The photographer David Goldblatt was present for a press preview the day before his grand opening at Centre Pompidou this Spring. His voice is also very present throughout the exhibition, since in each room several films are presented, in which he explains the story behind his images. Goldblatt is a key figure on the South African photography scene and for the first time in France, the Centre Pompidou has mounted a retrospective of his work. The exhibition includes a selection of his major series, and reveals lesser-known groups of pictures, like his first photos taken in the townships of Johannesburg. As Centre Pompidou writes, all his series cast a sharp eye on the complexity of social relations under apartheid and ask big questions about our time.
Of the current situation in South Africa today, he comments: “The country is recovering from a terrible period of corruption, bad government and disrespect for our constitution. It’s difficult to say what will happen. There is great promise in the new president, and I’m hopeful for the future, although it will take us a long time to recover.” His work, he explains, can only can touch on these issues. “I can’t deal with the grand questions.” Asked if he is looking for complexity in his work, he answers that everything is complex. “This is what reality is like; it’s never simple, there’s always complexity, and I try to take account of it in the work I do.”
On the question of how he works, Goldblatt explained that he is not at all interested in style and doesn’t even think he has a style. He works on what intrigues him. “If I’m mystified by what I’m seeing, then I want to photograph it. Photography to me is a magical tool to show the world. Whether I convey the mysteries in my photograph, I don’t know. I follow my ideas. I get to work, see what happens, and then turn the pictures into series. The series may take several weeks, or several years. I followed one series for 15 years.”
Speaking of photography in general, he is optimistic. “I think things have changed: we’re all fully informed today – we know the world and we’ve seen the photographs. The ability of photography today is to make relevant statements, and the cleverer and more creative photographers, two of whom are here today” – he points to the artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin who are present for the opening, also exhibiting at Pompidou in the Galerie Photographies – “are doing new things, finding new means of expression and ways in which photography relates to the world that we haven’t expected, that we haven’t seen.” Adam Broomberg later tells me how happy he and Chanarin are to be exhibiting together with Goldblatt: “We’re all eastern European Jews, and from South Africa, so you could say both the Holocaust and the apartheid regime runs in our veins.” Goldblatt spent many hours seeing their show: “There are the same amount of images in our exhibition as in David’s, and he took time to look though them all.”
Asked if he looks at his work as art, Goldbatt’s answer is clear: “I grew up in photography. I was privileged. But I have to be frank, I don’t look at myself as an artist. If you tell me that my work is art I don’t mind, but I have no ambitions in art. Art and photography is a very risky relationship. I think that photographers need to be cautious about being convinced that they’re artists. A friend of mine made the distinction ‘the art of work or the work of art’, and I’m leaning heavily towards the first.”
As to the question of the role of photography today, when everyone can take pictures with their mobile phones, Goldblatt replies: “The development of digital technology is a huge advantage, and should be looked at in relation to writing. We can all write, we all have pens, but that doesn’t mean that we’re all writers. Having a pen doesn’t make us all poets. If you’re looking at photography as a medium for penetrating thought, then there are different skills. France has been blessed with some extraordinary photographers from the very beginning of photography. These are people who had the seeing eye. You can’t learn to have the seeing eye at school – you must just have it.”