The Threepenny Review

A Photographer’s Staying Power

Goldblatt, directed by Daniel Zimbler. Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, 2017.

IN THE 1970s, in the thick of apartheid, the South African photographer David Goldblatt set about capturing daily life in places where, he remarks, “a white man… attracted a great deal of attention, from both the populace and the security police.” Already he had found himself subject to interrogation, off and on; he remembers being brought in once and asked whether he could really be a “loyal South African,” seeing as he was a Jew. As he trained his lens on Soweto, Transkei, Fietas—places designated for particular ethnicities under the Group Areas Act, under which millions of people were forcibly relocated—Goldblatt chose not to photograph furtively in the hope of escaping such scrutiny. His art, subtle in its particulars and searching in its patience, would not have allowed that. “I adopted a slow and formal photography,” he says of that period. “No shooting from the hip; the camera invariably on a tripod, everything upfront and transparent. Ordinary onlookers soon got bored, while the police seemed not to know what to make of the sheer banality of what I was doing.”

What might have been “sheer banality” to the policeman becomes, to the observer lifted out of ordinary time, nothing less than a documentary record of human depths. A young woman of Indian descent stands behind the counter in her parents’ shop, as the caption tells us, “before its destruction under the Group Areas Act.” Sadly alert to this moment, holding the photographer’s gaze, she is still touchingly self-absenting. A municipal official in his early thirties, a lonely functionary of the apartheid state, smokes a cigarette in his spartan bedsit. A black man holds up his passport-like document permitting travel through

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