David Goldblatt's photographs have borne witness since the late 1940's to life in his native South Africa. More than 150 of his pictures are in a retrospective of the years 1948 to 1999 now at the Axa Gallery.
They have borne witness, but not in the way that news photographs of oppression and upheaval usually do, by recording extreme violence or suffering or protest. Like many photographers who came of age after World War II and dreamed of escaping their middle-class lives and experiencing the world, Mr. Goldblatt wanted to pick up a camera after he thrilled to pictures by Capa and Cartier-Bresson in magazines like Life and Look.
But he realized after a while that he wasn't temperamentally suited to do what they did. So he decided to satisfy his own conscience and to make a career of photography by documenting ordinary life, or what passed for ordinary life in apartheid South Africa.
In time, he became his country's most distinguished photographer. His pictures recorded those in-between moments and seemingly inconsequential, visually unprepossessing things that, precisely because they are taken for granted and aren't considered unusual, tend to be the most revelatory. These are images in which the violence, suffering and protest are embedded so deeply into what can seem like nothing or nowhere that as an outsider you may not be sure at first what you are meant to see.
In one deadpan shot, for example, you can recognize a shirtless man in shorts mowing his lawn; in another, a stairway with a curlicue banister. The first is an image of anonymous suburbia petering out into what seems like wasteland, a cliché with its familiar, slightly menacing tone of ironic alienation, smartly composed. The second is a work of eloquent geometry and delicate tonal contrast, white on white, reminiscent of Paul Strand.
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They suffice as art, never mind what they have to do with South Africa. Like all intelligent photographs they entail ambiguity. But the suburb is Boksburg, an unremarkable middle-class white community of the kind that was proliferating in South Africa during the 1970's. Its normalcy is the real point of Mr. Goldblatt's picture, the essence of its irony: that there was, or ought to have been, nothing normal or seemingly unremarkable about the spread of such places into what was not wasteland but land seized by whites from blacks.
Your formal appreciation of the picture doesn't depend on your knowing this; once you know it, your discomfort really changes only by degrees. Black South Africans, by contrast, would immediately have recognized what the scene was about. White South Africans would simply have seen another suburb, which for Mr. Goldblatt was the problem. His pictures have functioned on different levels for different people: as images whose meanings are known only to him, like all art in relation to its maker; as documents of historical accounting for his countrymen; and as independent signs nominally aided by captions.
All this applies to the second photograph, too, of the stairway, which we learn was built by slaves 220 years ago. The picture's abiding ambiguity has to do with the elegance of its design, metaphorically suggesting the contradictory nature of apartheid South Africa, where beauty mingles with ugliness. Among Mr. Gold blatt's virtues as a photographer -- what distinguishes him from a propagandist -- is his refusal to telegraph or beseech, not because he is morally ambivalent toward his subjects but because reality, when you live in a complicated situation, is never easy. Art, as opposed to propaganda, embraces these complications. The quality of Mr. Goldblatt's work rests on its ability to appear plain spoken and almost austere, but to sustain multiple kinds of meaning.
Mr. Goldblatt was born in 1930 and descends from Lithuanian Jews who fled the pogroms in the 1890's and settled in South Africa. Perhaps this accounts for his empathy. His family ran a small men's wear business in Randfontein, a gold mining town near Johannesburg. He took serendipitous photographs as a teenager, before he knew for certain what he wanted to do, including one of the memorable pictures in the exhibition, a shot of a black stevedore, leaping after having unloaded his enormous crates at the docks in Durban. It is an image of physical liberation and surreal joy, which includes the splendid accident of a hand jutting into the frame.
After his father died in 1962 Mr. Goldblatt sold his family business to become a photographer full time, supporting himself through commercial work. There weren't many photojournalists in South Africa, and magazines in Europe and the United States weren't yet too interested in stories from there. But someone, he realized, ought to be recording what was happening. So he documented the Defiance Campaign against apartheid in 1952 and the first apartheid signs to be posted in Johannesburg. Gradually he realized that photographs weren't going to change the world. But they were still necessary, and he had a talent.
He photographed miners -- white managers, black laborers and some of the people living around the mines, including the men who worked at a clothing concession serving black miners. The results were strikingly different. Having descended into the mines, he produced several pictures of shaft-sinkers blasting holes thousands of feet into the earth. Near abstractions of rushing activity and immense energy, these are unusual among Mr. Goldblatt's work, celebrating unsung heroism in hellish circumstances but most obviously exploiting the formal properties of stark light, radical composition and blurry motion.
His portraits of miners, like many of his best works, exercise a more subtle humanity. A picture of a black ''team leader'' pedaling a white mine captain on a bike nearly suggests Buster Keaton because of the way its wit tempers deeper emotion, the photograph respectfully acknowledging a viewer's ability to grasp its basic message without being lectured.
Another portrait, of Harry Oppenheimer, a mining house chairman, a liberal opponent of apartheid but a man whose companies did business with the apartheid establishment, also declines to preach. Oppenheimer appears meek, a shrunken, anxious figure lost in a leather chair, a deeply unflattering image for a corporate mogul, but not a simple one, because if you don't know who he is you may look at him with pity, almost sympathetically.
Mr. Goldblatt conveyed straightforward outrage, too, in pictures akin to Robert Frank's ''Americans.'' (Bill Brandt also comes to mind.) One such photograph shows white children picnicking, a teenage boy holding a toy gun to the head of a baby; another shows a policeman in a cafe in Pretoria smirking into the camera (although even here you may notice that the policeman is still young enough so that the light in his eyes is not yet extinguished).
But the best pictures are those in which Mr. Goldblatt declined to shout and to let the subjects speak for themselves. A portrait from the early 60's of a poor old white man with the black daughter of a servant is a good example, a gorgeous and oddly tender image: the two subjects (the girl had casually wandered into the picture frame while Mr. Goldblatt was photographing the man) seem momentarily bound together by a mercy that transcends the nature of their relationship.
In South Africa 30 or 40 years ago it was extraordinary for anyone even to think of making humane photographs of nonwhites, apartheid having outlawed the very idea of black humanity. So, for example, when an Indian community in Johannesburg called Fietas was expelled by the government in the 70's to make way for whites, not many white people cared. But Mr. Goldblatt was there to photograph before and after. He recorded the inside of the general store, the owners' daughter standing demurely behind the counter, and then he photographed the vacant lot that replaced it, where a white man now hawked crude prints of doe-eyed blondes and topless pinups from a makeshift stall.
Mr. Goldblatt photographed the house of the grocer in Fietas, Ozzie Docrat, before its destruction, an image of domesticity recalling Vuillard, and then Mr. Docrat's shuttered shop. The government went so far as to copy vernacular motifs from the old stores and houses for the new homes for whites: ruined lives used for quaint decoration. Mr. Goldblatt's photographs preserve the dignity of what had been.
The exhibition at Axa is organized around series that have produced books and occasional photographs for publications, including The New York Times: Mr. Goldblatt's series about miners, about Afrikaners, about Boksburg, about Soweto and about the ''transported,'' who were black South Africans compelled to commute hours from remote homelands as part of a vastly expensive apartheid system called ''spatial engineering.'' In Mr. Goldblatt's photographs, the men and women are crowded on buses like refugees in steerage, the pictures recalling the shaft-sinkers, bespeaking a kind of dark, limbo world.
The curlicue stairway comes from what Mr. Goldblatt calls his ''structures'' series, which includes pictures of immense modernist buildings photographed in the crisp style of Ezra Stoller, but with a subjective attention to meanings implied by the architecture: the buildings representing white South Africa's aspiration to a global significance, which the policy of apartheid definitively precluded in the country.
The most recent photographs show life after apartheid. One shot of a black barber in 1999 calmly reading a newspaper while he waits for customers under a makeshift awning on a street in Johannesburg is articulate precisely because it looks so matter-of-fact. The barber wouldn't have been allowed to be there under white rule. He would have been arrested. One world has given way to another.
''Forgetting the extermination is part of the extermination itself,'' the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said. Mr. Goldblatt has talked instead about his ''sometimes perverse, even quixotic notion of giving recognition.'' Either way, his photographs are indispensable first-hand records of an important place and time, buoyed by persistent grace.
''David Goldblatt: 51 Years,'' remains at the Axa Gallery, 787 Seventh Avenue, at 51st Street, Manhattan, (212) 554-4818, through Oct. 6.