My first exposure to Jim Goldberg was through his remarkable early books, Rich and Poor and Raised by Wolves. Both of these books demonstrated incredible innovation, advancing photography and the photobook into entirely new realms. With these titles, Goldberg utilized a loose approach to form mixed with a moving compassion and empathy for his subjects. Both are now a part of the canon of photography, widely praised for their ambition and groundbreaking approaches to photography and bookmaking.
My next exposure to Jim Goldberg was in April 2012, when Magnum Photography developed an interesting photographic experience. In collaboration with the Rochester Institute of Technology, Visual Studies Workshop, and the George Eastman Museum (GEM), eleven Magnum photographers (I’ve read different accounts about the amount of photographers participating in the project – the New Yorker magazine says eleven and the Eastman Museum website says ten ) spent two weeks living and working together, commune style, creating a collective portrait of Rochester. Goldberg was among the group Magnum sent to the city. It was a really amazing project to witness; the photographers kept open studios together at VSW while living together in a couple of different houses nearby. At the beginning of the two weeks, each of the photographers was given 10-15 minutes on the RIT stage to talk about recent projects they’d developed. At the end of the two weeks they took part in a moderated panel discussion with Alison Nordstrom at the Eastman Museum, during which they discussed work they’d tried to develop during their time together, and compared and contrasted their processes and experiences. They called the collective project A House of Photos, and it ultimately resulted in a thousand pictures donated to the George Eastman Museum.
It was really at the panel discussion at the Eastman Museum when I got a second glimpse of Jim Goldberg, beyond what I’d known from his early books. The Dryden Theater was packed, not an empty seat in the house. Not all of the photographers participated in the panel, but those that did, revealed a great deal about themselves. Goldberg was sitting sprawled out, looking completely relaxed and taking up as much space as possible. To his left sat Alessandra Sanguinetti; the two were a new couple, and for most of the discussion Jim had his arm draped around her. She was one of just 3 women on stage, together with Susan Meiselas and Alison Nordstrom, and clearly the youngest of the three. Jim appeared to be making his presence as large as possible, legs spread wide and excessively casual in his demeanor, never taking his arm from around Sanguinetti’s shoulder; it seemed he wanted the audience to know he had a much younger lover. It all felt like a remarkable expression of an enormous male ego – disappointingly at variance with the artist I’d witnessed in these early books, who demonstrated remarkable sensitivity in his ability to connect with a spectrum of marginalized and broken people. As a member of the audience, I felt deeply disrespected and can only imagine how Sanguinetti must have felt.
The book is a personal narrative told in free-form collage, pulling together decades of photographs, drawings, notes and letters to tell a story about his own family and self-development.
This episode at the Eastman Museum is an appropriate place to start understanding Goldberg’s newest book with MACK, Coming and Going. The book is a personal narrative told in free-form collage, pulling together decades of photographs, drawings, notes and letters to tell a story about his own family and self-development. It’s a hefty volume – guaranteed to stand out on your bookshelves – measuring 35 x 27 cm and containing 360 pages of full-bleed collages. The whole thing reminds me of the ego he demonstrated on stage at the Eastman Museum 12 years earlier.
Coming and Going has a clear narrative, looking at the people who’ve helped define Goldberg’s life and career. It is divided into 2 distinct parts. Part I narrates Jim’s early life as a photographer dating back to the 1980s. It focuses largely on his parents, Herb and Lil, and their battles with cancer. We also see Goldberg launch his career as a photographer, fall in love and marry, have a child, and work on his book Raised by Wolves. This section ends in a downward spiral: his dad succumbs to cancer and his wife asks for a divorce.
Part II opens with more about his divorce, including a list of items and issues that Goldberg and his ex-wife were still negotiating as part of their separation. Where the first part of the books focuses on Herb and Lil, Part II focuses largely on Goldberg’s daughter Ruby, and his clear affection for her is the best part of the book. Goldberg illustrates his relationship with Ruby over time with pictures he made while playing with her as a young toddler, on his hands and knees to photograph her toys; pictures of her first haircut and scans of hair clippings taken at various stages of her life; and snapshots of birthdays and graduations. This section also details his mother’s death, though without the same degree of attention offered to his father. The book ends when Goldberg meets Sanguinetti and starts a new life (“Still Going”).
Where the first part of the books focuses on Goldberg’s parents Herb and Lil, Part II focuses largely on Goldberg’s daughter Ruby, and his clear affection for her is the best part of the book.
A memoir is by definition self-centered, and I know Goldberg to be a remarkable artist. His first memoir, The Last Son (Super Labo 2016) is gorgeous and reminds me of another of my favorite photographic memoirs, Danny Lyon’s Knave of Hearts. Coming and Going, however, is a bombardment of images mashed together with too many different strategies: an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-like project, completely lacking the restraint found in The Last Son. Much of it focuses on the passing of his parents, and I find the pictures made of their deaths particularly problematic. Goldberg photographs both of them on their deathbeds and in each case he forces his own body into the picture, indeed consumes most of the frame, by awkwardly positioning his forearm between the camera and their bodies.These read as though he is crossing them out or making their deaths entirely about him. The intent of these pictures, I assume, is to mark the time and date of his their deaths as he seems to be drawing attention to his watch. This backfires in the photograph of his mother because the watch isn’t at all visible, and instead his arm is bluntly and violently obscuring her body. In the photograph of his father, the watch is visible. It seems important to Goldberg to show that Herb died on Christmas Day; is Goldberg’s evocation of a Christ metaphor representing himself or his father? Again, Goldberg’s placement of his arm over his father’s body feels like an act of aggression or erasure.
This self-agrandisement takes other forms in the book. In the passage reflecting on Raised by Wolves, Goldberg represents himself as the savior of the kids he photographed, and that might well be true, but in the end reads as more solipsistic than it does heroic.
I’ve experienced Goldberg as both a remarkable, sensitive and innovative artist, and as one with a large, flamboyant ego. I prefer the former and hope to see more of that in his work to come.
In light of the tremendous popular success of Coming and Going – MACK Books has identified as one of their bestsellers, and it’s featured on numerous best photobooks of 2023 lists – I want to change direction a bit and say something about Michel Foucault’s 1969 essay “What is an Author?” The gist of this essay is that the act of signification begins before you read a text; the author’s name alone acts as a signifier and thus initiates the meaning we create from a work before we’ve even engaged with it. I think of this essay often while perusing Instagram: a famous photographer can post a casual snapshot of their niece, an unremarkable photograph by any measure, and get thousands of likes. These likes are not at all about the picture but based instead on an appreciation for the photographer or an awareness of their fame. We are liking the maker not that which is made, and to me that accounts for the apparent success of Coming and Going. Jim Goldberg is indeed a great artist, but that doesn’t mean this is a great artwork. I’ve experienced Goldberg as both a remarkable, sensitive and innovative artist, and as one with a large, flamboyant ego. I prefer the former and hope to see more of that in his work to come.