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Back Issue: On the Road with David Goldblatt

Back Issue: On the Road with David Goldblatt

The logistics of the photographer in the field are interesting to me, and they are a vital clue often to the way the photographs were conceived and made. I’m talking to photographer David Goldblatt about his white Isuzu camper.

Back Issue is a series where we dig into our archives, and pull out stories that we think still hold water—despite their age. This story first appeared in our Summer 2014 issue, so any facts printed here may have changed since. 

This lumbering white behemoth, customised to Goldblatt’s requirements by Pretoria North engineer Pottie Potgieter, has long intrigued me. In a way, this big hulk of manliness is a kind of secret key to Goldblatt, the Randfontein born photographer who has devoted his life to making unhurried images of South Africa and all its complicatedness.
On the road with David Goldblatt

Goldblatt, who has used all sorts of vehicles to produce work since declaring himself a professional photographer on 15 September 1963, including a bicycle and—in the 1980s—a BMW motorcycle (“I really loved my bike”), concurs. “To me the means of getting to a place are absolutely primary; they are as primary the camera itself,” he says. “If I am in a vehicle that I feel is unsuitable I am very uncomfortable.”

Which is an odd admission. Not too long ago I saw Goldblatt—South Africa’s equivalent of Walker Evans—trying to awkwardly sneak his camper into a corner space at the National Gallery in Cape Town. A security guard, about to pounce, quizzically observed the crabwalk manoeuvres from a distance. And before that, this after a mutual lunch together in Joburg, I watched as the diminutive Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and Goldblatt’s collaborator on his first book of photographs, On The Mines (1973), awkwardly climbed into the passenger side of his imposing vehicle as she hitched a ride home.

“You should exhibit that car of yours,” I told Goldblatt not long after. He simply frowned. A year or so later, piggybacking on a more formal interview with the photographer, I decided to purposefully question him about his camper.
On the road with David Goldblatt

Let me start by saying that I’ve interviewed Goldblatt on many occasions. Listening to him talk, openly and excitedly, about his camper on the phone I heard a far less polished or rehearsed Goldblatt than had become accustomed to. The man speaking wasn’t a notable someone, an artist addressing a cultured audience in perfectly composed sentences; rather, here was an exasperated motorist standing by the side of the road looking under the raised bonnet and mouthing to himself, “What the fuck?!”

“Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, awkwardly climbed into the passenger side of his imposing vehicle as she hitched a ride home.”

Goldblatt bought the turbo-diesel Isuzu workhorse that forms the bedrock of his vehicle, a demo model with 29 000km on the clock, in the early 2000s. The purchase coincided with a new project that would involve travel to remote parts of the country, places determined by geographical coordinates, not the availability of hotels. Having owned and extensively travelled across the country in a Volkswagen camper between 1982 and 1993, he was certain about his demands.

“My thoughts went to a 4×4 with a caboose.” He pauses on the last word. “A cabin that would enable me to travel freely,” he clarifies. “I realised I would have to have one designed to my specs.” He followed up on a classified advert in The Star advertising a five-ton truck for sale. Its owner, a wealthy man who had commissioned an “extraordinary living home on wheels,” directed Goldblatt to Potgieter.

In his early dealings with Potgieter, whose workshop was in a railway yard, Goldblatt was adamant he didn’t want a fancy custom job, just a caboose to replace the basin—or bakkie—removed from the Isuzu.
“The long and the short is that he not only built a custom vehicle, but he combined what I wanted with his conception of what the vehicle should be. It was a very poor mixture eventually. I spent a huge amount of money on things that were totally irrelevant. But finally, after a lot of back and forth. I had a vehicle that was functional and does what I want.”

Goldblatt christened the vehicle by taking his wife, Lillie, and two grandsons, on a trip to Pilanesberg National Park. This, at least, is the abbreviated version.
On the road with David Goldblatt

“I won’t tell you all of the disasters because it is just too boring,” says Goldblatt midway between recollecting a fireside-quality story of roadside breakdown. The sites of these various breakdowns push pins into names of towns, cities, dorps and nowheres across the country, and offer a way of mapping Goldblatt’s late career colour photography, when landscape began to replace human subjects as his principal concern.

“I was in Laingsburg and invited Lillie to come visit,” recalls Goldblatt of one relatively minor incident. “I booked us into a caravan park nearby. We went in for the night. With a great show of my efficiency and effectiveness, I switched on the hot water geyser to wash the dishes. I’m buggered if the thing didn’t start spouting hot water all over the interior of the caboose. From every orifice it seemed to be sprouting boiling water. It was an extraordinary display.”

As the crow flies, it is about 100km from Laingsburg to Gamkaskloof Nature Reserve in the Swartberg Mountains. In 1966, driving a Peugeot 403 (“they were great cars”), Goldblatt visited this remote part of the country. He photographed the Marias kids, Ella and Betty, swimming in the cement reservoir built by their father, Freek Marais, also farmer Piet Swanepoel, who similarly eked out an existence in this isolated valley that is today still known as Die Hel. In 2004, the valley now a nature reserve, Goldblatt returned in his Isuzu camper to make new photographs. He slept overnight at the foot of the pass.

“Before dawn I went up the pass to the position I had chosen, set up my camera, took some photographs. Then I noticed that the apron that Pottie had insisted on putting on the vehicle was coming away from the bodywork. The apron was a fibreglass thing that required a special custom-made mould so that the lines of the front of the vehicle were caught up by the caboose. It went right around the vehicle concealing the vehicle and undercarriage, giving the vehicle a certain elegance in Pottie’s eyes. I had never liked it, nor wanted it, but that was the price for getting Pottie to make the vehicle to my specs.”
On the road with David Goldblatt

On closer inspection Goldblatt saw that spillage from the diesel inlet had eaten away at the adhesive that kept the apron attached to the body. He roped the loose apron to the stanchions and headed off. Later, while in a train of cars navigating a stretch of road works along the N1, Goldblatt saw something flapping in the rear-view mirror: the apron had come unstuck from the body and was flapping in the wind.

“I didn’t know what to do, you can’t stop. I kept going hoping that I would get to the other end of this stretch of road before there is a disaster. I looked into my mirror again and saw that it had broken away and was flying higgledy-piggledy over the road and veld. Fortunately, the guy behind me had seen its danger and held back.”

“I won’t tell you all of the disasters because it is just too boring.”

Back in Johannesburg, Goldblatt, his wife following in another car, made the familiar journey to Mobile Designs, Potgieter’s now defunct business in Pretoria. Goldblatt gave Potgieter six weeks—the duration of a foreign work trip—to fix the camper. No apron, he insisted.

“I came back, go to Pretoria, and I am fucked if he hasn’t now screwed an aluminium apron to the back of the vehicle. The trouble with Pottie was and is that he is such a nice man that you could never really get cross with him.” Turns out the new apron concealed the slot for winding down the spare wheel, a discovery left to Goldblatt while on the road in the Queenstown district.
On the road with David Goldblatt

It is too simple to fault Potgieter as a poor engineer; Goldblatt, who was born in Randfontein in 1930, has a habit of identifying with working class subjects, especially maverick craftsmen. Aside from Potgieter another key unacknowledged figure in Goldblatt’s unwritten biography is Andrew Meintjies, the murdered photographer who built and marketed the home-grown Panfield large-format camera. Goldblatt numbered amongst its handful of global users.

“The Panfield camera was better than my vehicle,” insists Goldblatt, “but there was a common thread running between Andrew and Pottie: they were both extremely arrogant. If they did something, then it was done. Andrew never tested anything. You would get him to do something, then get in the field and it wouldn’t fucking work. You would go back to him and he would say, ‘Ohhhh!’ Pottie had the same kind of attitude.”

In 2012 Potgieter shut down his company. The maintenance of Goldblatt’s camper has since been taken over by another Pretoria businessman, a former Telkom ‘technical boffin’ named Le Grange. Curiously, tellingly, even strangely, in spite of their many exchanges Goldblatt never photographed Potgieter. Goldblatt’s reasoning is simple: “It was usually too tense to indulge in that sort of thing.”

Photos by Warren van Rensburg