When South African photographer David Goldblatt released his book, Some Afrikaners Photographed, in 1975, no one bought it. He’d only had 1,000 copies printed and it didn’t take long before even those had been nudged from the bookstore shelves into the discount pile.
Perhaps that wasn’t surprising. After all, Goldblatt’s mock-up for the book had been serially rejected by publishers in New York; in fact, the only reason the book eventually made it to the printer at all was thanks to a large-hearted patron who didn’t care a whiff about recouping his investment. A South African publisher tried again in 2006 but, again, the book found little traction.
So why would a title that was met with resounding indifference find itself re-released 45 years after it debuted?
For starters, because Goldblatt would go on to become one of the most celebrated photographers in South Africa’s history, and the first South African to be given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He would win both the Hasselblad Photography Award and the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award, and when he died in 2018, at 87, the British Journal of Photography, the New York Times, the Washington Post, among many others, published long and laudatory tributes.
It’s also because Some Afrikaners Photographed has aged remarkably well. Whether due to South Africa’s changing political landscape—apartheid ended in 1994—or the fact that our way of looking at photography has caught up to Goldblatt’s clear-eyed vision, or both, is hard to say. But today, collectors are shelling out upward of $2,000 for a first edition. In June, thanks to Steidl’s re-release, this breathtakingly beautiful, nuanced, and important book—this book that almost never was—will get yet another life.
Far From the Frontlines
Goldblatt’s grandparents fled Lithuania in the 1890s to escape the swell of anti-Semitism. They settled in South Africa, opening a clothing store in Randfontein, 25 miles west of Johannesburg. In white-ruled South Africa, Goldblatt looked like an insider but, as a Jew in a country flush with racism and even Nazi sympathizers, he sometimes felt like an outsider.
Working in the family store exposed Goldblatt to lots of people—including Afrikaners, many of whom, he writes in the book’s afterward “were racist in their very blood…[making] no secret of their attitude to blacks, who at best [they saw as] children in need of guidance and correction, at worst sub-human.” Despite this, he explains, he found his own reaction to the Afrikaners surprising: “There was a warm straightforwardness and an earthiness in many of these people,” which he appreciated. Goldblatt also tells us that he was “much troubled by the contradictory feelings of liking, revulsion and fear that these Afrikaner encounters aroused in me.”
Of course, it’s in that queasy push-pull of conflicting emotions that great art often lives. Eventually Goldblatt walked away from the family clothing store to explore those emotions—and Afrikaners—in more depth. “I wanted,” he writes, “to do this with the camera.”
Many photographers of the day focused on apartheid’s shocking and selective barbarity, producing dramatic photos to fill magazine spreads. But rather than memorialize the swinging billy clubs and limp bodies, Goldblatt sought out the everyday conditions and long-held values that lay behind the violence—something more difficult to capture on film. And so, far away from the herd of photographers crouching on the chaotic frontlines, Goldblatt set another course: “I became interested in the possibility, photographically speaking, of suggesting things in stillness.”
To make Some Afrikaners, he traveled and photographed for nearly a decade, his Leica and large-format helping him sift through the racial and societal structures that defined life in South Africa—not to mention his own mixed emotions. And while he focused on Afrikaners, in the shadows of his quiet portraits, landscapes, and domestic scenes, he caught both the tendrils of racial tension as well as, at times, the unexpected suggestion of an intimacy between the races.
The Complexity of Despair
Within the book’s 240 pages, Goldblatt avoids easy caricatures while delivering images that can take a moment to absorb. Like the picture of a farmer’s never-ending stone wall that, Goldblatt’s caption tells us, took two slaves 13 years to build; and the Afrikaner sitting comfortably in his chair while, deep in shadows behind him, you can just make out a shirtless black man laboring at a task.
And while the book gives us members of the carefree class—gathering under a beach umbrella in fashionable bikinis and cozying-up in the flickering light of a home movie—the pictures never come across as anti-apartheid propaganda. In fact, most of the Afrikaners Goldblatt shoots are poor—farmers, railwaymen, factory workers, and shop-owners whose earth-smudged faces, dirty nails, chipped mugs, and bare walls reveal a meager existence scratched out from a harsh landscape. The sense of despair is thick; Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” would fit right in. But then, just as our sympathies begin to rise for the hardworking whites, Goldblatt’s next image snaps the other way: a barefoot black child pushing a white child in a go-kart down a long dirt road. Goldblatt’s pictures are somehow sympathetic and damning, sometimes within the same frame.
The remarkable image that appears on the book’s cover holds all of these complexities. A sad-eyed white pensioner poses next to his servant’s black child, who coyly covers the lower half of her face. A seam runs down the stained wall behind them, splitting the picture in two. The child stands directly under an old photo; from the caption, we learn that the man in that photo—the only photo decorating the wall—isn’t the pensioner’s ancestor but rather his wife’s first husband.
In that photograph, and in many others, you see Goldbatt’s exquisite composition and his love affair with subtlety; you understand that he took the time to get to know his subjects in their surroundings. The book itself, 10 by 11 inches, heavy in your hands and beautifully bound, is itself a master class in how to tell a long-form photo story: the careful pacing, the scale and sequencing of the images, the spectrum of emotions, how the pictures speak to each other as they build toward a complex understanding. Unlike Segregation Story, Gordon Parks’ brilliant and color-saturated book about racism in the Jim Crow American South of the 1950s, Goldblatt shot his material entirely in black-and-white. “Color,” he explained, “was too sweet.”
The Photographer’s Daughter
South Africa, of course, has changed dramatically over the past half century, and Goldblatt’s book has evolved as well. The original cover image, for instance, took a serious tone (a stern man glowers) while the 2006 version swings the other way (a cheery young woman fixes her hair); the new cover is far and away the most complex image, the most haunting. There are 20 more photos in the 2020 version than in the original, and, thankfully, all of the captions that Goldblatt added in 2006 remain. “The captions tell the story of how the photos were taken,” Goldblatt’s daughter, Brenda, told Blind. “Which is something he wouldn’t have done in ’75. He was a different man [in ‘06], more confident.” That confidence explains why far fewer of the photos are cropped in the book’s subsequent versions: Goldblatt, more trusting of his skills, no longer felt he had to lead the reader by the hand to the salient details.
The week before David Goldblatt died in 2018, legendary photo-book publisher Gerhard Steidl came to see him. “We sat around the table at my parents house and made a list of the books David wanted to publish,” Brenda Goldblatt remembers. “He felt that this book was part of his photographic legacy. It was work he was enormously proud of.”
When asked about the book’s legacy, Brenda, who happened to be with her 86-year-old mother (“my mother is long suffering; she had to go on the road with him during all those years”), thought for a moment and then said: “A lot of my friends have told me that this was the first book that showed them something that they had never seen—powered and unempowered Afrikaners—and also a way of seeing.” And then she paused again. “But what I think my father would say is ‘It’s a record of a time and place, and in as much as it has a certain level of clarity and perceptiveness, it is a valuable record. But that is in eye of the beholder.‘“
In the end, the photographer’s goal was not to capture and catalog all Afrikaners or to make any kind of sweeping proclamation about the state of race relations. As Goldblatt writes in the book’s elegant introduction, “I needed to grasp something of what a man is and is becoming in all the particularity of himself and his bricks and bit of earth … and to contain all this in a photograph. To do this, and to discover the shapes and shades of his loves and fears and of my own, would be enough.” It was an ambitious mission that a young photographer set off on in 1963 and, half a century later, one that his pictures still live up to.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former Editor-in-Chief of LIFE magazine; he writes about photography.
240 pages, 109 images
Hardback / Clothbound
26 x 28 cm