Santu Mofokeng, a photographer whose searing images of everyday life in South Africa’s black townships documented the prospects of freedom from apartheid and the unfulfilled promise of its overthrow, died on Jan. 26 in Johannesburg. He was 63.
His death was announced by Maker, which represents the Santu Mofokeng Foundation. He had progressive supranuclear palsy, a degenerative brain disease that confined him to a wheelchair and left him unable to speak, according to South African news reports.
While Mr. Mofokeng (pronounced MOE-foe-keng) never considered himself an integral part of the struggle against apartheid, he was steeped in the policy’s consequences.
He was raised in an impoverished household by a single mother; attended Morris Isaacson High School, which was a forge for the student uprising in Soweto in 1976 against white rule; and witnessed his younger brother being beaten by white bullies retaliating for the protests against the government and its brutal suppression of dissent.
After beginning his career as a darkroom technician, Mr. Mofokeng plunged into photojournalism, covering demonstrations and strikes and the police’s implacable response — all of which attracted international attention, especially as documented by television cameras.
But he developed a thirst for more perspective than the daily deadlines could deliver, and he concluded that South Africa’s eventual transformation into a multiracial society would proceed slowly enough to be documented over time in stark black-and-white still photographs.
“While many other photographers have captured the spectacle of protest, Mofokeng has captured the more subtle sublimity of the body in pain, or the body transfigured — by political belief, by faith,” Ashraf Jamal, a cultural critic, wrote in Aperture. “He is widely celebrated as the spiritual painter of South Africa’s tormented body politic, and his uniqueness lies in his ability to capture a subject’s aura, their life hidden from view.”
Mr. Mofokeng caught that aura in many photographs and projects: a picture of an empty street with a placard that reads “The Power to Fight Back” during his nation’s first democratic election, in 1994; “Train Church” (1986), which depicts impromptu religious rituals on a crowded, and segregated, commuter rail car; “The Bloemhof Portfolio” of rural farmworkers, whom he spent years photographing; “On the Tracks,” a 1994 photo essay on New York City subway workers; and “The Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950,” an annotated archive of formal colonial-era portraits of African families.
“It’s not about what you see in these photos,” Mr. Mofokeng once said. “It’s about what you don’t see, but feel.”
His work has been shown around the world. A color landscape series, “Graves,” went on display at the Venice Biennale in 2013. An exhibition at the Walther Collection project space in New York in 2015 surveyed his photographs. A 21-volume collection of 551 photographs from his archive of 32,000 frames, “Santu Mofokeng: Stories,” was published by Steidl last year.
Joshua Chuang, the Robert B. Menschel senior curator of photography at the New York Public Library, called Mr. Mofokeng “one of the great world figures in photography of the past 50 years.”
“While his pictures are rooted in the realities of apartheid South Africa, they refuse to conform to stereotypes,” Mr. Chuang said in an email.
“They are unpredictable, oblique, and varied in their form and approach, transcendent without being heroic,” he added. “They convey a complex humanism that is not predetermined, but rather one that allows for vice, irreverence and miracle.”
Mr. Mofokeng was born on Oct. 19, 1956, in Johannesburg. His father, a migrant worker, died when he was 4. His mother was a maid.
“I was raised by a parent who instilled in me a religious thing about always searching for meaning and purpose in everything we do,” Mr. Mofokeng told the curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2002. “This informs my enterprise and the work that I do.”
He received his first camera as a gift from his sister when he was 17. That gift, Mr. Chuang said, helped him overcome shyness.
Among Mr. Mofokeng’s survivors are his wife, Boitumelo, a community developer and marathon runner, and two children. His brother Ishmael died of H.I.V.-related causes in 2004.
A year later, he was hired by the South African newspaper The New Nation. From 1988 to 1998, he worked as a documentary photographer and visual anthropologist for the African Studies Institute’s Oral History Project at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where his mentor was David Goldblatt, one of the nation’s most acclaimed photographers, who died in 2018. In 1991 he studied at the International Center of Photography in New York.
Mr. Mofokeng’s approach to his subjects, and to his métier itself, was unconventional. His work was so metaphorical that he was often described as a poet and an artist as much as a photographer.
“His photographs have a powerful, almost mesmerizing, effect on me. At least, now they do,” the photographer and art historian Teju Cole wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2017. “When I first encountered them, some 15 or so years ago, I didn’t understand them.”
Only years later, Mr. Cole said, did he uncover Mr. Mofokeng’s secret.
“Mofokeng seems to test how many eccentricities a picture can tolerate before it breaks apart,” Mr. Cole wrote. He suggested that it took a word from Mr. Mofokeng’s native Sotho language, seriti, to define his photographs.
“It is a word whose senses include ‘shadow’ as well as ‘aura,’ ‘dignity,’ ‘presence’ and ‘confidence,’” he explained. “Against the harsh interrogative light of an unjust political reality, Mofokeng offers seriti: knowledge of a more secret sort.”