where I started. My first exhibitions were at the Market Gallery and it was an important place for me personally. In the 1980s we were putting on exhibitions that I think were very good and stimulated a lot of interest. We showed Chris Killip’s work and Disfarmer’s portraits. Do you know him? He was from a small town in America and he did remarkable portraits of the local people. He had his name changed to Disfarmer because he wanted to emphasise that he wasn’t a farmer. So we had exhibitions like that — and local people too, like you.

You hung my first exhibition.
Yes, those collaged dogs of yours, Nadir. And we argued because I pointed out that these were violations of photography.

Aberrations. You said they were aberrations of photography.
But I did appreciate the work. Anyway, these exhibitions generated a lot of interest from young people — young black people in particular. And it was clear that many of them had little hope of doing anything in photography. They had no space in their homes, no electricity, no running water, no money, no equipment. So it seemed obvious that one should try to provide a situation where these things could be within reach. I spoke to Barney Simon and Mannie Mannim and suggested to Jill Cargill that we start a workshop within the Market framework. And your father, Jeremy, found us the money to start. Jill taught in rehearsal rooms or wherever we could find space. We had no equipment to speak of but we gradually built it up and expanded. And then through Graham Lindop we got the old Newtown Post Office. And that was the beginning of the more formal school.

This is your first exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop. It’s very poignant to me; the fact that all those years ago you started this, you created a home for other people and now you’re coming home yourself. And as John said at the opening, it’s a real gift you give to the Photo Workshop. But also, despite your strong presence and ongoing involvement, I think that to many students you are more mythical than real; few know you personally or have experienced you directly, in teaching for example. So it manifests your connection in a very specific way.
I felt that very strongly. I was moved by the presence of so many people there and how the students welcomed me. And we conceived this exhibition largely with the students in mind, to show work that would in varying ways be of interest, as stimuli or provocations to them. I didn’t want a thematic show; I wanted to show bits and pieces of work that I’d done over the years. And there’s work I’ve not shown before. Some of it I’ve never even printed, which seemed appropriate for this exhibition.

Hence the title, Fale le Fale — “there and there”. What images are being shown for the first time?
There are two pictures of the young man who had been beaten up by the security police. He didn’t want to give me his name because, at that time, they were in great fear of the police. I’ve never shown those pictures before.

Because you couldn’t?
No, some images just don’t get into the final selection. And the young man with the plaster on his arms was a much more dramatic and immediately accessible photograph.

Delivery Cart, on Wanderers Street, Johannesburg. May 1966

That’s on the cover of Lifetimes under Apartheid. Were they taken around the same time?
Yes, the Detainees Parents Support Committee would phone me occasionally and say there were some people who I might talk to and I would go down to Khotso House — before it was blown up.
Then there’s a street scene on Wanderers Street near Park Station. It’s a photograph that I had thrown out in despair because the top and bottom halves didn’t seem to meld. But last year when Agnès Sire of the Cartier-Bresson Foundation was here working with me on my exhibition there was an old print of the bottom half. I’d only ever printed it once.

Ah, you cropped it! You forgot the whole picture.
Yes. She said, “I want that”, and I told her I’d rejected that picture. I didn’t even know where the bloody negative was! And then I found out what I had done: I’d forgotten it was cropped and I’d been searching through my contact sheets for a negative that didn’t exist.

You see, “Thou shalt not crop” — it’s a good rule.
But then I saw the whole photograph on the contact sheet. And I printed it. And liked it. But I didn’t understand it fully until I looked at the detail. There is a rickshaw cart and over the spokes on the wheel are the words “Jesus is coming”. And then, as though to comment on that, attached to the back of the cart are the words “delivery cart”. And suddenly I realised this picture had dimensions I’d never appreciated. And this is one of the great pleasures, if you like, of having an archive.

Because you keep rediscovering it
Yes, and I see things I’ve overlooked before.
I love that, especially because I think you can be overly particular about things in your images. You often put me to the test; you’ll show me an image and ask me what’s “the point” of that picture. And even when I do see “it”, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily figure for me.

But it figures for you; you’re emphatic about those little details. And here you actually missed the point in your very own picture.
Absolutely. Here’s a photograph that I did roughly 40 years ago and suddenly it’s got a new life. And, as I’ve said to people, the real trouble is I haven’t got another 40 years to change my mind about old pictures.

What a terrible way to end this conversation.
I’ve just got to work more quickly.

So what’s next?
At the moment Pottie Potgieter is rebuilding my camper.

Good, we’re back on the road.
Yes. I took it to him a few weeks ago and asked him to put in a new fridge and some other things. Then he discovered the most terrible things — from going over bad roads there were cracks and leaks that had resulted in the inner framework rotting away. He’s all but rebuilt the bloody thing; it’s costing me a fortune. But I take delivery of it this coming week and I want to get back on the road and look at towns and villages and the land again. I’m a bit worried because I think I’ve come to the end of a certain phase of doing that. I know that I want to explore black-and-white in a particular way but I’m a bit afraid of that because I know it’s much more difficult. I did a couple of photographs during the late 1980s that really work for me but I’ve never explored it properly. I got stuck on structures. So I’m not sure where this is going to take me. I don’t know. But I want to explore it. What are you grinning about?

It’s a perfect end.

David Goldblatt’s exhibition Fale le Fale is on at the Market Photo Workshop until July 29.

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