Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
28.07 – 25.08.2018
On a wall to the right of the entrance of the Goodman gallery’s current show ‘On Common Ground’ is a small colour picture taken in 2015. It shows photographers Peter Magubane and David Goldblatt sitting on a bench, clearly enjoying each other’s company while the audience at Goldblatt’s Standard Bank Gallery show mill about behind them. The two men don’t look like they’re in their 80s – they are old but still spritely – their eyes sparkling with the curiosity and delight that shaped their respective, applauded and awarded careers. Magubane as the photojournalist on the frontlines of the struggle against apartheid, whose photographic philosophy fell firmly into the Robert Capa school of belief that if you weren’t close enough, you weren’t good enough; Goldblatt as the more distant observer of the structural divisions that the system burnt into the landscape of the country.
For Magubane the camera was explicitly a weapon for exposure of the brutalities of the regime, for Goldblatt, his lens was drawn more to “the quiet and the commonplace where nothing happened and yet all was contained and imminent.” There are other differences too – Goldblatt, born in the dusty mining town of Randfontein was working class but still afforded the privileges of movement, educational and employment advantages of being white under apartheid. Magubane, born in the township of Vrededorp had to continuously find ways to manoeuvre within the cracks of the system and face consequences for his determination to expose the system – hiding a camera in a loaf of bread, suffering arrest and detention by the security forces.
By the time that the photo of the two men was taken in 2015 both had enjoyed successful careers and earned international recognition for their work – Magubane predominantly in the halls of international and local universities and from the photojournalist community; Goldblatt in galleries around the world and from the art world. The differences in their backgrounds, philosophies and approaches broken down by the end of the system they had both spent their lives exposing and examining.
Move to the right of the photograph of the two men to the back of the gallery and there you will find a video of the two sitting on a porch, their various books spread about, their voices raspy and soft as they try with difficulty to talk about each other’s work and to maintain focus. The video was shot a few weeks before Goldblatt’s death following a battle with cancer; Magubane is also undergoing treatment for cancer and there is an unshakeable sense of sadness in seeing how much time and age have wrought in on these two giants of South African photography in the three years between their meeting at the Standard Gallery and this moment. In the end they are, – in spite of the energy and desire to capture their world that drove them for decades – mere mortals, as much subject to the greater forces of time and health as the rest of us. Goldblatt did not live to see this exhibition but he was deeply involved in its creation, working closely with curator Paul Weinberg in the selection of images for it. Magubane, whose health did not permit him to speak at the opening was however present to see the excitement of the packed audience.
Both men are represented finally not by their presence but by the work that they dedicated so much of their lives to producing and as it is presented in this, their first and perhaps only joint exhibition, it demonstrates many of the aspects of their different views towards their medium but also many moments of overlap, common ground and most strikingly a shared commitment to the humanity of the country they love.
One side of the gallery is Magubane’s and one is Goldblatt’s but this physical separation is easily broken down by shared interests and subject matter – mines, Johannesburg, Afrikaners, Soweto. Magubane’s pictures appeal to the heart – you can smell the teargas and smoke and feel the tension, fear and violence in his famous pictures of the Soweto protests; the kinetic energy of his snaps of daily life on the streets of Johannesburg; the heat coming off the fires in the background of his later picture of Xhosa initiates. Goldblatt aims for the head – buildings bearing the scars of the effects of forced removals, people captured displaying their commitment to going about their everyday lives in spite of the restrictions of racial segregation, workers trying to catch up on much needed sleep as they travel six to eight hours from KwaNdebele to Pretoria.
And yet there are several instances in which the differences between the two photographers are not so easy to spot at first glance and their gazes seem guided to similar moments – Magubane’s iconic image of a black domestic worker sitting on the non-white side of a bench while examining the hair of her white charge seated on the opposite side; Goldblatt’s similar photo of a white farmer’s son and his nursemaid in Heimweeberg in the then Western Transvaal – not separated by signs but rather by the unseen social structures that will divide them no matter their own feelings for each other as people.
Ultimately Weinberg’s physical separation of the work of the two men is a clever trick – once you begin to look at the photographs you realise that, there is indeed more that unites them than divides and more that keeps us as a broader society together than apart – a distinctly South African characteristic that’s seen us through the best and worst of times in spite of our protestations to the contrary.