Mining Nostalgia

An exhibit of apartheid-era photographs by David Goldblatt presents them without adequate context and loses a huge opportunity.

Mining Nostalgia


THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN catalog and exhibit operates in a predictable fashion. A museum commissions an artist’s work, curates an exhibit in the available gallery space, and then makes available in the gift shop a lavishly printed version of the show, often accompanied by curatorial and interpretive essays.

In the case of this recent retrospective of David Goldblatt’s photography, however, this relationship has been turned on its head. The exhibit represents an effort to reproduce what arguably was the defining work of Goldblatt’s career, his documentation of South Africa’s gold mining industry, in a book first published in 1973, On the Mines. The prominent glass case display of two distinct editions of this monumental work — from 1973 and 2012 — enhances this impression of reprisal. And yet, as we shall see, the exhibition at the Norval Foundation, in Cape Town, is both more and less than a replication of these printed works. As always in post-apartheid South Africa, things are never quite what they seem.

First let’s consider the physical and cultural properties of the venue for display. The Norval Foundation itself, a modernist concrete block discreetly tucked into the side of a mountainside near the wine estates of the suburb of Constantia, is one of the more recent additions to post-apartheid Cape Town’s cultural landscape. Located about 15 miles from the city center, the galleries stand directly across the road from the US Embassy (relocated itself from town for security reasons after 9/11) and within shouting distance of the infamous Pollsmoor Prison, where the apartheid state housed Nelson Mandela for eight years following his release from Robben Island. The building, its galleries, and its physical location, it must be said, constitute one of the most spectacular art venues in South Africa. And, at least on the Friday afternoon I spent there, it was almost entirely deserted. With a steep entry fee of 180 rand ($13), it is hard to imagine groups of schoolchildren from the townships traipsing through the Norval galleries on a field trip. Clearly this is a cultural precinct designed to appeal primarily to the most well-off South Africans, not to mention to tourists enjoying the winelands, visitors to the embassy, and the international jetsetters now engaged in bidding up the value of Cape Town’s stunning real estate. I, for one, would much prefer to see an exhibit like this at Market Photo Workshop, a gallery and photographic training center in central Johannesburg oriented to township youth and founded with Goldblatt’s help.

Goldblatt, who died last year, has long been regarded — with good reason — as one of South Africa’s preeminent photographic artists. That said, in the post-apartheid period, his legacy and oeuvre have been controversial, despite his longtime support for emerging black photographers. While widely respected as a firm opponent of apartheid, Goldblatt always refused to put his work directly at the service of politics. As a result, he distinguished himself sharply from, say, the “struggle photographers” grouped in radical collectives like Afrapix, the adventurous photojournalists of the so-called “bang-bang club,” or even black photographers like Peter Magubane, who quite deliberately documented the horrors of apartheid, as well as the struggle against it. (An exhibition currently showing at Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum shows the work of Goldblatt and Magubane in tandem for the first time, creatively juxtaposing their distinctive visions and yet illustrating their surprising points of intersection.)

More recently, Goldblatt courted controversy when he removed his photographic collection from the University of Cape Town after, in his view, the university capitulated to student protestors demanding that art they deemed demeaning to black South Africans be removed from the campus or covered up. Although Goldblatt’s work was not directly targeted for removal, he insisted that UCT had reneged on a fundamental commitment to free expression.

This year’s exhibit at the Norval offers an excellent opportunity to reassess Goldblatt’s work. Ultimately, there is no way to understand the nature of this retrospective, based on what appears to be a single body of work, without excavating the interesting history of On the Mines itself as a cultural artifact with a complex history. The 1973 edition of On the Mines consists of 56 black-and-white photographs taken between 1965 and 1970, grouped into three separate thematic photo-essays. The first, entitled “The Witwatersrand: A Time and Tailings,” features Nadine Gordimer’s historical essay — reminiscences, really – about how gold mining shaped the built, environmental, and human landscapes of the “Rand,” the 60-mile east-west strip of development across the highveld ridge on which the city of Johannesburg sits atop rich, if inaccessible, veins of deeply buried valuable ore. Gordimer’s musings about the “way of life shaped by the nature of the work to be done” on the Rand are followed by 27 Goldblatt photographs of that landscape, focusing on buildings, objects, and the land. Only a handful of these photographs include human beings — and in those cases, they too appear as part of the landscape (in the distance) or in a close-up of the mining paraphernalia sported by a black “Boss Boy” as essential tools of the trade, much like the massive headgear that made deep-level mining on the Rand feasible.

“Shaftsinking,” the second photo essay in the book, takes us underground into the dimly lit world of the men — black and white – who in “an act of supreme audacity” (Goldblatt’s words) excavated the deep holes that gave access to the gold buried up to a mile underground. Goldblatt himself provides a brief essay describing the technical nature of this work, emphasizing the extraordinary interplay of massive machinery with treacherous human labor, using his photographs to illustrate both. “How frail and vulnerable men seem down there,” Goldblatt wrote. “Men forget and machines kill.”

The third section of the book, “Mining Men,” presents 17 photos showing the wide range of human effort, white and black, that made the mines what they were. These images run the gamut from an indoor portrait of Harry Oppenheimer (chairman of the Anglo-American mining house), to white supervisors, to concession store proprietors (also white), to timekeepers (black), to the African migrant workers whose dangerous underground labor underwrote the entire mining complex, not to mention white South Africa’s wealth. Other than Goldblatt’s short, descriptive captions, this third section of the book contains no text. Strikingly, only a single image in the 1973 edition of On the Mines captures whites and blacks in the same frame. Bound inexorably together in the task of transforming raw earth into enormous profit, it appears that whites and blacks on the mines inhabited entirely separate worlds, as befitted apartheid.

If the first edition of On the Mines was conceived at what, in retrospect, was probably the apartheid state’s most vigorous and confident moment (soon to be shattered by mass strikes in 1973, and the Soweto Revolt of 1976), the second edition appeared in 2012, long after the bloom was off the rose of the transition to democracy and Mandela’s inauguration of the “Rainbow Nation.” Indeed, in an unintended irony of history, the release date of the first edition coincided almost exactly with a major massacre of striking gold miners at Carletonville in September 1973, and the second came out the day before the Marikana massacre, in which 34 striking platinum miners were shot dead by police under the command of the African National Congress, the country’s erstwhile liberators. There is no mention of the 1973 massacre in the 2012 edition, which adds 31 photos to the original and removes 11. Goldblatt himself does nothing in the text to indicate if these choices were aesthetic, cultural, or political; nor does the exhibit.

Though nowhere explicitly stated, it appears that the Norval exhibit is based more on the 2012 edition of On the Mines than on the original, as was a similar exhibit at South Africa’s Goodman Gallery in 2012. Given the sharply divergent political moments in which the two print editions of On the Mines were produced, it would have been illuminating to have an indication of why the curators drew from the 2012 photographs rather than those appearing in the first edition. I am sorry to say that this suggests one of the limitations of Goldblatt’s insistence on the “non-political” nature of his aesthetic, despite his collaboration with Gordimer and his obvious hostility to the precepts of apartheid.

Goldblatt opened the 1973 edition with the observation that Gordimer’s first published stories, in Face to Face, which he read at the age of 19, “made explicit for me […] my own then vague awareness of our milieu” that defined life on the Rand. Goldblatt and Gordimer’s original collaborative photo essay appeared in the liberal South African magazine, Optima, in 1968. Self-described as a “review published in the interests of mining, industrial, scientific and economic progress,” Optima was sponsored (interestingly enough) by the Anglo-America corporation — South Africa’s most powerful mining conglomerate. While certainly not serving as corporate PR, at its origins the Goldblatt-Gordimer collaboration had the blessings of the mining house, if only as an apparent liberal commitment to free speech in the darkest days of apartheid censorship. That said, the tenor of Gordimer’s essay was nostalgia for the passing of a way of life in the small mining towns of the Rand where both she and Goldblatt had grown up (as Jews, and thus neither black nor quite white). Indeed, when one looks now at “A Time and Tailings” in its original context, the essay seems entirely in accord with Anglo’s governing message at the time — namely, that old-style apartheid mining based on virtually forced labor was destined to be swept away by fully “modern” industrial relations, promoted by the reformist liberals running the country’s mineral complex, and in opposition to the backward Afrikaners running the country. This unmistakable message, conveyed in dulcet tones to nervous Western investors, was designed as much to delay the day of reckoning in South Africa as it was to “reform” apartheid. The dynamic seems less obvious in the 1973 text, which grew from Gordimer and Goldblatt’s initial collaboration in the pages of Optima, and less obvious still in the 2012 post-apartheid edition, and alas rendered entirely invisible in the Norval exhibit itself.

Some of the exhibit’s most interesting features develop further the collaborative nature of the original publication of On the Mines. All four of the rooms are suffused with an audio track, loud enough to hear but soft enough not to intrude, of Gordimer’s introductory essay, read by Goldblatt’s daughter, Brenda. This soundtrack is quite a brilliant stroke, as it allows visitors to look and listen simultaneously (rather than donning headphones, as in most galleries that use sound). In essence, this helps reproduce the experience of “reading” the book, except in this case one does not even have to flip between essay and photographs. Equally clever is a comprehensive timeline that includes key moments in the creative lives of both Goldblatt and Gordimer, as well as crucial events in the history of apartheid, so that one can chart how and when the two artists’ work intersected in such a fruitful fashion.

Yet another deft touch is the inclusion of a glass case containing 13 small photographs taken by a teenaged Goldblatt between 1945 and 1949. These images foreshadow the photographer’s future preoccupation with the visual record left by the mining industry on the landscape, including machinery and mine dumps, what Gordimer called the Rand’s “humanscape.” But some also hint at his enduring interest in men at work. Like Gordimer, Goldblatt brought to life the deeply intertwined history of mining in South Africa, a pursuit that brought together enormous amounts of capital investment in the form of machinery, with the ceaseless exertions of poorly paid African workers, while creating untold riches for the mine-owners and scarring the land. A similar glass case exhibits several of Goldblatt’s contact sheets, reminding us that he took multiple shots of every scene, and chose to print his preferred composition later on. (Though there is no reminder that these choices proved very different in the 1973 and 2012 editions of the book.) Finally, a video room includes a loop of four documentary films — over 90 minutes total — on Goldblatt and his work. These inventive multimedia elements succeed in enhancing the overall impact of the exhibit in admirable ways. However, the true heart of the show — the attempt to break open the spine of the original book and spread it across the walls of four interlinked galleries — is a good deal less successful.


The first half of the Norval exhibit, largely faithful to the organization — if not the exact content and composition — of the 2012 edition of the book (although nowhere is this stated clearly), is laid out in a pair of galleries on the right-hand side of a hallway. Here, Goldblatt’s camera captures the built environment and the detritus of the mining industry at worked out mines: abandoned machinery, derelict miners’ compounds, concession stores and churches, recreation and living facilities for white supervisors — all remnants of what Gordimer called “a cross between a military barracks, a prison, and a boys’ school.” To anyone who possesses a passing familiarity with Goldblatt’s photography, these remain iconic images. One striking photo focuses on a tiny model village crafted by mineworkers, showing a mine supervisor’s house, a train, and (improbably) a sailboat.

This photo appears in the 2012 edition as well, but a similar photograph, taken from a different vantage point and including a handmade rondavel hut more typical of African workers’ rural dwellings, appears in the 1973 edition. Interestingly, only the 2012 book includes a caption designed to dispel any illusion of pure “native” creativity: “This was said to have been built on the initiative of a compound manager to distract the men and thus defuse tensions between tribal groups,” Goldblatt added in 2012 (his original notes, which I consulted in the Gordimer papers at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, show he was aware of this when he first took the photo). It is a shame this caption did not make it onto the wall in 2019.

It is not that the exhibit is required to remain true to one or the other editions of the book, of course. Rather, it is a question of a series of invisible curatorial choices that hide behind the implied faithful recreation of the texts. Let me give a few significant examples, all of which involve the social relations that made the mines a central pillar of apartheid, despite the long-standing professions of the English-speaking mine magnates to anti-apartheid and liberal sentiments.

In her essay accompanying On the Mines, Gordimer notes that while the color bar kept blacks and whites separated above ground, “[b]elow, at work, there was life and death dependency between them.” For whatever reason, in the 1973 edition of the book, only a single photograph, taken in a dimly lit stope underground, captures blacks and whites in the same frame. By 2012, Goldblatt no doubt thought better of this, and some of the most powerful images in the second edition (and in this exhibit) neatly illustrate how the mutual dependency of mine work rested on a carefully choreographed racial hierarchy both below and above ground. In one (well-lit), a black “team leader” pedals an underground tram while his white “mine captain” rides passively up front, feet at rest. In another, taken above ground, two white miners crowd the foreground of the frame, one of them having a smoke, both looking directly at the camera. Standing behind them and to the side, eyes cast downward, is their black “helper.” He holds in the crook of his arm the jacket and gloves of the white smoker. Few images better illustrate the relationship of black and white workers on South Africa’s mines. Nothing in the current exhibit, however, notes that these images were added to On the Mines between 1973 and 2012, although the photographs were taken in the original series, in 1971 and 1969 respectively.

That may be a curatorial omission, but in other instances curatorial initiative deliberately reshapes Goldblatt’s original visual narrative in significant ways. The 2012 book contains two photos commemorating the accidental deaths of miners. The first is a lone family memorial, an obelisk, erected in the name of an Afrikaner miner killed in a mudslide in 1939. The second shows the mass funeral of 58 Basotho shaftsinkers, all obliterated in an explosion at the bottom of a shaft they had dug. In the print version of On the Mines, these images appear in different sections (“A Time and Tailings” and “Shaftsinkers,” respectively); on the wall at Norval, these photos are displayed side by side. This certainly conveys a strong message regarding racial inequality even onto death, and is thus a bold intervention. Yet it stands out because it is one of the rare places at which the photos are displayed out of the narrative print sequence put together by Goldblatt. There is no indication of this rearrangement; without looking back at the 2012 book, one might imagine these photos had always been paired.

Equally perplexing are the choices of captions. In the book, the Basotho funeral includes Goldblatt’s telling remark that the explosion also killed two whites, “who were buried separately.” No such caption accompanies the photo displayed at the Norval. In many cases, in fact, Goldblatt wrote two different captions that might accompany the image on the wall, a bare description (where, when, what), or a somewhat longer narrative caption, offering a richer explanation. Here the curatorial decisions struck me as a bit odd. Many of the “shaftsinking” images that, with the “mining men” section, take up the two rooms on the left side of the gallery hallway (or, perhaps, shaft) are accompanied by detailed, technical descriptions of the work process, as they are in the 2012 edition. Yet some of the most interesting and potentially problematic photos, those of African miners in “traditional” dress, are presented without the important explanation Goldblatt offered in the 2012 edition of the book. Goldblatt and Gordimer were well aware that the mining companies liked to regale white visitors to the compounds with performances of traditional “tribal” dances, meant both to entertain and to demonstrate their paternalistic willingness to protect and promote the supposedly authentic tribal cultures of their diverse African workforce.

This pageantry underlays a central conceit of the mining houses: the African mine workforce could not be treated as an ordinary proletariat because migrant workers remained at a “primitive,” if rather quaint, stage of social development rooted in their timeless rural identities. Such images circulated frequently, as postcards, in mining company brochures and in photographs produced by a previous generation of photo-documentarians, including Margaret Bourke-White and Constance Stuart Larrabee. Goldblatt admitted that he was reluctant to participate in this charade, and his 2012 caption is worth quoting at length:

Permission had been given me by “head office” to take photographs in the hostel. Without consulting me the hostel manager sent out an instruction that men of each tribal group were to present themselves to me in tribal dress. I had no desire to do ethnographic “studies” and was preparing to withdraw. But then I saw the men and that they took the occasion very seriously and with great dignity [the photograph suggests as much]. And so I photographed several groups.

The same print in the 1973 edition does not have such a caption, although Goldblatt deliberately framed this photo so that a pair of miners in Western street clothes are clearly visible in the background.

None of this important backstory makes it onto the wall of the Norval show. This is doubly disappointing, because in replication of the 2012 book (but distinct from the 1973 one), the exhibit contains a pair of images of workers at the same mine dressed primarily in street clothes, and looking all the world like miners on a break, not like what would have been called “blanket” Africans. A viewer is only left to wonder at the contrast. Finally, all five of these photos of mineworkers, only two of which first appeared in the 1973 edition of On the Mines, were taken at Anglo’s Carletonville mines. On September 11, 1973, 11 striking miners there were shot dead by police. In the current mining era defined by Marikana, this might have been worth mentioning.

The exhibit, for all of its emotive power, disappoints in other ways as well. Surprisingly, given the resources available to Norval, the print quality of many of the photographs is quite poor. Of course, unlike many photographers (e.g., Bourke-White), Goldblatt did not rely on artificial illumination when he took his underground photographs of shaftsinking. This enhances their authenticity, but in the books — and in the stills that appear in the videos that accompany the exhibit — these images appear crisper, clearer, and much easier to decipher. In contrast, the prints on the wall are too grainy and fuzzy to convey much visual information — perhaps one of the reasons for the curatorial decision to use expanded captions in these instances, and not others. In another instance, unaccountably, several of Goldblatt’s landscape photos taken at the abandoned Randfontein Estates mine in 1966 appear on the wall that do not appear in either the 1973 or the 2012 edition of the book. Nothing in the exhibit notes this fact, and no explanation is given for this anomaly. Why didn’t Goldblatt and Gordimer include these in the books? Why has the curator chosen to exhibit them now? How do they stand out from the rest of the work in On the Mines, or within Goldblatt’s overall corpus? There is no way to know.

Now is an extraordinarily vibrant moment in South African photography. “Street photographers,” documentarians, and photojournalists alike, many of them inspired or supported by Goldblatt, are engaged in creating an honest visual portrayal of the post-apartheid social order in all its messy contradictions. Goldblatt’s incomparable photographic aesthetic — his Walker Evans–like attention to the grace embedded in the stillness of everyday objects, his quiet composition, his ability to reveal the remarkable within the mundane, and his gentle portraiture of men (rarely women) at work and at rest — continues to reverberate in the photographs produced by the current generation of South African photographers. And yet, this retrospective suggests how much his deliberately non-political and aestheticized approach to the wounds of apartheid may be past its sell-by date. Images that once stood on their own no longer do so; instead, a viewer is struck by how much On the Mines rests on sedimented nostalgia.

As Gordimer noted in 1968, somewhat prematurely, “the landscape that was made is being dismantled.” In 1973, the Rand Daily Mail’s review of On the Mines lauded Goldblatt’s facility at “recapturing the lonely sorrow of industrial decay,” as if the exploitation of black mine labor had too come to its close. The 2012 edition of the book mitigated some of this by adding photographs that amounted to, potentially, a more honest portrait of the life of the miners in a racially divided society. Nevertheless, it too registered a longing for the cultural moment at which both Gordimer and Goldblatt were at the peak of their powers as white dissenters from apartheid, both internationally and within South Africa itself.

Without an acknowledgment of this complex history of cultural production, the Norval exhibit reifies, rather than overcomes, this element of nostalgia, which threatens to overwhelm Goldblatt’s compelling artistic vision, failing to do it justice. It pains me to say this, but in this iteration the Goldblatt/Gordimer collaboration that spoke so eloquently to the human condition under apartheid no longer seems adequate to the current moment.


Alex Lichtenstein is professor of history at Indiana University and editor of the American Historical Review. He writes frequently for LARB on South African topics.

LARB Contributor

Alex Lichtenstein is the author of Twice the Work of Free Labor: The Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South (Verso, 1996). He teaches U.S. and South African history at Indiana University, in Bloomington, and is a book review editor for the internet discussion group H-SAfrica.


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