Essay

John Goldblatt (1930–2009)

Born in Manchester, John Goldblatt (1930-2009) emigrated to South Africa in 1955. By 1956 he had started to develop his photography, working on the streets of Johannesburg  and visiting townships – the latter of which was illegal. Goldblatt opposed apartheid and was sensitive to its painful inequalities, using his time off from a corporate job as a copywriter to produce human interest stories. His trips to photograph marginalised people living under the regime required considerable courage. He photographed everything from charitable outposts feeding impoverished children to political demonstrations and dancing on the streets.

South Africa produced many gifted photographers in the same period, many of whom were working in response to apartheid, including Peter Magubane, Alf Kumalo, Bob Gosani and David Goldblatt (coincidently, both Goldblatts were born in 1930). Between 1958 and 1961 John Goldblatt had his work published in the Rand Daily Mail, the Golden City Post and Drum magazine – the latter of which brilliantly formulated an issue-based photographic approach that became synonymous with political struggle.

On his return to the UK, Goldblatt worked as a freelance photographer for the Sunday Times Magazine, the Jewish Chronicle, The Guardian, The Observer and as a photographer and picture editor for Greenpeace (1988–92). He also interviewed prominent African writers and was a writer himself.

Goldblatt’s photo-essay ‘The Undressing Room’ (1968) for the influential Creative Camera magazine was developed speculatively and taken over four consecutive evenings at a Soho strip club. He was welcomed by the performers and management and in a short space of time produced a set of incisive and tender images that seem to reflect on race and the impact the performers’ job had on their family and their private life – all garnered within the very tight space of the dressing room. Goldblatt had a natural flair for choosing the right moment and spotting thought-provoking details.

The only trouble he faced while creating the work was one encounter with a bouncer: ‘In taking a day shot of the more photogenic exterior of another club [Naked City, Dean Street], through my viewfinder, I saw this “gorilla” come out of the club towards me. I shot him, then he swiped at me. Pow! Glasses broken in the gutter. Head full of noises and bright flashes.’

The set of images did not sell well but was featured in Creative Camera in October 1968 between work by the great John Heartfield and Tony Ray-Jones.

Text by Julian Rodriguez and Karen McQuaid