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South Africa's political landscape, as visual poetry

Haunting images have understated, dry elegance

David Goldblatt’s images from South Africa are as much about the land as they are about the people. Pictured: 'A child’s salute to the Cradock Four.' David Goldblatt’s images from South Africa are as much about the land as they are about the people. Pictured: "A child’s salute to the Cradock Four."
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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AMHERST — The number of 20th-century South African writers of international repute is impressively disproportionate: Alan Paton, Athol Fugard, Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee. Yet how many people much beyond Cape Town recognize the names of such photographic contemporaries of theirs as Ernest Cole, Guy Tillim, or, above all, David Goldblatt.

Goldblatt, who turned 80 in November, is among the greatest of living documentary photographers. He won the Hasselblad Award, something like a Nobel for photography, in 2006. Lee Friedlander won it the year before, Bernd and Hilla Becher the year before that. Goldblatt, in his very different way, is very much their peer. The nearly 120 images that make up “Intersections Intersected: The Photography of David Goldblatt’’ provide abundant and haunting proof of just how good he is. The show runs through May 1 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, in the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Fine Arts Center.

“Documentary photographer’’ sounds so inflexible — a category as black-and-white as the images most commonly associated with it. (The Goldblatt show, as it happens, has as many photographs in color as in black-and-white.) Yet much of the greatness of a great documentary photographer has to do with how he or she brings to the genre a sense of additional vocation. Friedlander is as much jazz soloist (and comedian), the Bechers taxonomists and surveyors, W. Eugene Smith preacher, Walker Evans sculptor or, better yet, architect. Goldblatt is a poet, a characteristic he shares with an otherwise very different photographer, Robert Frank. But where Frank’s work has the hooded eyes and inchoate sweep of his friend Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, Goldblatt’s offers no immediate comparison. The sere, understated eloquence of his images is at once lyrical and stunted, unswervingly compassionate and unmistakably accusatory.

“Cry, the Beloved Country,’’ the title of Paton’s most famous work, could serve as rubric for Goldblatt’s photography. His images present both a cherished homeland and the moral sorrow suffusing it. Goldblatt’s attachment to South Africa is all the more notable for his not being able to take it for granted. Triply an outsider, he’s white in a majority-black nation, Anglophone in a society long dominated by Afrikaners, and Jewish. Technically, the show is a retrospective of Goldblatt’s career. It’s better understood, perhaps, as a reconnaissance of national character no less exacting (though of vastly greater duration) than Frank’s in “The Americans.’’

Frank’s book, its title notwithstanding, is less about the people in his pictures than the American space that contains them. Goldblatt records South African light even more than South African space: how hard and unforgiving it is — and also how, in that hardness and incapacity to forgive, it embraces all and favors none. Not least among the sins of the Afrikaners was their eagerness to ignore a fact so unignorable as this dire, defining equality of their adopted home.

Goldblatt hung the show himself, and at first the idiosyncrasy of his arrangements can be off-putting. It’s a good idea to start with the 22-minute video about Goldblatt, made in the mid-’80s, that’s part of the exhibition. The offscreen interviewer is then-little-known artist William Kentridge — South Africa would appear to be a very small place!

There’s no initial sense of progression, either thematic or chronological. (One does come to notice how the later images are looser, sadder, more intuitive.) Color and black-and-white. Framed and unframed (which adds to the sense of dislocation). Large size and medium. Then and now (dates range from 1965 to 2008). The images sprawl over the extensive, and not especially inviting, space of the University Museum of Contemporary Art — formerly the University Gallery. But sprawl is what memory and emotion do, too. Certainly, neither of them progresses. They deepen and resonate, yes, but do not progress. The only thing neat or linear about “Intersections Intersected’’ is the title. Everything else is at oblique angles. Goldblatt knows, as Kant declared, that out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

Although Goldblatt has arranged the show within six categories, many of the images in any of them could easily fit in others. One group, from which the show takes its title, pairs black-and-white photos from the apartheid era with more recent color images. “A baby in its crib in a rooming house,’’ from 1973, adjoins “Anna Boois celebrating her 53d birthday in the vegetable garden of her goat farm,’’ from 2003. The connection would seem to be that the box of soil she holds resembles the crib. It’s hard to say for sure, though, Goldblatt prizing subtlety and indirection as much as he does.

The other groupings are formal (a set of triptychs), geographic (37 photographs of Johannesburg), generic (landscapes), and thematic (the AIDS ribbon and the consequences of blue asbestos mining).

This being South Africa, every photograph here could be described as political. Every photograph here being by Goldblatt, that politics is almost never overt. One exception is the triptych showing the Synodal Hall of the Dutch Reformed Church, from 1986; a 1965 synod of the church; and the hall’s demolition, in 2007. There are no images of demonstrations or government leaders or brutality. That said, an unnerving sense of deep-set, free-form, barely checked violence seems omnipresent — from the small ADT sign in a lush garden to the black boy with an upraised fist at the gravesite of four murdered activists. Even knowing nothing about the mounds of earth behind the boy, one can’t help but recognize something powerful and disturbing is going on.

Sometimes what’s powerful is enduring as well as disturbing. A 1977 photograph shows the dining room of an Asian family’s house that has been marked for demolition because it’s in a neighborhood now designated for white residents only. The two chairs by the table look like funerary monuments (Goldblatt has an acute eye for telling yet unemphatic detail). Another photo, from 2007, shows the same site. The portion of the home that housed the bathroom still stands, its concrete structure impervious to the frontloaders that toppled the rest of the house. Goldblatt’s camera records the grim, absurdist humor of the situation without belaboring either the grimness or the absurdity. He is a witness, and testimony is what witnesses provide, not polemic or scorn.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

INTERSECTIONS INTERSECTED: The Photography of David Goldblatt

At: University Museum of Contemporary Art, Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, through May 1. 413-545-3670, www.umass.edu/fac/umca