Strange to say but David Goldblatt’s landmark photographic essay, In Boksburg, published nearly 30 years ago, is on exhibition for the first time in 2009.
Strange to say but David Goldblatt’s landmark photographic essay, In Boksburg, published nearly 30 years ago, is on exhibition for the first time in 2009. This re-situating of an older body of work in the new white cube of Michael Stevenson is a marvellous coup de main on several levels. First, it is a revelation to actually see the images as large prints for the first time, some not previously published. Then it is almost inevitable that one sees them retrospectively through an awareness of what Goldblatt has been doing and saying more recently since apartheid officially ended. In Boksburg is an essay on high apartheid in a small town on the East Rand in 1979-80; the photographic method may look straight, but the curatorial narrative structure is not: it includes a few recent photographs to intersect (and unsettle) the older paradigms.This exhibition points strongly to some of Goldblatt’s ruling passions, what he has sought to master as a photographer. In Boksburg explores not only people in their habitus, but two domains that have exercised him ever since: particular (even personal) detail, and the larger space of existence which carries other signs. Here the environments carry portents, not quite an existential maw, but an ominous social presence. It might simply be a sitting room with insipid ornaments and a loud carpet pattern, or a frilly wrought-iron fence. Unlike the spaciousness one might associate with Goldblatt’s more recent work, there is a clarity and proximity here that rings out like a bell. Because of the inclusion of more contemporary colour photographs of Boksburg, we are pointed towards this larger social sense, and indeed towards a temporal problematic that things may not have changed very much, except for novel signs of alienation.Different juxtapositions in the exhibition release different possibilities from the book. Instead of the closed and sad faces of both the trolley attendant at Pick ‘n Pay, and the young black woman outside Truworths fashion store on the facing page, the exhibition highlights the young woman in a different narrative, next to white women unpacking boxes for the store’s window display. Looking at her now, below the Truworths sign with its blowsy psychedelic font, her weary shoulders and tidy scarf seem to beg the question: What is fashion to her?The blond girl in the new tutu, under the trellis beams in the strong but slanting sunlight on the stoep, with windows and burglar bars behind, has always been a bit of a thunderclap. The lines of her body are set off against the architectural shadows of the beams, and the fact that we see through the top of her inner thighs – a hole of light in the penumbra cast by the lace – is absolute Goldblatt: erotic and remote, deeply unsettling and hardly noticeable, all at the same time. Her physical delight has little relation to the banal, lower middle-class setting that is the stage for this Ballerina of Suburbia.She transcends the stifling sense in many photographs that white lives are boxed in. Presumably others are boxed up in the township, for they are not the centre of this essay, and hardly appear with the same human intensity. Indeed, Goldblatt states that “blacks are not of this town”. The exhibition’s enlarged print of the Saturday morning burst of black shoppers in the centre of town gives a complete lift to the otherwise pervasive sense of racial isolation, and even more pervasive lack of communication.The beauty of this exhibition is the depth Goldblatt has given to white lives, his acute understanding of minor occasions and mundane gestures. These become redolent with meaning. It is also a welcome chance to rethink the ways Goldblatt has been read in the past, as a photographer deploring apartheid who uses “dispassion” to expose the intimate atrocities at its heart. Such readings have always foregrounded the political and the intellectual, and somewhat sanitised the photographer. An old rupture between politics and aesthetics continues to bedevil the debate around photography and art. This exhibition suggests instead the extent to which Goldblatt is an extremely sensual photographer, whether it is the overgrown athletic schoolboy with his hardly-credible scrolls of merit; the plump calves of middle-aged women at a bus stop; the row of music sheets on the laps of the madrigal group with their shapely ankles; or fecund mothers with rubicund babies. He is alert to bodies, to sexuality, and the frequent tinges of rawness and awkwardness that this domain yields. This is not singularly confined to his photograph of the Miss Lovely Legs competition in the supermarket. Such micro-dynamics intrigue Goldblatt, in Boksburg, and beyond.Patricia Hayes is a Professor in the History Department of the University of the Western Cape