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A Black family of four rests together in bed against a seafoam-green wall while reading a newspaper. They are all under seafoam-green and teal blankets except for the baby, who is nestled in a white bassinet adjacent to the mother, whose arm reaches out from behind the paper to tend to the child. Between the mother and father, who are both obscured by the papers, a young boy turns his head to look at the paper his father is reading. A Black family of four rests together in bed against a seafoam-green wall while reading a newspaper. They are all under seafoam-green and teal blankets except for the baby, who is nestled in a white bassinet adjacent to the mother, whose arm reaches out from behind the paper to tend to the child. Between the mother and father, who are both obscured by the papers, a young boy turns his head to look at the paper his father is reading.

In the Room with David Goldblatt

Inside the Exhibition

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Against a seafoam green wall, a young family lounges together in bed while reading the newspaper. 

The father, at right, and son, in the middle, appear absorbed in their reading. To their left, the mother extends an arm to a baby nestled in a basket. The scene has the look of a perfect Sunday morning—a family in their own little world. It is so intimate, it is easy to forget that another person was there, hovering with a tripod and camera just beyond the edge of the bed: the photographer David Goldblatt.

A Black family of four rests together in bed against a seafoam-green wall while reading a newspaper. They are all under seafoam-green and teal blankets except for the baby, who is nestled in a white bassinet adjacent to the mother, whose arm reaches out from behind the paper to tend to the child. Between the mother and father, who are both obscured by the papers, a young boy turns his head to look at the paper his father is reading.

Sunday morning: A not-white family living illegally in the “White” group area of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, 1978, printed later


David Goldblatt. Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with a gift from Jane P. Watkins, M.P.H. 1979; with the Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund; and with support from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 2022.37.203. © The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust

Over the course of a career that spanned more than six decades, Goldblatt went looking for scenes like this one—quiet and tender, while also deeply revealing of the structures and values that constituted South African society. Though the family appears to be right at home, Goldblatt’s title shares that they were living illegally in the Johannesburg neighborhood of Hillbrow, violating laws that, under the system of segregation known as apartheid, dictated where different racial groups were permitted to reside. The cozy scene is therefore profoundly fragile because the family faced the persistent threat of removal.

This image powerfully presents the tensions that were central to what Goldblatt pursued through photography: soft furnishings and brutal laws, proximity and distance, access and exclusion, and informality and formality. For this reason, we chose it as the first photograph that visitors encounter in David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive, an exhibition that spans the artist’s entire career and is open now in galleries 1–4 and 10.

One of Goldblatt’s early methods for accessing such intimate spaces, in addition to word of mouth and fortuitous encounters, was to post classified advertisements in local newspapers requesting sitters for his portraits. Goldblatt’s ads for his personal work often included a note of reassurance, one of which gave our exhibition its title: “I would like to photograph people in their homes in Johannesburg, Randburg and Sandton. There will be no charge and one free print will be supplied. Further copies at cost price. There is no catch and no ulterior motive.” 

In the most practical sense, Goldblatt’s use of “no ulterior motive” was supposed to allay concerns that he was trying to take advantage of his sitters. But this message also conveys the promise of a transparent and straightforward photographic encounter, a working method that cuts across his body of work.

A Black family of four rests together in bed against a seafoam-green wall while reading a newspaper. They are all under seafoam-green and teal blankets except for the baby, who is nestled in a white bassinet adjacent to the mother, whose arm reaches out from behind the paper to tend to the child. Between the mother and father, who are both obscured by the papers, a young boy turns his head to look at the paper his father is reading.

Looking closely at the newspaper shared by the family in the Hillbrow photograph gives a sense of the media landscape in which Goldblatt’s requests appeared: amid a cartoon about the filmmaker Woody Allen, ongoing coverage of a political scandal involving the misuse of public funds by National Party Cabinet minister Cornelius P. “Connie” Mulder, and a tawdry exposé on the sexual kinks of Shirley Jenner, a young woman found dead in a Cape Town flat. 

Working in a society full of euphemisms for blatant injustices, where Mulder’s job title for administering apartheid laws over 18.5 million Black South Africans was the “Minister of Plural Relations,” Goldblatt voiced a small request to meet people where they were and make photographs of them for free. For the first two decades of his career, this meant searching for encounters that could reveal the interconnectedness of people in a nation governed by policies designed to keep them apart. As a white man, Goldblatt could travel the country with relative freedom, and he pursued such encounters in Hillbrow bedrooms and Soweto offices, deep inside gold mines on the Witwatersrand, on farms in the Karoo, in shop fronts, and on city streets. 

Even as he positioned himself as a photographer without an ulterior motive, Goldblatt certainly had an intention for the resulting photographs: to use them in service of understanding and representing South African social relations. He applied his analysis, captions, and sequencing to the pictures and presented them to a broad public audience. At first, much of Goldblatt’s work appeared in magazines and journals, but he labored to publish his photographs in books, finding them the ideal format to crystallize his perspective on South African people, history, and land. By the time of the Hillbrow family portrait, Goldblatt had published two: On the Mines (1973), with Nadine Gordimer, and Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975). 

Goldblatt’s photography revealed social relations through the apartheid era and after, and not just through intimate encounters with people, like the family in Hillbrow. In many of his photographs, people are not present at all. Such images—of a partially destroyed storefront, imposing church architecture, an asbestos-polluted landscape—speak to how humans mark the land with their values and beliefs.

As the photographer said in a 2014 conversation with Baptiste Lignel, “people are marked by the places in which they have their being, and there are few places unmarked by the passing, the hand, the presence of people … I don’t need people in a photograph to know that people are there.” In this photo of a domestic worker’s quarters, as in the Hillbrow image, newspapers appear, one headline throwing the government’s rigid control of citizens’ movement into wry relief: the astronomical distance crossed by “moon men” seems easier to traverse than the divides imposed by apartheid. 


David Goldblatt

Beyond focusing on his own projects, Goldblatt forged close connections with fellow artists in South Africa to engage a community of critical interlocutors for each other’s work. He also aimed to support new generations of photographers, whom he felt could push the medium in fresh directions. In 1989, Goldblatt helped found in Johannesburg the Market Photo Workshop (MPW), a school that offers instruction and support to emerging photographers. As noted in his introduction to the book Sharp: The Market Photography Workshop, Goldblatt hoped the school would be “a small counter to the ethnic surgery that had so successfully separated South Africans under apartheid.” Spaces like the MPW have been crucial for fostering generative dialogues around the history of South African photography while training photographers whose work raises important questions about representation, intimacy, and access.


Sabelo Mlangeni

Among its alumni are Lebohang Kganye, Sabelo Mlangeni, Ruth Seopedi Motau, and Zanele Muholi, who are featured in this exhibition along with Santu Mofokeng and Jo Ractliffe. Each of these South African photographers has explored themes also present in Goldblatt’s work—belonging, loss, memory, migration—while crafting their own original, often deeply personal ways to examine their country’s people, places, and policies. Mlangeni, whose photography centers communities often overlooked or ostracized by society, says in this exhibition’s accompanying catalogue that Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Photographed reminds viewers how “seeing is being seen, and it is critically important to be let in or allowed to enter.” In the catalogue, Zanele Muholi, whose photography and activism advocates for Black queer visibility, speaks directly to the question of access in their contribution: “Photography introduces a lot of questions, questions of consent … I, as a Black person, would not have had access to those spaces and the people that [Goldblatt] had the opportunity to photograph … David had access. What if the lens was turned the other way around? What did it mean to be a Black photographer in 1975?”


Zanele Muholi

The intimacy and directness in many photographs by Goldblatt, like the Hillbrow family portrait, tempt us to forget his presence. But we must remember—as Muholi prompts us to—that Goldblatt was there, making work in ways fundamentally connected to his position within South African society. His access was a function of his status. And his desire to lay bare the everyday realities of life in his country took place in a larger ecosystem of artists, all of whom have been driven to ask questions about photography’s role—and their roles as individuals—in observing and interrogating the world around them.

—Leslie Wilson, associate director, Academic Engagement and Research, and Yechen Zhao, assistant curator, Photography and Media

Citations

David Goldblatt, quoted in Mark Haworth-Booth, “Interview with David Goldblatt: London / Johannesburg April 2005,” in Regarding Intersections (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2014), 189.

David Goldblatt, “Introduction,” in Sharp: The Market Photography Workshop, edited by Brenton Maart and T.J. Lemon (Johannesburg: Market Photography Workshop, 2002), 8.

Sabelo Mlangeni, “Sabelo on Sabelo,” in David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive, 224.

Professor Sir Zanele Muholi, “The Question of Access,” in David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive, 220.


Sponsors

Major support for David Goldblatt: No Ulterior Motive is provided by Cecily Cameron and Derek Schrier and the Black Dog Fund.

The exhibition’s tour and publication are made possible by Jane P. Watkins.

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