South Africa mourns David Goldblatt, the photographer who documented apartheid

South African photographer David Goldblatt, who chronicled the harsh fallout of white minority rule in his country for decades, died on Monday 25 June, at the age of 87. The renowned South African whose work documented the abuses and divisions of apartheid, had his images shown in media and museums around the world.

He was a “legend, a teacher, a national icon and a man of absolute integrity”, the Johannesburg-based Goodman Gallery said in a statement on Monday. The photographer died “peacefully” at his home in the city, said the gallery, which showcased his portfolio.

Born to Lithuanian immigrants in Johannesburg’s gold reef, Goldblatt documented the nightmare of apartheid, under which the white-minority government enshrined racial divisions under a law from 1948. His photographs on South Africa’s black population working in mines or travelling under racist laws that restricted their movements, as well as privileged whites at home, along with routine interactions between the races showed how the country’s normality was distinctly abnormal and abhorrent. For millions of people outside South Africa, Goldblatt’s work lifted the veil on the impact of apartheid on individual lives.

(Goodman Gallery/David Goldblatt)

“During those years my prime concern was with values – what did we value in South Africa, how did we get to those values and how did we express those values,” Goldblatt once said, according to the Goodman Gallery. “I was very interested in the events that were taking place in the country as a citizen but, as a photographer, I’m not particularly interested, and I wasn’t then, in photographing the moment that something happens. I’m interested in the conditions that give rise to events.”

In 1988, Goldblatt was the first South African to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, United States. A year later he founded the Market Photography Workshop in Johannesburg, which has since become a hub for developing young talent in the city. He remained a respected figure in post-apartheid South Africa—his work focusing the inner city lives of middle-class residents, both black and white.

(Goodman Gallery/David Goldblatt)

“We have lost yet another of our own celebrated photographers, who through the lens built a reputation as one of the country’s leading documenters of the struggles of our people,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.

“He captured the social and moral value systems that portrayed South Africa during a period of the apartheid system in order to influence its changing political landscape,” said the president who was a close aide to Mandela and a key negotiator in the early 1990s transition to democracy. The news of his death has since brought tributes pouring in on social media.

Goldblatt started to photograph his country when he was 18, and today his photographs are included in collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and other museums around the world, according to the Goodman Gallery. Goldblatt’s archive of negatives will be transferred to Yale University under a recently signed agreement, the gallery said. His funeral was held on Tuesday in Johannesburg.