/ 27 September 2013

Goldblatt: I’m after a particular sense of stillness

Photographer David Goldblatt.
Photographer David Goldblatt. (Gallo)

Vladislavic: What work are you showing at the Art Fair?
Goldblatt: I've chosen 30 pictures, both old and new. It's a rather disparate collection of work that I've not shown or published before, including some personal favourites. The older ones were made between the 1960s and the early 1990s, and belong in the series I call The Structure of Things Then. The newer ones show the work I've been doing on post-apartheid public art and structures. Although visually the new photographs are quite different, in my mind they continue the process of looking at structures in this country.

Johannesburg is the centre of your photographic terrain, but you also go back to the Karoo all the time. Do you follow particular routes or return to familiar places?
Well, I return constantly to the Shell Ultracities along the N1, where I feel very comfortable. Some of the waitresses and petrol attendants know me. The N1 is a well-worn path. At the moment, I'm looking at the land as a subject and certain areas interest me more and more in that regard. To my mind, the land is a structure, because it's part of our ethos: we've been formed by the land and we continually reform it, in constructive and destructive ways. The land is an extraordinarily difficult subject to deal with adequately, I think. One can make quite dramatic photographs in places like the Karoo, but that's not what I'm after. I'm after a particular sense of place and of stillness.

As an antidote to Johannesburg? On the face of it, the Karoo and Johannesburg are such different environments. Are you drawn to the Karoo because it's so different to your home town?
No. I'm drawn there by the possibility of something going click – whether it's round the corner here in Orange Grove or somewhere between Fraserburg and Loxton. It's the possibility of something that's outside of me suddenly becoming clear and provocative, and almost wanting to be explored. 

What's been engaging me in Johannesburg for the last few years is the public art that's sprung up on our sidewalks. It's often very handsome and delightful. 

You've always been interested in memorials and monuments.
That's because they're so pungently evocative of the values espoused by whoever puts them up. It's not easy to find out what people really value, but whether they've erected a little roadside memorial to someone killed in an accident, or a 3m bronze of Madiba, there are gleanings to be had there of values. Public declarations are particularly pungent, because people give thought to them and set great store by them. 

You've photographed the big, public expressions of state power, epitomised by Strijdom Square, but temperamentally you seem drawn to the smaller, quieter memorials like those you just mentioned. The small-town monuments that commemorate the Trek, which you've also photographed, are generally quite modest.
That's true, although I'm very conscious of some of our grosser new memorial structures. The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown strikes me as the apotheosis of grandiose thinking by ANC big noises. 

Then again, you find beautiful things in a little place like Steynsburg in the Eastern Cape, which Lily and I visited recently. Here you have a little municipal square, perhaps a quarter of a block, and it was seeded with blue daisies. Somebody had taken the trouble to put those flowers there. In the centre was a small memorial, and leading to it were pathways, and these, in the way of suburban gardens, had borders of slanting beer bottles. Now you can't imagine how moving that is. Instead of bricks, beer bottles. They're handy, they're plentiful and so they go in there and they make a lovely border. And then sitting in the middle is this rather ugly memorial, probably done by a local grafsteen [gravestone] maker, dedicated to the local comrades who died in the struggle. But ugly as it is, it represents this community's attempt to commemorate their comrades. I found it very moving.

What I find especially interesting is how people treat the new public art. Johannesburg is this violent place that has no respect for its past, we'll knock down a building without a thought to its historical value, and yet you look around at the public art that has gone up in this city and there is hardly any vandalisation. No graffiti. You go into Doornfontein and there's a small herd of cattle lying on the ground, beautifully rendered, at the taxi rank. The only thing you might see is somebody sitting on the rump of a cow or a pair of overalls dangling on horns while they dry. It must be a sign of community involvement: people feel something for what has been put there.

Then you go to New Brighton in Port Elizabeth, where there's this memorial to comrades who were hanged or killed in the struggle, and it's been vandalised, the lights are broken, it's covered in graffiti. It's a ruin. And yet it should have been important to people there. It's not as though New Brighton was strange to trouble. In the 1980s, it was a hotbed of community action, consumer boycotts. The Eastern Cape was really the home of the ANC.

I believe you ran into trouble of a more contemporary kind in New Brighton a few months ago.
Yes. While I was photographing the memorial I've just spoken about, I was robbed of my cameras. We were lucky not to be harmed–isn't that what we South Africans say? Losing the 4×5 was a major catastrophe. With an old-fashioned outfit like that, there are bits and pieces that are ridiculously primitive, but if they're missing, then vital functions become almost impossible to perform. For a while I felt completely rudderless.Then I was fortunate to make contact with George Luse, a photographer who lives in New Brighton, and he tracked down the culprits. The other cameras were already gone, but he managed to negotiate the return of the 4×5. I'm very lucky that George understood how important it was to me and got it back. He was extraordinary–he really stuck his neck out for me.

Umhlaba 1913-2013, an exhibition to commemorate the Land Act, which you curated with Paul Weinberg, Bongi Dhlomo and Pam Warne, is up at the Wits Art Museum. During your walkabout there you spoke at length about the historical context of the photographs. Do you read a lot of history? Do you think of yourself as a "visual historian"?
When I was working on The Structure of Things Then, I came to understand that I had to know a lot more about those structures than I did when I took the photographs. I had to put them into a context for people, even for my compatriots. As familiar as we are with places like the Voortrekker Monument, we don't customarily think of them as having been expressions of value when they were designed and made, and that to me was the critical factor. I wanted somehow to penetrate to a level of understanding that would reveal why a structure was made in a particular way. I had to do a fair amount of concentrated reading, of things like kerkraad [church council] minutes, but also of formal history books. If I get to publishing the work I'm doing now on post-apartheid public art and structures, I've got no doubt I'll have to do quite a lot of reading and writing again–it goes with the territory. Perhaps it shows a lack of confidence in my own work, but when I show a particular photograph, I often don't feel sufficiently confident that it can stand out there and talk for itself. I need to give it some context.

That opens a door for me. Recently I came across some photographs you published in 1976 in a Canadian literary magazine called Exile, an extensive selection of the work you were doing then. In the brief note that precedes the photographs, you expressed grave misgivings about their ability to communicate, specifically to people outside South Africa who didn't have intimate knowledge of the places represented. Did this pessimism about the possibilities of communicating through photographs arise from the particular circumstances of isolation and repression in which we were then? Do you still feel this way or do you have more faith in photographs now?
I don't feel quite the same, because there has been a lot of change. You go overseas now and people at least know which end of the continent South Africa sits. They often know quite a lot about what happened here. It's probably mainly thanks to television. In the 1970s, people often had only the vaguest sense of things.

I remain fascinated by the intimate kind of knowledge you get from living in a place your whole life, the things you absorb with your mother's milk, as it were. It was brought home to me vividly yesterday. My gallerist Liza Essers has a baby that's just beginning to speak. And Liza told me that one of its 10 words is "alarm". Isn't that an extraordinary indication of where we are in this country now? I particularly value this intimate knowledge and feel the need to supplement it, particularly if I'm showing work outside South Africa. Although I learnt long ago that I'm talking primarily to my compatriots.

You've often said that you deal in the familiar. You cannot photograph things that you don't know or understand. Is it true to say that you familiarise yourself with where you are through the making of photographs? It's a particular way of coming to an understanding. I remember a story you told about going downtown in the late 1990s and feeling completely alienated from Johannesburg. You didn't recognise the city, you couldn't understand what was going on there. It was a moment of crisis about your work and your place in the society. Since then, you seem to have reclaimed your place by photographing the new. You made yourself belong to this city again by refamiliarising yourself with it.
I do acquire a private sense of ownership when I photograph something. Obviously, I have no real claim, but I get a sense of intimate relationship with things–not always pleasant things – and I need to establish that relationship through the photography itself. More often than not, I photograph things before I have any real knowledge of them. I see something and it triggers a response – as I said, it goes click – and I need to photograph it. Afterwards, I need to find out more about it, and I have to say that very seldom does it disappoint. Somehow, you can almost close your eyes and touch something here, and it has meaning.

In 1991, you published some work in Staffrider on what you referred to as the West End of Jo'burg, the Diagonal Street/Newtown area. They were pictures that captured the changes happening there as old established trades and businesses were displaced by a new kind of corporate life. You expressed regret that you had only realised the extent of your interest in that part of town quite late. "By then much of what I might have photographed had passed." Have you had this experience more than once in your career, that something important, something worth documenting, escaped your attention?
It's not a big issue for me, but I've often regretted that I wasn't awake to something earlier, as in the West End. The abattoir was gone before I really realised how interesting it was. I had done one or two photographs that were not very interesting. There was a whole trade there in meat and grain and seed, and so on. And the market of course was fascinating. There was a whole area of the city that had a life based around food mainly, which I only woke up to quite late, just before the Market Theatre became a reality. 

I see young photographers taking up things I've been interested in and that makes me feel good. I spoke to a young man yesterday who's doing an essay on the ragpickers of Johannesburg. To me this is an intriguing and important subject–when you see a man pulling what looks like half a ton of garbage in a huge bag on the back of a little cart, pulling it up Joe Slovo Drive and going to Doornfontein. I would love to photograph it, but I can't be everywhere. 

You're fascinated by working life. Some of your great sequences of photographs have been of working people and working environments, people in their places of work.
I suppose so. I hadn't thought of that. Can we talk about your ex-offenders project? I think it fits here. In my own mind, I've connected this work of yours with the images Jo Ractliffe and Santu Mofokeng have made of places where terrible things have happened, places such as Vlakplaas or Auschwitz. Both of them have expressed the idea that the terrible things people do leave little or no trace on the landscape. The landscape is always innocent. Santu has a photograph of the lake at Auschwitz where the ashes of the cremated were dumped. It's quite idyllic, it doesn't look like the scene of an atrocity–unless you know what happened there. He's spoken about the relationship between landscape and trauma, landscape and memory. I think this has some bearing on your project of taking convicted criminals back to the scene of their crimes. What are you looking for by doing this? What have you found?

That's a difficult question to answer, because I've really been feeling my way. But the alignment you've made is interesting. I suppose that, ultimately, if one were able to, one would take back to Auschwitz one of the guards or the camp commander. There is an element of confrontation in the work I've been doing. I'm asking the person to confront their actions by going back there and my hope is that there will be something like a moment of catharsis. Very often the person who committed a murder or a robbery has not been at the scene since the event, which might have taken place before they went to jail for 10, 15, 20 years. Going back is often a painful experience for these people. I suppose I'm inviting them to be in the rawness of that experience.

There's an element of accountability, which is reflected in the time structure of your photographs. Usually a photograph makes the viewer aware in the present of the time that has passed since the moment the image was made. One could say that the photograph opens towards the viewer. Your photographs of ex-offenders effect a curious reversal: they make us aware of the time between the taking of the photograph and the commission of the crime. The photo opens away from us into a more distant past. The gap is prison time. Perhaps this is why you always refer to these people as "ex-offenders": you're confronting the viewer with the awareness of both the crime and the punishment.
I think there is an element of taking responsibility. Some of the ex-offenders have acknowledged their crime and expressed remorse.

?                                                           Photography by David Goldblatt                                                                 

As much as these photos are fresh and different, they're also of a piece with your other portraits. You put people in their places. The wonderful thing about your portraits of people in interiors ?or even on the streets is that it's not the person or the place but both simultaneously. They are photographs of people in their environments.
I am definitely putting the ex-offender in a place. Usually when I go into someone's home, I try as far as possible to let them select the place they want to be. There's even an element of choice with the ex-offenders. We've agreed to go back to the scene of the crime, but once we're there I have to hold back deliberately to see what the subject chooses. Sometimes I think I'm wrong in being too much of a director. I see a situation that will obviously yield a strong photograph, but it's not necessarily the one that's going to be most telling with regard to the subject.

Earlier this year we were together at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) in Montreal and we looked at prints in their archives from the beginnings of photography–the Bisson brothers, Louis de Clercq, Henri le Secq. There was an image of a classical structure and you remarked that it was perfect. "This is the only point this structure could have been photographed from." I thought you were being rhetorical, but you said: "Every structure has a logic. If you understand the logic, then you know where to stand with the camera. It's almost self-appointed." How do you square this certainty with the negotiation that goes on with the subject of the photograph? It seems that you have a sense of what the logic of the situation or place requires, but you can't impose it. You have to reach a compromise.
Let me show you how the logic works in practice. These are quick shots of a few structures I plan to photograph. 

This is a memorial to Wolfie Kodesh, the communist, which his family has put up below the naval gun on Signal Hill in Cape Town. I think it's an amazingly beautiful memorial. It starts off by saying: ‘RIP … a mensch.' What a tribute. Unfortunately, it was the wrong time of year, we're almost on the equinox, and the inscriptions on these panels are hardly visible. I've made a note, so I don't lose it, and I'll go back there in midsummer.

This piece by Willem Boshoff on the University of the Free State (UFS) campus is so simple yet so complex, like all his work, that it had me completely foxed for a while. It could just be a random piece of granite, sommer [just] lying there on the lawn like a turd. I walked to this thing 10 times, at different hours of the day, and I couldn't figure out how to photograph it. Then I decided to come early on a Sunday morning, when there was nobody around, so I could pull my camper up on to the lawn, because I thought there was a picture from the roof of the vehicle, looking down on it. When I did that, I realised that the photograph was not from the roof, it was from high ground level. But that was the logic of the structure: it relates to that tree in the background, and the north-south configuration. 

Would you agree though that someone else approaching this might find a different logic?
Well, I think there's usually one view of a structure or one aspect from which to see it, which most clearly reveals its logic. This doesn't mean there aren't other points of view, perhaps many others, from which to make effective or pleasing or meaningful photographs of it and its parts. Strong photographs of Boshoff's work at UFS seemed possible from several aspects, but I searched for and eventually found the one that seems to reveal its essence or "internal structure". The photographic outcome is unsatisfactory–I've cut it off at the bottom and it probably needs to be seen from a slightly higher point of view, but not so high that you lose the sense of its weight on the ground.

The early photographers of the kind we saw at the CCA were often explorers of a sort. I remember you pointing out that they had to lug their glass negatives and their own darkrooms around with them in carts. This is before the invention of the motor car. It's quite an extraordinary idea. Is the travelling and the adventure of it all part of the appeal of photography?
Absolutely. What's really important is the mode of transport for the particular thing I'm doing. I remember riding a bicycle into Fietas, being able to stop right there and just listen to the sounds around you, the sounds of people getting up in the morning, of a mother scolding a child or a father saying prayers. You couldn't do that if you were riding in a motor car.

You have embraced digital technology. Do you miss working in the darkroom? 
The technological shift has fundamentally changed my working life. I certainly miss the intimacy of working physically with the material. I have a grandson who's keen to work in the arts one day, not necessarily as an artist, and my advice to him was: "Do something to get your hands dirty." The physical business of making something is terribly important.

Then again digital reproduction is amazing. I had a call yesterday from Salma Patel, who's making this little museum in Fietas, and she needed a print of Sahib's Butchery. So I opened up my printer and in a matter of an hour I'd made a couple of beautiful prints–with no hassle.