David Goldblatt’s images of Soweto capture 1970s township life

The photographer spent years shooting Johannesburg’s Soweto township, photographing everyday people living through Apartheid as a way of responding to his own “fragmented” thoughts and feelings about the city

The images are the focus of Goodman Gallery London’s David Goldblatt Johannesburg 1948-2018 exhibition, which continues until the end of August. It’s the South African photographer’s first major solo show since the 80s, and brings together a lifetime of work, from early prints made in his dark room to more recent colour photographs.

Notably, the show features his 1972 photo essay of Soweto, shot four years before the uprising that would spread across the country, and fuel the anti-Apartheid movement. The images focus on commonplace events, depicting people sat in their homes with their family or children playing. Other photographs from the exhibition highlight the racial inequality of the time.

Top image: Cup final, Orlando Stadium, Soweto, 1972; above: George and Sarah Manyani, 3153 Emdeni Extension, Soweto, 1972
Anna Labako, a washerwoman from Soweto carrying the week’s laundry to a white suburban family, Harrow Road, 1961
Makana Tshabalala and Ntsiki Kabane, Dube, Soweto, 1970

According to Goldblatt – who died in 2018 – his trips to Soweto emphasised the divisions created by Apartheid. He describes the experience of driving from the cramped streets of the township back into the leafy suburbs of Johannesburg, saying “nothing in all of my life made me more sharply aware of the power of Apartheid and what it meant to be Black or white, than this simple transition”.

Goldblatt evidently had conflicting feelings towards Johannesburg, where he lived for 70 years, describing it as “not an easy city to love”. “From its beginnings as a mining camp in 1866, white did not want brown and Black people living among or near them and over the years pushed them further and further from the city and its white suburbs,” he said. “Like the city itself.”

The house-painter and his family, Pretoria Street, Hillbrow, 1973
Shop assistant, Orlando West, 1972
Cafe-de-Move-On, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, 1964
Bedroom, Soweto, 1977; all images courtesy Goodman Gallery London

The photographer also expressed difficulty at being able to capture these complexities on film, saying that despite documenting many different subjects, they remained “a fragment of a whole that I’ve never quite grasped”. Despite this, Goldblatt’s images of Johannesburg form an important visual record – one that feels perhaps newly relevant in the light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement.

David Goldblatt Johannesburg 1948-2018 is on display until 25 August 2020; goodman-gallery.com