A Solid Line
TJ: Johannesburg Photographs, 1948-2010
Book Review by Colin Graham
Published by: Contrasto
David Goldblatt's career as a documentary photographer stretches back to the 1950s. In TJ his work is put into retropsective form, arranged by decade, but most importantly arranged by place. The TJ of the book's title is Transvaal, Johannesburg, once the official placename for the city and now something of a nostalgia piece, captured here in the cover image of a black couple holding up the fender of a car and pretending to be the 'madam' and her 'driver'. The number on the plate begins 'TJ...'. Goldblatt's work is encircled by the city and cut across, at various points in his career, by a clear and acute sense of race relations. This, and his unabashed capacity to tell stories in his images and to face up to and encapsulate the worst of South African society, pre- and post-Apartheid, make this a rich, shifting and always forceful introduction to his work.
The book comes packaged with a novel by Ivan Vladislavic entitled Double Negative. Such genre combining can show its own welding lines very quickly, and often uses portentousness to hold itself together. This is an exception, though. Vladislavic's novel centres on a young college droput who is sent on a day's work with a photographer friend, modelled in some respects on Goldblatt. The young man has a set of experiences on that day which are downbeat yet revelatory. He goes to London, inadvertently, it seems, becomes a photographer himself and returns to South Africa at around the time of the fall of the old regime. Not wishing to overplay his debt to the older photographer he nevertheless, unsuccessfully, tries to reconnect with the older man. The novel is nicely set at an angle to the book of Goldblatt's photographs so that it never appears to be a fictionalised account of Goldblatt's life. Rather it is a novel which arises from Goldblatt's work, but recognises, amongst other things (the politics of being against the regime during the Apartheid era, for example), that the strength of the work (as it is seen in TJ) is based partly on a kind of artistic integrity, or, at least, the force of personality. Looking back at Auerbach's work (the name of the fictional photographer) the narrator of Double Negative considers Auerbach's success: 'he was a body of work. A solid line. ... I envied him his continuity. He had soldiered on, one photograph at a time, leaving behind an account of himself and his place in which one thing followed another, print after print.' It is a fair summary of the work in TJ, which moves with and catalogues the times in Johannesburg, and which changes its modes of looking at things according to the times and the subject, but which, in toto, strongly marks that 'solid line', an unflamboyant but committed photography of a city which retains its ethics in the face of extraordinary pressure and historical change.
Goldblatt's early work combines street photography with relatively straight documentary. It is drawn to vignettes of the irony of race relations. There are powerful, straight-on portraits. There are cityscapes which give some sense of the diminution of individuals and the social dichotomies of life under Apartheid. His 'While in Traffic' series from 1967 stands out as an unusually voyueristic approach to city life. The 1970s work in Soweto allows dingity and degradation to co-exist - these are the kinds of photographs which have an impact which is difficult to reconstruct now, but here are nicely set against images from the city and suburbs in that binary which structures the society (and indeed this project). In those images of (largely) white Johannesburg there is a continually nagging sense of the inherent and incipient evil of the social system, captured in, for example, the domestic grotesquery of a wedding cake in a dining room. Failed ambition is everywhere in white Johannesburg, and Goldblatt's eye picks out its pathetic details as signs of its hubris, decay and ideological brutality.
A series of images from the 1980s powerfully summarsies Goldblatt's attitude to the Apartheid regime, as he details the stories of those who were fined or imprisoned for living illegally in a White Group Area. This series is the clearest statement of position in the work. With the end of Apartheid, Goldblatt focuses on the unfolding of historical change through the changing fabric of the city. Shopping malls and new buildings rise up. Goldblatt photographs things (streets, shops) which used to be. He starts to use colour, but with some critical irony. He photographs the soccer stadium built for the 2010 World Cup final with a failed and ruined theme park in front of it. The post-Apartheid period, for Goldblatt, becomes one in which he feels an awkward nostlagia. It's a common post-conflict anxiety, and he deals with it by returning to his characteristic 'solid line'. Perhaps the most extraordinary work he has done in this period is a series from 2010; portraits of ex-prisoners (some who have been through the process of Truth and Reconciliation), often photographed at the place where they committed their crime or were arrested. Looking back, and using photograhy to reanimate the place where a personal story took on its heaviest weight, these images reveal the complexities of the new South Africa with profound simplicity. In this, and the rest of his work, Goldblatt, as Vladislavic's narrator says, leaves behind an account of himself and his place, and that account is finely balanced between the two - the observer and the observed.