South African photographer David Goldblatt in 2011. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

David Goldblatt, a South African photographer who cast a sensitive and penetrating light on both sides of the country’s racial divide during the apartheid era, died June 25 at his home in Johannesburg. He was 87.

The cause was cancer, said Peter MacGill, whose Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York is the North American representative of Mr. Goldblatt’s work.

Mr. Goldblatt spent his entire career in his native South Africa, portraying black and white citizens in some of their most intimate and vulnerable moments. He ventured underground to photograph workers in the country’s gold mines and entered black shantytowns and the segregated white churches and towns of Afrikaner hard-liners.

He first took up a camera in the late 1940s, just as the apartheid system was being enacted into law. As restrictions tightened on black and other nonwhite residents, Mr. Goldblatt traveled throughout the country, capturing the mingled sense of dignity and fear that was a constant undercurrent of South African life.

Virtually all of his work was done in black-and-white because, as he said, “color seemed too sweet a medium to express the anger, disgust and fear that apartheid inspired.”

Mr. Goldblatt said he was “scared of violence” and did not consider himself a journalist or a polemical photographer. As spasms of rebellion and repression broke out in the 1970s and 1980s, he did not presume to offer solutions to the problems facing his country but instead raised searching questions.


A farmer's son with his nursemaid in Western Transvaal, South Africa, in 1964. (David Goldblatt/Courtesy of Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town and Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York)

“I can’t claim to be a revolutionary,” he told the Sunday Times of South Africa in 2005, “and I don’t like calling myself an artist . . . I am a craftsman of photography.”

Yet his nuanced images carried a vivid awareness of contradiction and injustice. Instead of police crackdowns on black protesters, he showed a 15-year-old boy with both arms encased in plaster casts after an encounter with security forces. He photographed people of Indian descent forced from their homes by race-based zoning laws; he portrayed people of all races at worship — but the black churches were sometimes makeshift structures of boards and sheets; he rode buses with black workers who spent eight hours a day commuting between distant townships and their jobs in the city.

“David’s photographs have an unstated political significance that goes before and grows beyond the obvious images,” South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer told the Forward newspaper in 2010. “He can wring a sudden life never seen or suspected before from what he sees.”

Recognition came slowly to Mr. Goldblatt, who published several books, including “On the Mines” (1973), “Some Afrikaners Photographed” (1975), “In Boksburg” (1982) and “The Transported of KwaNdebele” (1989). Hs work came to be exhibited in major museums, including the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He received the Hasselblad Award, one of the most prestigious honors in photography, in 2006, and a lifetime achievement award from the International Center of Photography in 2013.

Mr. Goldblatt often traveled around South Africa in a small camper, stopping to take pictures with his old-fashioned 4-by-5-inch view camera. Most of his photography featured ordinary working people and their surroundings, but he also made portraits of notable South Africans, including Gordimer, Nelson Mandela and other political leaders.

When “Some Afrikaners Photographed” was published in the 1970s, the book incited anger and resentment from the country’s white elite. But three decades later, when Mr. Goldblatt returned to photograph some of the same people, he was welcomed as a chronicler of South Africa’s fitful social evolution.

“It is as if in the single moment of the click of a camera shutter,” South African novelist Andre Brink wrote in a 2007 essay, “Goldblatt gathers the full extent of the before and after of that decisive instant — all that has gone before to result in this moment, and all that has flowed from it.”

Brink added: “In this lies the key to Goldblatt’s moral sense: it is as if with each photograph he takes, he somehow assumes responsibility for the people he encounters through his camera and for what becomes of them afterwards.”

Lewis David Goldblatt was born Nov. 29, 1930, in Randfontein, South Africa. His grandparents settled in the country in the 1890s after leaving Lithuania to escape anti-Semitic pogroms.

His father ran a men’s clothing store; his mother worked as a typist. Mr. Goldblatt graduated in 1956 from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, but he began to experiment with photography years earlier, when his brother brought a camera home after serving in World War II.

Mr. Goldblatt worked in his family’s clothing store until his father’s death in 1962. Soon afterward, he sold the business to devote his time to photography.

“What drives me is the impossibility of conveying in one small piece of paper the whole complexity of reality,” he told South Africa’s Sunday Independent newspaper in 2008. “The camera is fixed in time and space and can only reveal what you choose to put in front of it. By its very nature it cannot reveal that complexity, but that is what I aspire to do.”

Survivors include his wife since 1955, the former Lily Psek of Johannesburg; three children; and two grandsons.

Mr. Goldblatt, who never worked outside South Africa, said his youthful experiences with anti-Semitism made him especially sensitive to the treatment of black people.

He became a minor celebrity in his homeland and was the subject of television documentaries. In a 2005 article, he recalled that he was stopped along a highway, contemplating a photograph, when a black motorist recognized him and stopped to talk.

“Then as he walked away,” Mr. Goldblatt told a South African newspaper, “he turned and said — almost as though it were an afterthought — ‘You are the guy who shows us things we don’t see.’ That is the most moving thing anyone has ever said about my work.”