Tuesday, June 23, 2009

David Goldblatt, No. 4 Shaft, President Steyn Gold Mine, 1969

David Goldblatt, No. 4 Shaft, President Steyn Goldmine, 1969

In the late 1960s, David Goldblatt took a series of photographs underground in the gold mines of South Africa. The justification for these badly degraded pictures had nothing to do with self-expression. On the contrary. For Goldblatt, the subject was so important as to both render the technical limitations of the pictures trivial by comparison, and to demand an absolute surrender of self. Goldblatt’s struggle with his equipment, which constantly broke down and jammed underground, paid homage to the miners’ struggle with their environment. Although visible blur and grain clearly draw attention to the photograph as an artefact, they are here paradoxically taken as proof that the reality of the mines is so powerful as to overwhelm the camera’s ability to contain it.

A similar tolerance of degradation can be observed in pictures of unique, newsworthy events, such as the famous photograph of Robert Kennedy bleeding to death. In pictures like this, the event violently breaks into the continuity of everyday life, and the degradation of the image mimics that violence. Goldblatt appropriated this rhetoric by treating the everyday realities and routines of work as if they were just as dramatic, heroic and uniquely unrepeatable as the fate of world leaders.

What interests me about Goldblatt's mine photographs is the notion of stepping right up to the edge of incoherence, but without ever stepping over it.

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