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Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, 1975
David Goldblatt
Artwork 1975
David Goldblatt's monochrome photograph 'Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg. 1975' shows a seated woman, her hands folded in her lap, holding a cigarette.
Artwork: David Goldblatt, Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg. 1975 (1975). Silver gelatin print on fibre-based paper. 46.5 x 45 cm. Private collection.
Artist David Goldblatt Title Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, 1975 Date 1975 Materials Silver gelatin print on fibre-based paper Dimensions 46.5 x 45 cm Edition Edition of 10 Credit Private collection

“In 1975,” Goldblatt wrote, “after working for about five years on a series of portraits of my compatriots in the streets and homes of Soweto and the suburbs of Johannesburg, it seemed natural, almost inevitable, that I should extend what I was doing to an attempt to explore their bodies, or rather, the particulars of their bodies, as affirmations or embodiments of their selves.” The resulting photographs, intimate studies of friends and strangers, were later collected under the title Particulars (2003). These studies not only treated all particulars with a similar curiosity – from a black man’s hands to a white woman’s hair – but necessitated a humanising closeness. As in Woman smoking, one’s eye is drawn not to difference but to detail; the flesh of the woman’s thigh just below her skirt, the scars on her left arm, the way she holds her cigarette. The photograph is subtly subversive in its suggestion of touch, at a time when touch across the ‘colour line’ was disallowed.

This photograph was included in Fifty-one Years, 2001; Particulars (first edition)2003; Particulars (second edition), 2014; and Structures of Dominion and Democracy, 2018.

“I was drawn,” the late photographer David Goldblatt wrote, “not to the events of the time but to the quiet and commonplace where nothing ‘happened’ and yet all was contained and immanent.” A preeminent chronicler of South African life under apartheid and after, Goldblatt bore witness to how this life is written on the land, in its structures or their absence. Unconcerned with documenting significant historic moments, his photographs stand outside the events of the time and yet are eloquent of them. Through Goldblatt’s lens, the prosaic reveals a telling poignancy. Even in those images that appear benign, much is latent in them – histories and politics, desires and dread. His photographs are quietly critical reflections on the values and conditions that have shaped the country; those structures both ideological and tangible. Among his most notable photobooks are On the Mines (1973), Some Afrikaners Photographed (1975), In Boksburg (1982), The Structure of Things Then (1998), and Particulars (2003).