David Goldblatt sold his family's menswear business in South Africa to become a photographer in 1962. But the pictures he made of the nation under apartheid suggest that there was one thing in the rag trade he refused to leave behind: the practice of taking inventory.
The exhibition ''David Goldblatt: Photographs From South Africa'' at the Museum of Modern Art includes 46 pictures of churchs, monuments, shantytowns, apartment houses, graveyards, toilet seats, billboards, hedges and house trimmings: a veritable inventory of South Africa's store of goods, running from 1964 until 1993.
Like Bernd and Hilla Becher, who photographed water towers, blast furnaces and other quasi-architectural objects, Mr. Goldblatt is interested in man-made things. But he is not exploring the curious and beautiful variations on a utilitarian theme. Instead, he practices a kind of social iconography, looking for ordinary images that are packed with historical and sociological meaning. Mr. Goldblatt chose to focus on unexceptional objects in South Africa, he once said, because he was drawn ''to the quiet and commonplace, where nothing 'happened' and yet all was contained and immanent.''
Unfortunately, all is not contained and immanent in these images. Many of the pictures cry out for explanation, and their cry is answered with a torrent of text. Every photograph is supported by a few hundred words. Sometimes the text helps, turning what are cool, uninflected pictures into illustrations of the twisted social relations and hideous inequalities of apartheid. Sometimes, though, the text is just a tidal wave in which the sought-for crucial information drowns.
The successes in this show are the mystifying objects that yield to explanation but retain their visual presence. For example, the exhibition opens with an odd structure that appears to have been made out of tin ceiling tiles, corrugated metal and a small wheel. Mr. Goldblatt explains that this is a ''Cafe-de-Move-On,'' one of the coffee carts that African workers in Johannesburg would visit for tea, lunch, conversation and even, occasionally, a place to sleep.
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In 1962, there were thousands of these carts, made from castoff materials from white Johannesburg. By 1965, though, the carts, long deplored by the Government, had been destroyed. At first, Mr. Goldblatt writes, the workers had to eat in eating houses, fish friers and cafes, and then, beginning in the 1970's, in ''factory canteens, long established for whites but thought by many employers to be 'unnecessary' for blacks, and which workers had resisted as being a ploy by bosses to keep wages down.''
Even a picture as intriguing as this, though, can suffer from too much text. Here Mr. Goldblatt indicates clearly that the destruction of the coffee carts was a bad thing, but then goes on to give an opaque explanation of the significance of the opening of the company canteen to blacks. Was it in fact social progress or part of a ploy to keep wages down? He doesn't say.
Telling the history of a nation through its objects is nonetheless a heroic endeavor, especially when the history goes back thousands of years. As proof that Africans civilized the veld thousands of years before the Europeans came, Mr. Goldblatt includes a late-Iron Age settlement on the grasslands of the highveld: a pile of rocks with a square crawl passage. In order to show the first signs of separatism, he takes a picture of the hedge that was planted at the Cape by the first European settlers in the middle of the 17th century to keep the indigenous Khoikhoi out. A curlicue scroll ornament on a pure white stairway at one of the richest farms at the Cape is a sign that conspicuous consumption went all the way back to the late 18th century.
In the exhibition, most of the objects photographed are apartheid-era structures. A broken toilet seat sitting in the middle of a vast grassland is proof that many African East Cape farmers were forced off their land and into resettlement camps that contained no farmland but 1,500 ''long-drop'' latrines. A 1990 picture of a shiny shelter of new corrugated metal in the Transvaal is evidence that new shacks were being built even as apartheid was being dismantled. A 1988 real estate ad for whites in the Natal region showing a house with an African man and his son standing in front is the salesman's hint that the man and his son are among the ''assets'' of the house.
''Nothing was said,'' Mr. Goldblatt writes, ''but much was implied.''
A few of the photographs speak louder than their explanations. One is of a bleak cemetery for white members of the security forces killed in what was called the ''Total Onslaught,'' in the Transvaal. It is a fenced-in area in a field, with an arched gateway carrying the inscription ''We are for you, South Africa,'' a line from the Afrikaans national anthem. This place was clearly supposed to honor the whites who fell fighting for apartheid; it is, after all, called ''The Heroes' Acre.'' But because it resembles a concentration camp gate, it slyly suggests that the fences of apartheid were doubly oppressive, not only keeping blacks out but also shutting whites in.
Like Eugene Atget, who photographed Paris's deserted streets, closed storefronts and quiet courtyards, Mr. Goldblatt rarely includes people in his photographs. He wants each object to speak frankly about the people who are not there to hear.
One of the most remarkable pictures, though, reverses Mr. Gold blatt's usual formulation of walls without people. It is of a mother and child lying on a mattress. They appear exactly as you would expect if they had been in the privacy of their home, surrounded by their possessions, chairs and a table. The child is asleep. The mother watches him. The only thing amiss is that the walls of the shelter are gone. Mother and child are lying out in the middle of some sand surrounded by bushes and trees.
As Mr. Goldblatt explains, ''The shelter was a framework of Port Jackson brushwood staked into loose sand of the Cape Flats and covered by plastic sheets.'' But in 1984, he continues, ''a team of five overalled black men, supervised by an armed white, lifted the entire structure of frame and plastic skin off the ground and placed it nearby. Then they pulled off the plastic, smashed the framework, and threw the pieces onto a waiting truck.'' The convoy then ''moved toward the next group of shelters. For a while the woman lay with the child. Then she got up and began to cut and strip branches of Port Jackson bush to make a new framework for her house.''
Even though this photograph has living, breathing subjects, it carries the same affectless quality that pervades Mr. Goldblatt's inventory of inanimate objects. Why? One can only conclude that this is the look of apartheid: oppressive, futile, hopelessly still.