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Colour It Wild : David Goldblatt Turns Over a Colourful Leaf, in His Seventies

Robyn Sassen

The tones that the sun inflicts on our spaces are often neither rich nor filled with gentle gradations.

What do you get when you add the idiosyncrasies of a place mauled by history, to more than fifty years experience with traditional black and white photography, and then add that to the cut and thrust of computer imaging in colour? In a word, you get a completely fresh perspective on the status quo, devoid of the expected schmaltzy pathos that comes of picturing the South African landscape. This is the work of David Goldblatt.

This veteran photographer works with the quiet assurance of one who knows what he's doing and knows that he does it damned well. He has won real international acknowledgement as an artist, which very few other local artists from this end of the planet have been able to emulate. He doesn't come with the prima donna attitude that his celebrity status seems to imply, though, and calls himself a "craftsman", instead.

On a level he makes work that may be seen as conventional. He shoots straight and has a reputation for processing straight, too — in black and white, in a traditional darkroom. Capturing the essence of a place is what much of his work is about. But he does it surreptitiously, spontaneously and with his passions and creative energies as a guiding force: hunting down an intrinsic essence of a place in relatively obscure ways. He sees Johannesburg through the living and worshipping spaces constructed by the humble and the dignified; through the informal advertising signs posted in "white" urban areas for black trades people looking for work; or through the difficult lives which some of its occupants lead, having to spend more time traveling to and from work than actually working. His individual view is about his sympathy for the way things are for people, compromised by the social currents of apartheid — whether they were to consciously discredit these people, or misinform them about their social importance in the country.

Goldblatt has taken a long and productive lifetime to get seduced by colour. Having earned himself a reputation for deadpan images of the South African condition, he always veered away from colour photography because of his very specific content and his technical perfectionism. Not only does he find conventional colour photography "sweet and plasticky", but also because he does not process colour in his own studio, he finds working through a colour darkroom technician frustrating and unproductive.

Colour seems also intrinsic to a more European climate. Here in Africa, we have harsh light and harsh weather. Subtle ranges of ochres and greys colour the land, and sometimes even the sky itself, particularly if you're looking at a place characterised by pollution or mining detritus. The tones that the sun inflicts on our spaces are often neither rich nor filled with gentle gradations. It's direct. It was this type of light that Goldblatt tamed as a young photographer, learning not to try and emulate European traditions, but rather to look to the place of his origin to find its own character and beauty.

And then, many years later, came the computer. The melding of Goldblatt's absolute integrity to traditional black and white photos and the somewhat iffy reputation of the computer as a visual tool, because it embraces the possibility of underhand manipulation, was unexpected. But in 1999 the seeds were sown in a show that Goldblatt was invited to create: a show about the remnants of a village in the remote outreaches of western Australia that had been destroyed by blue asbestos mining. Goldblatt applied digital technology into his work for this project and brought it back to South Africa. Working with the assistance of Cape Town Photoshop expert Tony Meintjes in using computer technology as he would a conventional darkroom, Goldblatt's work moved away from the sombre and the harsh, and toward a sense of celebration that accompanies life in the new democracy.

Indeed this South Africa is not sunshine and roses: many of the struggles are still deep and painful as they had been under the rule of apartheid, but overwhelmingly, a sense of ownership and humanity pervades. Amid the shocking pink flowers acerbic green grass and electric lilac jacaranda leaves which punctuate these jazzy images of self in South Africa, the people represented are the ones who can publicly proudly advertise their services and make ends meet without having to duck and dive around laws of curfew or association or a million others which were petty and yet punishable under apartheid.

In colour, Goldblatt's work addresses a whole new range of possibility. The colours are acid and surreal and the images play provocatively into them. And the subject matter? Goldblatt's latest body of work, which Documenta 11 audiences in Kassel got visual access to before the South African public did, are fragments of this funny poignant beautiful place called Johannesburg. But in Goldblatt's hands and before his lens, the concept of "beauty" has to be taken not only with a pinch of salt, but it must also be looked at from the other side of the coin of what is normally recognised as insipidly pretty. Like all of Goldblatt's work, these images are pithy and wryly amusing in a poignant way that speaks of authentic Johannesburg like few other reflections of the city do. Pathos doesn't come into it, either.

What is the visual essence of a place? Is it the prettified touristy stuff that makes international landmarks of buildings cast under the setting sun? Or perhaps it is landmark photographs of particular incidents of violence? Cast "Johannesburg" into the minds of many and the images returned spontaneously will quite likely fit either of these rather vague and fairly inaccurate understandings of the place and its culture.

In 1948, when this country slipped properly under the mantle of apartheid legislation, Goldblatt was a visually and politically aware 17-year-old. He began working professionally in the 1950s. Photojournalism in South Africa then was not yet an acknowledged career, and neither were the goings on in South Africa newsworthy for overseas presses. And from these limitations, Goldblatt grew his career, juxtaposing professional work with his own projects, and only beginning to work full-time on his own work from the age of thirty.

Without being a card-carrying anti-apartheid activist, Goldblatt addresses culture with sincerity. His pictures are never a vicarious look that pries into the lives of the underprivileged. Their quality rests on their ability to be plainspoken and almost austere, but to sustain multiple meanings. Rather than instances of conflagration, political or otherwise, Goldblatt's are moments of normalcy — which are often more telling.

Photography is an art form that belies its own challenge. Since its invention in the early 19th century, the camera became a readily available commodity for anybody. By implication, the whole medium was considered by real artists as "easy". In truth, while it can lend itself to happy snaps or flagrant commercialism, photography had also joined the ranks of fine art in the same complex way as the computer as an art tool is doing, today: by becoming a tool that is responsible for many shifting perspectives in visual culture.

And that's where the anachronistic quality of the medium lies. Unlike a painting, a photograph has an immediacy, which gives its images connotations of documentation or of a role other than pure image, like propaganda. Goldblatt's pictures slip these boundaries, because technically they are conventional. There are no bells and whistles here. Visually, the give and take between subject matter and composition and light and shade, reveal them as unique. Goldblatt never takes a picture from an obvious angle, or from a traditionally pretty one.

Later this year, Goldblatt will be opening the Lisbon leg of his retrospective. Representing 51 years of photographing the evidences left by apartheid, between 1948 and 1999, and containing more than 200 images, this exhibition has been traveling since November 2001, and will visit Oxford and Brussels, in 2003, before returning to Johannesburg and Cape Town in 2004.

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