Saturday, August 25, 2007

Some Afrikaners Revisited by David Goldblatt

David Goldblatt has been one of the more exciting discoveries for me in the past few years so when I hear of a new title of his being published I tend to feel a touch of panic in the scramble to acquire a copy. This from a man who, when first introduced to his work in 1991 through his book The Transported of Kwandebele (Aperture/CDS 1989), originally dismissed it. I was completely ignorant of not only the importance of what he was describing but also the artistry of those descriptions. As embarrassing as it seems to me now, due to that dismissal, I almost failed in paying further attention to an artist who has, in my mind, produced some of the finest examples of documentary work since Walker Evans.

“I realized I was neither a missionary with a camera nor a political activist. Nor was I, as a photographer, much interested in unfolding events and the kind of photographs of them that newspaper and magazine editors wanted. Physically I am a coward; if violence erupts I run away from it. But more fundamentally, I realized that what I really wanted to engage with through the camera was people’s values and how they were expressed. Headline events were the underlying conditions. I wanted to probe these conditions by going to their roots in people’s lives. The camera enabled me to be there and it demanded that I see with understanding and coherence.”

To date, David Goldblatt has 14 books of his work published. The stories behind how and why certain books get published are often fascinating if not frustrating in the telling. Goldblatt’s first ventures into getting his work out in the world in book form are no exception.

In September of 1971 Goldblatt had traveled to London with two of his book dummies, Some Afrikaners (working title of Some Afrikaners Photographed) and On the Mines to see Barney Blackley the publisher of his friend, the photographer Sam Haskins. Blackley had liked the work in Some Afrikaners and had offered to publish it back as far as 1968 if Goldblatt could find an American co-publisher. That experience of seeking out an American publisher fell flat with little interest or understanding. Blackley took both of Goldblatt’s book dummies to the 1971 Frankfurt Book Fair where he would find strong interest but no real commitments towards a publishing collaboration. In 1973 the publisher Struik in Cape Town decided to release the other of Goldblatt’s projects, On the Mines and that would become Goldblatt's first published book. That title is also thought to be the first duotone book printed in South Africa. His dummy for Some Afrikaners however, would prove to be a more difficult prospect to get on or even near a printing press.

After a dummy of tightly cropped and juxtaposing images was created by Sam Haskins and reworked by a marketing friend of Goldblatt’s, Russell Stevens, it was thought that the book could actually be a success and sell as much as 10,000 copies. And although Goldblatt saw how his photographs in Haskins design spoke to him in ways that he did not originally see as possible, he didn’t want to give up creative control of the book for a design that he felt didn’t “embrace my intentions” of the original project.

Almost to the point of giving up the prospect of publishing what would be a costly and financially risky venture such as Some Afrikaners, what would amount to a publishing miracle came through in the form of a man named Murray Crawford. Crawford was financially secure and thought the book was important enough to risk losing his money on the project. In 1975, one thousand copies of Some Afrikaners Photographed were printed, signed and numbered. Originally priced at 25 Rand (about $4.00 in today’s exchange), the book did not sell and was eventually remaindered for a measly 2.50 Rand (about 35 cents).

When the book appeared in 1975 it was met with outward hostility, condemnation and for the most part, seeming misunderstanding. It holds a familiar parallel to Robert Frank’s The Americans in that way. When a portfolio of Goldblatt’s Afrikaner work was published in a 1969 issue of Camera magazine, one reviewer started his article by declaring “Blood Will Boil” over the photos. The title of the Camera magazine essay ‘The Afrikaners’ ran against Goldblatt’s wishes as it seemed presumptuous and provocative with its implication of a definitive portrait. I think this was also a bit of the uproar over Frank’s book with its implication because of the title. When the final book Some Afrikaners Photographed was published, newspapers either refused reviews of the book or the discussions of it were sidetracked with tepid descriptions rather than critical evaluation. In his essay that is included in Some Afrikaners Revisited, Ivor Powell discusses why this book had such a hold over the imaginations of Afrikaners even though, in reality, it was not as damning a look at the culture as it was believed to be.

This new version of Some Afrikaners Photographed, Some Afrikaners Revisited is different from the original in several ways. Many of the images in the original 1975 edition were cropped down to the picture’s “essentials” where as in this edition, they mostly appear in their full framing. Goldblatt also omitted one image and added twenty others to this new mix. This book, Goldblatt states, is less of a second edition and more of an expanded look at his original essay.

Published by Umuzi which is an imprint of Random House in South Africa, it is nicely printed and keeps to Goldblatt’s wish for a clean design of one picture to the right hand page with captions appearing on the facing page. It is softbound with French folded covers.

Unfortunately, even with it being an imprint of Random House, there does not seem to be distribution of this book outside of South Africa. It is listed as available on ABE through some other bookshops in South Africa.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,

I keep reading your thoughtful commentaries and reviews. Not easy to find similar writing elsewhere on the net, in my experience. Anyway, since I also cannot find any general comment/question section I jump in here. Unrelated to Goldblatt. I would be curious to know what you make of Stephen Gill's photography (UK) in case you are aware of it. I really enjoy his subtle tongue-in-cheek humor, but cannot make up my mind whether a) it is bordering on gimmicky and b) if his kind of humor will make the images suffer in the long run i.e. only be of short-term artistic value. Any opinion you want to share?
cheers, Mattias

Anonymous said...


I do know Stephen Gill's work but I don't actually have any of his books. Oddly, he is one photographer whose bandwagon I haven't jumped on yet. And unfortunately if I ever do, his books will be unavailable or extremely expensive then. So far, I am always a bit underwhelmed by him.

The book everyone was foaming at the mouth over was Hackney Wick which I just found uninteresting. Friends of mine when asked about why they like it seemed ambivalent and more like they were picking it up because it was getting valuable. It didn't matter to me that he bought the camera (and film?) at the flea market, I just found the images unappealing. Most of his books have their device (I want to avoid the word gimmick which I can't stand) so I am a bit suspect from the start. Burying the copies of his one book so they would decay etc...I haven't yet found a book of his that I felt I needed to have. If a book has a contrivance then the content needs to top it otherwise, you have a contrivance only. But then again, I don't own any of the books and do not know if with time they get more appealing.

Many of his photo projects from his website are conceptually very complete. Actually a bit too complete for me at times; like wrapped up with a bow. Portrait of people listening to personal radios, name of song they are listening to is the title of the portrait etc...The project I like the most is the one on birds. (To mention his humor which I like as well.) The bird watcher who has left the binoculars at home. Not only is it "find the bird in the photo" but the bird is way too far away to clearly identify if the titles didn't do it for you. So I like his humor and his ability to move from subject to subject but as I mentioned far I am just not that engaged.

What I do greatly admire is that he publishes them himself and has carved out a niche that is getting satisfied. Self publishing is a big step and his creation of Nobody (editions) is fantastic. They are beautifully made objects.

Thanks for your kind words and please keep leaving comments.