Artist Presentation
Jim Goldberg

 

Synopsis by Stephen Chalmers

 

 

Jim Goldberg structured his talk as a chronological history of his work beginning with an undergraduate project in the 1970s. While going to school and working as a day-care teacher in Washington. Goldberg made photograms of these pre-school children's heads. The children drew within the boundaries the ‘stuff’ inside their heads. Jim wrote down (since they were unable to write yet) their ‘inside’ thoughts.

After moving first to the East Coast and then to San Francisco, Goldberg began a project of photographing poor people in a hotel. He asked them to write on their prints and then displayed the results in a hotel guest register. This was the impetus of his book Rich and Poor, on which he continued to work while in graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute. Around 1980 he started working on the ‘rich’ part of this project. During the presentation he discussed how he would edit the comments of the subjects of his Rich and Poor project before having them write on the image, and how editing later influenced his Raised by Wolves project.

In 1984, Goldberg went to Boston to teach and to finish work on Rich and Poor. During this period, his grandmother became terminally ill and moved to a nursing home. At the same time, Goldberg received a commission to photograph within a nursing home, taking a very similar approach as he had in Rich and Poor. The clients of the nursing home were predominately white, and the workers were predominately of color. The situation presented itself where these white patients, typically intolerant of people of color, now had to depend on them for their well being. With this project, he began working with installations.

After leaving Boston, Goldberg returned to San Francisco and was awarded a Guggenheim. Since he had photographed the elderly, he felt it was a natural progression to photograph kids. This was the genesis of Raised by Wolves, on which he worked from 1985 to 1995. The centerpiece of the touring exhibition (and the book) is a silhouette similar to his work with children as an undergraduate. Goldberg references the constructed narrative, how the images and text aren't necessarily by the same people. In addition to his use of image as text, he utilizes objects such as a jacket, skateboard, guns, etc. as chapter dividers.

In 1992, Goldberg's father was terminally ill and entered a hospice. Goldberg was invited, along with other photographers, to photograph hospices. He chose to document his father's experience and eventual death for this project. This work was also an installation, and shown in part in a book titled Hospice.

During the presentation, Goldberg's daughter came into the auditorium. Goldberg turned his attention completely away from the audience to ask her how her day was, and played some with her. When his photography of his father was projected onto the screen, he asked her Do you remember grandpa? After answering, she presented him with a balloon hat that he wore throughout the rest of his presentation. This aside with his daughter was touching, and made any questions about objectifying his subjects seems off the wall.

More recently, Goldberg began a project on race. A work in progress, he showed slides of his work dealing with race issues that were illustrated with silhouettes on diazo material, and included text from interviews with people as well as research.

From his first work with the day-care children to the current work on race, the use of silhouettes has been a constant throughout Goldberg's work.

 

 

Analysis by Carol Inez Charney

 

 

I think of how many times I walk down a street and encounter something that I don’t want to see–a person sleeping in an entryway, or dazed sitting on a bench. I see them, but I quickly look away. I look away, as if my looking at them were an invitation into my private world. Many people have issues with work that is outside their comfort zone. The wealthy may disdain viewing the downtrodden; the intellectuals may find fault with the humanists. Jim Goldberg’s social documentary work will not appeal to the masses because of its difficult subject matter. I feel that at the core of Goldberg’s work is a desire to build a trust with his viewer as well as his subject, and in turn to find a kind of truth. To be able to look at what is uncomfortable and unspoken while giving the experience a visual voice.

In Judaism, the work of social justice is referred to as tikkum olam and is an important component to living a life as an honest and true person. I feel that this value of tikkum olam is Goldberg’s underlying motivation in his work. Through the usage of building trust, gaining entry into private worlds and attempting to practice social justice through the use of social documentary photography, he demonstrates his own interpretation of tikkum olam through his art.

Photography has been criticized for many years for bending the truth. This can be evidenced by Dorothea Lange’s image entitled Migrant Mother, as well as Arthur Rothstein’s Father and Son in a Dust Storm. As we now know, in the case of Lange, images that represent intense suffering and attribute to the Depression are in fact not depicting the subject’s truth at all. In the case of Rothstein, subjects were posed when no dust storm existed at the time of the image making. Also in the tradition of social documentary, Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis sought to make significant changes in the urban and social landscape of their time through their photography. Unlike Hine or Riis, Goldberg makes a commentary on our nursing homes, on death and dying and on the children in the streets, but prefers to only document what he sees, leaving the viewer to take action or not, while offering them a visceral reminder of what we look away from.

Reflecting on his career, Goldberg considers himself a storyteller and desires that his audience be able to interact and read the work. In the beginning of his career, his intention, like many young photographers, was to try to do work that would gain attention. Although the subsequent documentary subject matter of nursing homes, hospice and kids on the streets chosen by Goldberg was on all accounts provocative, I don’t feel that the evolution of his work has been to gain attention, but rather to perform his own social intervention through the use of social documentary photography. In doing intense documentary work, Goldberg’s motivation is to document the irony, the injustice and what he considers the truth, in an attempt to offer the viewer a kind of reflection of their own to consider such social justices.

From early on in Jim Goldberg’s image-making career, he was drawn to the extremes of the very poor and the very wealthy. In this early work, a theme began to emerge about attempting to reveal a private world. Goldberg genuinely engages his subjects, and over time, builds a foundation of trust with them. Building trust to achieve access into private worlds is a consistent theme found throughout his work in Rich or Poor, The Nursing Home Series, Raised By Wolves, and Hospice.

He utilizes narrative to inform his imagery through the inclusion of writings by his subjects. Goldberg solicits the help of his subjects through asking for their response to the images, ideas about the direction of the work, as well as their thoughts on (and also about) the overall issues endemic to the work itself. In this way he includes his subjects in the process of developing each project. This approach to work reinforces his connection with his subjects as well as their ability to trust him as the photographer and as a social interventionist.

Goldberg’s use of installation appears to be meant as a way of referencing the dissonance of his subjects’ worlds. In working with an installation environment, Goldberg seeks to replicate bits and pieces of the elements which hold meaning to his subjects as well as to begin to recreate a taste of the chaos encountered in their actual environments. This kind of intense chaos is repeatedly presented to him by the kids on the street and summed up when one of the kids challenges Goldberg’s ability to move between his privileged world and theirs saying, You can go home and change the channel, but we can’t. It is because of the trust built by Goldberg with his subjects that he is able to fluidly move between such dissonant worlds. Goldberg creates a visual as well as a physical disruption of space so that the viewer is at once brought into the experiential level of his subjects. Objects (a jacket, a broken bat, and guns) act as chapter dividers and work well in the context of his books, however, in the actual museum installation environment, they appear to be out of place due to their scale, their physicality and their everydayness as objects.

In Raised by Wolves, Goldberg states he feels that at the core of the piece is a love story between Echo (Beth) and Tweaky Dave and that the book should be read as a film. They form a partnership that carries the story. In the exhibition though, the story of Echo and Tweaky Dave does not read in a cinematic way because of the installation environment. However, the book, because of its size and sequencing of pictures and objects, reads in a more cinematic flow. While unlike the movies –this is a love story where they do not ride off into the sunset– rather; we are confronted with the reality of their emotional and psychological dissonance. Perhaps this is what Goldberg wants us to see about ourselves? Maybe even when we change the channel we cannot get away from the uncomfortable truth?