My first awareness of a bodily particular that I can recall was of the bulges made by the flattened flesh of my inner thighs as I sat in shorts on a kindergarten bench. From where I saw them my bulges seemed more pronounced than anyone else’s and I tried to hide them with my hands and my slate. After a time I realised that my thighs were no different from others. But the inner parts remained an area of the body of which I was especially aware and which, in time, came to have a strong attraction for me in girls.
I have never been able to decide whether my sense of people’s bodies is something I share with others or whether mine is different. But I know that it has been with me for a very long time and that it is often vivid and detailed. It is fed by life experiences and is sometimes intensified by that state of acute awareness that photography enables and demands. Of my life experiences one that was crucial was that of working in my father’s shop in Randfontein, where I acquired a consciousness of bodily particulars that was technical rather than subjective.
My father was a men’s outfitter whose ability to intuit and remember and satisfy his customers’ needs was almost legendary. The wife of a miner who had once worked on Randfontein Estates and who was now on a property in the bush hundreds of miles away, might phone him and say, Eli, our daughter’s getting married and Tom needs a new suit and a shirt, tie, shoes and socks to go with it. That was all she needed to tell him. Within hours an outfit would be in the post, trousers altered to fit, sizes, colours and style unerringly right for the man, his tastes and the occasion.
Under my father’s kindly yet firm guidance I became reasonably skilled at applying some of his precepts. One of which was never, ever to ask a customer his size. It was our job to know or to discover the right size and to sell him clothing that fitted, that appealed to his tastes and that was right for his purposes. Thus it was that I learnt to be conscious of how a man’s body ‘was’: of how he stood and was proportioned; to estimate and measure the girth and length of trunk, arms and legs so that they could be brought into a proper congruity with jackets and trousers; and as well to understand likings and needs and how these might best be satisfied. I learnt to look at a man and his feet, their length, breadth and build and to judge what shoe size, fitting, make and last to try on him in order to find what would best suit and fit him. I could examine neck and arms and make a pretty good guess at collar size and sleeve length before confirming with the tape measure. After my father’s death in 1962 I sold the business and became a photographer. The outfitting skills have rusted, but that awareness of the body, of its proportions, size and build and of what is declared in stance, clothing and ornamentation, has become sharper and broader – I am as conscious of these things in woman as I am in men.
In 1975 after working for about five years on a series of portraits of my compatriots in the streets and homes of Soweto and the suburbs of Johannesburg, it seemed natural, almost inevitable, that I should extend what I was doing to an exploration of their bodies, or rather, the particulars of their bodies, as affirmations and embodiments of their selves. I did this with much concentration for several months and since then have continued, from time to time, to photograph in this way.
— David Goldblatt