By the time Goldblatt began his professional career in photography in 1962, South Africa was segregated in every sense—80% of the land was legally claimed for white people, forcing millions of Black South Africans from their homes. Goldblatt would go on to shoot portraits of prime ministers and presidents for Leadership, as well as commissions for international magazines including Tatler, the New York Times Magazine, Paris Match, and The Observer in the U.K. Towards the end of his career and his life (he died in June 2018), Goldblatt began to focus more on the terrain of South Africa, taking landscape pictures. He focused in particular on the small, barren hills that lie between Johannesburg and Cape Town, land he described as “soft and round from a distance but when you get onto them…incredibly harsh and unkind,” he explained in The Last Interview (2018), a published conversation with Alexandra Dodd, which took place shortly before his death at age 87.
Yet looking at Goldblatt’s earlier, contemplative photographs from this blistering period of brutality, you do not see the violence or the protests. Goldblatt rarely showed what the vociferous press wanted to see; he wasn’t interested in sensationalism or making instrumental images. He photographed sites of protest and places where monuments had been torn down; he went to the gold-mining communities that played a major role in the South African economy in the 1960s and ’70s and photographed Black mothers who traveled to the city to look after white children, leaving their own behind; he met with ex-offenders and asked them to return to scenes of their crimes. The violence is always present—but never a spectacle.