Johannesburg - For the better half of the past century, celebrated South African lensman David Goldblatt has turned his camera away from himself, focusing rather on the changing South African landscape. But in Goldblatt – the first feature-length documentary of his extraordinarily prolific life and career – we get to see the man behind the camera with new eyes, and it’s quite remarkable.
“In the end, the photograph is always going to be about you, the photographer,” says William Kentridge, Goldblatt’s contemporary, in an interview for the film. Kentridge captures the experience of the Goldblatt documentary, that rare opportunity to sit back and experience the history of South Africa as it passed his trained eyes.
He’s one of the many voices who contribute to this sensitive, moving portrait, joining famous fans, family, collaborators and critics such as Zanele Muholi, the late Nadine Gordimer and Hans Ulrich-Obrist (the curator ArtReview has called the most powerful man in the art world), who each candidly discuss their memories of images that Goldblatt took.
From his childhood in Randfontein, to his first body of work observing “the dying mines of South Africa”, to the shutdown of his 1980s exhibition in London by angry ANC members, all the way to his landmark images of apartheid crimes, Afrikaner identity, the tenuous landscapes of the Karoo, the start of democracy in South Africa and new work, such as the iconic image he took of the Rhodes statue being removed from the University of Cape Town – this film is an archive of the way we look, and the way we are seen.
Between all his images, we experience the normal life of an 85-year-old man at his home.
We witness developments in his studio, as well as nervous moments at exhibition openings and pensive recollections on the road in his beloved camper van – all of it in exquisite cinematography captured by a crew of other well-known photographers such
as Greg Marinovich.
The nuanced, and at times piercing, threads of footage are strung together by talented writer and director Daniel Zimbler. Zimbler’s decade-spanning narrative looks at Goldblatt’s images not just as a way to discuss the photographer’s personal life, but also to re-investigate the layered histories he captured.
It’s at times surreal to see your life reflected back at you through the lens of Goldblatt’s singular vision. His minute detail can become utterly excruciating to revisit, a horrifying retrospective of the things he saw during apartheid that become almost too unbearable to even accept as reality when he talks about them again. Even more gruesome is to see him talk openly about his complicity in observing such horrors, and how now, looking back on it all, he still feels utterly disappointed with how little he did to make the situation better.
Goldblatt is raw, human and ultimately the missing self-portrait that a complete reading of his life deserves.
Stay to the end of the film for a small preview of his forthcoming exhibition, the first time we see his much-mythologised nudes.