Out of the language of photography in South Africa can be made dompas photographs, beauty-spot photographs for Flying Springbok, the South African Airways magazine, a smuggled photograph of the body of Steve Biko after he had died in detention, happy Polaroids of crowds at Sun City and news photographs of families being evicted from their homes. Because of this drama of environmental association, photography has become the most emotive language of the several dozen spoken by us South Africans. It has at the same time tended to make enormities and beauties equally commonplace, less and less capable of rousing differentiated response. Because of the immediacy with which photographs rouse an emotional response and the concommitant blunting of response that follows over-exposure to that immediacy, what makes a work of art, in the language of photography, is a quality that neither depends upon associative sensationalism nor can be blocked by blunted sensibility. The art of David Goldblatt’s photographs lies in finding a visual way to touch a nerve of sensibility that has not been reached by the bang-on impact of a thousand similar images. The photographer is popularly seen as a being turned into a huge single eye. But David Goldblatt is no Cyclops; he is the photographer as a whole man. In his work here, you will see that he has put not only a great talent but all he knows–as a human being, as a man, as a South African, as a white African, with a vision constantly subject to his own unflinching self-criticism–into his photographs. He has given them literally all he has got.
‘I needed to grasp something of what a man is and is becoming in all the particularity of himself and his bricks and bit of earth and of this place, and to contain all this in a photograph. To do this, and to discover the shapes and shades of his loves and fears and my own, would be enough.’ This is David Goldblatt, speaking in 1975. In grasping that ‘something of what man is and is becoming,’ Goldblatt has become the most important influence on contemporary South African photography; widely imitated, he has thus, both directly and indirectly, influenced our perception of ourselves and our world, our world.