The strikes and violence at South African mines in the past months represent a striking and possibly coincidental backdrop for the reissue of David Goldblatt and Nadine Gordimer’s classic book, On the Mines. J Brooks Spector contemplates the place of this work in contemporary South African life and culture.
Back in the mid-1970s, when the writer was still feeling his way along the dark moral landscape that was South Africa, a South African colleague insisted we walk from our office in downtown Johannesburg to Struik’s bookstore two blocks away. The task was to see what there was to purchase – and then read – to get a textual compass for interpreting this landscape.
Among the books on display were volumes of new South African poetry by writers like Wopko Jensma, Mongane Wally Serote, Oswald Mtshali and Sipho Sepamla, and novels by authors like Miriam Tladi and André Brink.
There were also shelves of books with drop-dead gorgeous natural photography - animals in the forests, savannahs, the veld and the desert; books on birds, snakes, trees, bugs and fish, and books on the art and customs of the country’s indigenous tribes. There were travel books, histories and colonial era classics from authors like H Rider Haggard, Winston Churchill, Sarah Gertrude Millin and Sir James Percy FitzPatrick. There were political and economic studies and books on the country’s increasingly desperate social circumstances.
Young and curious about this country, and with cash ready to be spent, the writer soon had an armload of reading material from all these categories. But the writer was also directed to yet another oversized photographic volume, a combination photographic essay and a text. The photographs were by David Goldblatt and the essay by Nadine Gordimer.
Both had already become major international cultural figures, but the combination of the two of them was nothing short of electric.
Some of Goldblatt’s black and white photographs were grainy and blurred because they had been taken with long exposure times and using the available light underground. These were nearly expressionist paintings.
Others were fine grained; crisp, clinical and seemingly devoid of visible emotion. Taken together, Gordimer’s text reinforced the photographs, even as the photographs underpinned the text.
Totally enthralled by this work, On the Mines went onto the ever-growing pile of purchases. Then, some years ago, somewhere in the world, the book was borrowed by an acquaintance, and it was never returned before the writer moved on to yet another country. By then, On the Mines was out of print, unlikely to be replaced when the writer’s address was in Jakarta or Tokyo.
Then, astonishingly, there was news that the photographer and essayist had worked out a deal for the book to be republished by the renowned German art book publisher, Stiedl. The volume was launched last weekend at an event at the sometimes-controversial Goodman Gallery, Goldblatt’s long-time gallery. The new edition has additional text contributed by Goldblatt and a few of the original photographs have been replaced by other images, perhaps in the light of developments in South Africa since the book first was released.
For an American reader at least, On the Mines has an uncanny resonance with another compelling collaborative venture between essayist and photographer – Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Fortune magazine commissioned Evans and Agee in the midst of the Great Depression to craft a narrative about the circumstances of poor white farmers in the American South. Evans was then a government staff photographer and Agee was a rising, albeit controversial, literary star.
Together they travelled hardscrabble throughout rural Alabama for months, living or staying close to three tenant families. Ultimately Fortune didn’t print the article, which came out in book form in 1941.
Legend has it that it sold fewer than 1,000 copies as American attention had turned to the country’s entry into World War II. But it had become a staple of university programs throughout the United States by the 1960s, as literary critics and American Studies professors rhapsodised about how Agee’s text dissected what he had seen on the collaborators’ journey – depicting the pain beyond the simple pathos of an abandoned bride’s hat, now discarded into a “broken, half-moist chunk” in a mildewed drawer.
Through long sequences of exacting detail, Agee became like a Vermeer in print form, using a prose style that drew on both the African-American tradition of incantation and the cadences of the King James Bible, both of which were, and remain, deeply woven into Southern life. Meanwhile, Evans metamorphosed the quotidian shapes of everyday things – the farmer families’ cheap bedding, a forlorn petrol pump and an empty post office – into sculptural dignity.
Veteran journalist and editor Joseph Lelyveld, who reported on South Africa during the worst days of Apartheid and who wrote Move Your Shadow, an extraordinary memoir of his time in the country, observed, “David Goldblatt might be described as his country’s Walker Evans.
Though Evans was one of Goldblatt’s models when he was starting out more than a half century ago, the comparison at this point serves only to hint at the moral clarity of his vision, the seriousness of his purpose and the scope of his achievement.”
Lelyveld went on to explain, “Goldblatt, who never really considered himself a photojournalist, divides his work into two categories: the professional and the personal. The professional was what he did on assignment for some editor or corporation.… The personal was what he did out of his own deeply felt need to engage his tumultuous land and its people…. His way was always to go deeper, to find an oblique angle that went right to the heart of the matter: an image bespeaking loneliness, stunted aspiration, fragile pride on both sides of the racial divide, not infrequently with an intimation of imminent violence….”
And David Frankel, writing in Artforum magazine, pointed to the strong correlation between Evans’ and Goldblatt’s approaches, saying Goldblatt’s “achievement, though, is as a photographer not of large or terrible events but of conditions and states. By focusing not on the central events of a nation's chronic crisis but on the specific textures, objects, and incidents of its daily experience, Goldblatt has compiled an overall indictment and a panoramic history.”
To look at the pictures selected for On the Mines is to see both the whole range of the humanity that peoples the mines, from the rock drillers to the managers, as well as the physical landscapes humans have so thoroughly reshaped, both underground and above the surface. One photograph, for example, depicts a miner’s cottage silhouetted against a slimes dump - human endeavour as both home and destructive impulse. And this photograph does double duty later as the cover art for the first edition of one of Gordimer’s most powerful novels, The Conservationist, a work that came out shortly after On the Mines was first published.
Both Gordimer and Goldblatt came from the world of the small towns on the western end of the Witwatersrand’s gold bearing depths – Randfontein and Krugersdorp respectively. They were children of that Eastern European Jewish diaspora that had arrived on the shores of South Africa at around the turn of the 20th century and then settled in the South African cities and towns that grew up around the gold mines.
Both have become artists who, more than almost anyone else, have portrayed Johannesburg as a place and an idea that must be simultaneously loved and hated, embraced and repelled. It is that often-brutal place that is, as artist, director and filmmaker William Kentridge described it, “the second greatest city on Earth after Paris.” Collaborating on On the Mines, Goldblatt and Gordimer captured the power that had made Johannesburg that way.
As Goldblatt himself once said, “Johannesburg is seldom a beautiful city, it has its rare moments. I can't honestly say that I love it.
However I miss it when I am away and when I am in it I rejoice. This pretty much sums it up.” Yes it does.