South Africa through the eyes of master photographers David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole and Billy Monk

Courtesy PhotoSuburban South Africa: David Goldblatt’s “Monthly Meeting of the Vroue-Federasie at a Member’s House” was taken in 1980.

Vivid, sometimes difficult images depicting many sides of a changing country — by photographers who reveal the human condition — are on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“South Africa in Apartheid and After: David Goldblatt, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk” includes contrasting works by South African artists with varied motivations.

Goldblatt, who was born in 1930 and began seriously  taking pictures of his country in 1948, contributes images that bookend the exhibition of more than 120 photographs.

The show begins with his 1982 series “In Boksburg,” illustrating the daily life of white, middle-class residents of a Johannesburg suburb, which according to SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography Sandra Phillips “looks like Hayward or San Leandro.”

Indeed, the photos — of people at community meetings, in their homes and yards, even dancing — convey little in the way of racial tension or strife (although, in style and dress, late-1970s and early-’80s Boksburg looks a lot like the U.S. of the 1950s and ’60s).

Pictures taken in the 1960s by Cole, considered South Africa’s first black photojournalist (who worked under threat and went into exile to publish his subsequently acclaimed book “House of Bondage” before dying of cancer in 1990 at age 49) provide a contrast to Goldblatt’s serene suburbanites.

Under apartheid, Cole’s black South Africans are scared, restricted, rounded up by security authorities and living in substandard conditions. Banned in South Africa when they were taken, Cole’s pictures show how life under apartheid really was for blacks.

Goldblatt, who never met Cole, chose to display Cole’s photos alongside his in this SFMOMA exhibition. He also chose photos by Monk, a bouncer at a nightclub who wasn’t trained in photography but  took pictures in a seedy Cape Town spot called The Catacombs in the mid-1960s.

Monk’s provocative portraits (often taken to sell to the bar’s hard-partying customers) offer yet another vision of people in society's underbelly, operating outside laws prohibiting interracial coupling or homosexuality.

Nine truly evocative portraits by Goldblatt, in a series he calls “Ex-Offenders,” round out the exhibit. To complete the difficult but fulfilling project, Goldblatt found people who had committed serious crimes, such as murder and rape, then photographed them at the scene while gathering their life stories, which are encapsulated in accompanying wall text.

Goldblatt, who was in The City for the opening of the show, said he did it because, having been a crime victim, he was curious to learn about those who commit crimes.

He said, “I feel honored to have met these people.”

lkatz@sfexaminer.com

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