David Goldblatt once spoke of his realisation that rather than control the South African light, it was probably wiser to work with it. The high, bare sunlight that meets the Johannesburg haze is a recurring presence in the first substantial collection of Goldblatt’s colour photographs. In presenting new work that he has been making since the late Nineties, Intersections is something of a reprise of the themes the photographer has approached with a steady urgency for more than half a century. Goldblatt’s photographs themselves share such longevity in their power. They reward scrutiny. They are graceful yet spare, often holding layers of detail, tokens of domestic and municipal histories, fragments of cultivation, and belongings.
Within all of this, there is the aching dignity of a population challenged by division, frayed opportunity and the lapping tide of HIV/Aids. Territories are marked simply. They can be dry farmland marked with wire or sharply drawn walled villages where the light shines Tuscan. Goldblatt acknowledges both, alongside the fallen mills and modest plots that sit low against the land. Workers construct mechanically, yet hardly challenge the monotonous landscapes and skies of the Veldt.
The dexterity of this photographer should progress the research of the writer David Campany, whose idea of late photography (the return of the photographer to a site of significance with the luxury of temporal distance) has been a concise yet helpful evaluation of recently exhibited photography. With Goldblatt, there is no distance and no mannerist regularity of picture making. His work has benefited from the digital refinement with which colour can now be employed. These prints suggest a new key towards our understanding of the South African experience and Golblatt’s relating of it.
Half way through the book, Blue Asbestos taints a former mining area in Northern Cape. A dangerous, corrupted expanse, it speaks of a land in a slow and troubling transition. When looking at it, I am reminded of Alan Trachtenberg, searching for a distinction between the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. While Lange’s work suggested an upheaval, a temporary disaffection, Evans’ work was resonant, problematic and ultimately dealt with fate. It seems clear to me that David Goldblatt’s best photographs carry a similar weight.