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  • 'In my opinion, a photographer is responsible for critically observing.' —David Goldblatt 
    David Goldblatt (1930-2018) is hailed as a definitive photographer of his generation. He produced an unparalleled body of work, documenting South Africa’s landscapes and social conditions through the height and decline of apartheid. Taken in 1966 in the gold mining city of Randfontein (where the artist was born), this unconventional portrait shows a full-frame close up of the Boss Boy’s torso with his arms crossed, displaying the ‘whole paraphernalia of his rank’. It was his experience of exploring the mines as a white child growing up in Randfontein that led him to focus on the physical and human structures of his native country’s dominant industry for his first series. Goldblatt describes this photograph in his influential book of 1973 with Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, On the Mines:

     

    Boss Boy was the highest rank in the hierarchy of jobs then attainable by Blacks. There could be no progress beyond that rank without a blasting certificate and only Whites were eligible for that qualification. Thus had Whites assured themselves of their jobs and higher pay. The term Boss Boy was later dropped in favour of Team Leader. In his right pocket: tobacco pouch. In left pocket: clinometer for underground measurements, notebook for recording them, pens and pipe. On left arm: company rank badge. Three stars indicate that he is a Mine Overseer’s Boss Boy. On wrists: plastic identity band with his company number, ornamental copper and rubber bands. On belt: first aid kit, pocket knife in homemade sheath and Zobo watch presented by the company in recognition of accident-free work.

     

    Presented in nuanced monochrome – as ‘colour seemed too sweet a medium’ to embody the injustice of apartheid – this striking portrait reveals Goldblatt’s firm conviction on asserting the essential human dignity of his subjects.

     

    Major retrospectives of the artist’s work were shown at Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2018 and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2019.

     

    Aside from the sold-out platinum edition, this image exists in a sold-out gelatin silver print edition of 6 + 1 AP. As of this writing, only four early prints of this image, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford and privately, are known.

     

    Video interview with David Goldblatt on On the Mines for his 2018 retrospective at
    Centre Pompidou, Paris © Centre Pompidou, 2017.

     

    ON THE MINES

     

    We white children enjoyed almost unfettered freedom to explore the installations of the gold mines beyond our town, Randfontein. 


    Stopping at a headgear, we watched and listened in awe as a team of 20 men moving as one, swung a steel railway line off the ground, into the air, caught it on their shoulders and then walked it, chanting to its place. But we didn’t wonder about their lives. Hundreds of miles from home, 40 to a room in a compound of 6,000 men. For a pittance. Whites were the bosses, they lived in the married quarters with their families. Black men were not allowed to qualify for blasting certificates, thus were Whites protected from competition. Yet despite the seemingly unbridgeable racial divide, Blacks and Whites risked and sometimes gave their lives to save each other in emergencies. Now there are no restrictions on black advancement. Heard across town a hooter signalled the change of shift or an emergency: men trapped in a fall of rock; a snapped rope and men hurtled to the bottom of the shaft; fire underground. Despite denials by the men who do it, work in deep level mines is extremely dangerous.


    David Goldblatt

    • Provenance

      Directly from the artist

    • Exhibited

      David Goldblatt Fifty-One Years, Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 8 February - 14 April 2002, another

    • Literature

      D. Goldblatt & N. Gordimer, On the Mines, Cape Town: C. Struik, 1973, pl. 12
      David Goldblatt: Fifty-One Years, Barcelona: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2001, p. 105
      L. Lawson, David Goldblatt, New York: Phaidon, 2001, n.p.
      D. Goldblatt, Structures of Dominion and Democracy, Göttingen: Steidl, 2018, p. 59

ULTIMATE

23

Boss Boy, Randfontein Estates Goldmine

November 1966
Platinum-palladium print, printed later.
Image: 40.4 x 36.7 cm (15 7/8 x 14 1/2 in.)
Sheet: 74.8 x 56 cm (29 1/2 x 22 in.)

Signed, dated and annotated ‘P/P’ in pencil in the margin.

This work is PP1 from the sold-out edition of 4 + 1 AP + 1 PP. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, holds another print from this edition.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
£12,000 - 18,000 

Sold for £15,120

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Rachel Peart
Head of Department, London

Yuka Yamaji
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Photographs

London Auction 23 November 2021