Born in Manchester, England in 1930, John Goldblatt left for South Africa in 1956. With a degree in analytical chemistry, he first pursued that line of work in Johannesburg, went on to work as a copy writer for J Walter Thompson, but self-taught photography soon became his passion.
Disturbed by the inequities he saw in South African society, John became a photographer with an eye on social justice. He began by recording the vibrant nightlife of the jazz scene, particularly around the Crescent Café, which was known for its racial mix of performers and audience. Later, he started to wander – illegally – into the townships, documenting a reality that saddened and angered him.
The result was a series of compelling photographs, which led to the launch of a successful career as a photographer, which he pursued upon his return to the U.K. While still working in advertising, he also taught photography part-time at Central School of Art, where he met and started documenting the work of artists including: Bridget Riley, Philip King, David Annesley, Michael Bolus, Isaac Witken and Anthony Caro with whom he continued to work for over 20 years.
By the mid-60s, John was a photographer for many of the predominant British newspapers and Sunday supplements. While on an assignment for the Sunday Times, in 1967, taking pictures of the RNLI, he had a serious accident: while he was shooting a boat in dry dock, he backed down a slipway and fell through a maintenance hatch onto rocks, some 20 feet below. His resulting head and back injuries took over six months of treatment, but also lead to being out of circulation, professionally, for a considerable amount of time. Furthermore, there were physical restrictions on his use of equipment, so his work was predominantly hand-held from that point onwards.
Following this, from the late 60s to early 70s, John’s work extended to writing as a photojournalist and his international work took him to back to Africa, notably Botswana, Nigeria and the Sudan. He didn’t return to South Africa since the government there had published an article in the British press stating that he was an undesirable, having married a mixed-race woman, Peggy Stevenson, who he met in Johannesburg. During this time, he also photographed the author, Bessie Head, for the cover of When Rain Clouds Gather, which led to an on-going correspondence between the two. In addition to photographs and articles for the British press, he made regular contributions to Transitions, a literary platform for African writers, which folded in 1976, amid financial difficulties and rumours of CIA funding.
With an on-going reputation for documentation for artists, during the 1980s, John continued to work with Anthony Caro and other contemporary artists such as Judith Cowan. He also went on to work extensively for the Eszkenazi Gallery, one of the leaders in Chinese Art, for a number of years. In the meantime, he taught photography at the Strand Adult Education Centre in Brixton, but in 1988, he left in order to work as a photo editor for Greenpeace. In addition to his editorial duties, he designed ships’ darkrooms and photographed on expedition himself. He also introduced one of his previous students from the Strand, photo librarian, Liz Somerville, to the organisation. John worked for Greenpeace until he retired in 1992.
While in retirement, John carried on with occasional freelance commissions, but also doing charitable work with Camden Community Transport. However, in 1997, he was commissioned to produce work for the PhotoDocklands exhibition; choosing to document the urban regeneration development that radiated from Canary Wharf to the surrounding areas. This spanned bomb damage from the previous year’s attack on Docklands, to the diminishing local community, to the red-clad figure of Christ the Steersman, the silent witness of change, on Commercial Road. This was John’s last significant work, although he remained active until he died in 2009, after a prolonged period of dementia. However, while he was relatively unknown, through photography, he led a life that was rich in experience.