Jim Goldberg (born in 1953) is something of a star at the moment, a fairly recent winner of the Cartier Bresson Award, and among the groovier members of the prestigious Magnum photographic agency. No surprise that he should make his way onto the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse prize, now open to view in London. He made his name with collaborative studies of various subcultures, in which the signature trick is that the persons photographed contribute by adding their own writing on the prints. He is in the fortunate (but sometimes confusing) position of being highly regarded as an artist, a commercial photographer, and a photojournalist. Many argue that those distinctions don’t amount to much these days and that the same pictures can nowadays slide seamlessly from glossy to gallery. Lots of people inhabit this shifting punning territory between different types of photography: Erwin Olaf, Wolfgang Tillmans,… Two of the other shortlisted artists for this year’s Deutsche Börse prize, Elad Lassry and Roe Ethridge – although both are certainly skilled picture makers – have really not much to offer beyond that easy ironic glide from one manner to another. Goldberg has a great deal more to offer than either of those, but his nomination to the shortlist raises again some awkward questions which have persistently not gone away.
Goldberg’s show in the ambika P3 space (temporary home to the Deutsche Börse prize while the Photographers’’ Gallery undergoes refurbishment) is a miniature version of the show he had at the gallery in 2010. Many will praise it for its fluidity, for its refusal to be bound by old notions of presentation and argument. I find otherwise.
Goldberg enjoys a reputation as something of a radical figure, but that reputation was sealed by his inclusion in a famous group show (Three Americans, 1984) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which welcomed him into the most conventional American photographic establishment. Much of his art is directed at distinguishing himself from others who have preceded him there. It’s a long time since Jim Goldberg has been any kind of a radical figure.
When he was working on very limited stories, his way of using added text made excellent sense. His highly praised ‘Raised by Wolves’, for example, a book about teenage runaways in San Francisco (published in 1995), worked well. It was made in a documentary photographic style and on a theme derived from the likes of Larry Clark, the maverick who in his book, Tulsa, brought home to America that all was not well with the kids in the suburbs. Raised by Wolves was a particular treatment of a fairly limited subject. To allow the subjects to participate in their own words was, after all, what documentary filmmakers had always done.
But Goldberg, like so many photographers, has got bored of the particular. He is currently working on books on very big subjects. Open See, published by Steidl, and award winning already in book form, treats of the displacement of people from war or other forced causes. It may be that such a project needs the formal constraints of sequencing and pagination that a book provides, but the work as seen at the Photographers’ Gallery (and here again in the prize show) is not far short of chaotic. It looks like the kind of imagery that any photographer will have on the pin-boards in the studio as he works his ideas up. It does not add up to a finished exhibition. Work on economic migration and the forced movement of people is inevitably covering ground that many others have already worked on. One thinks Salgado, for a start. Hence the urge to be visibly different.
Goldberg photographed displaced people in Greece, and moved further afield. South-east Asian, sub-Saharan, from the Ukraine… Each is thrown on the wall in a deliberately irregular way. Pictures of a studied naïveté of manner, in many different formats and sizes, framed in many styles, clustered together at a range of heights. The majority are single portraits but there are substantial minorities of other types of image. One picture – a fairly standard study of a person standing in a stinking sea of rubbish in Bangladesh – is printed large on a grid of newsprint, with a hand-written caption artfully aligned along an internal line of composition within the picture. There are Goldberg’s trademark Polaroids, written on both by himself and the subjects, C-types at exhibition size and post-card size. It’s a deliberate refusal to find a style. I am ambivalent about this. The photographer never tries to show that his own manner is more important than the stories he is trying to tell, which is commendably moderate. On the other hand, he never makes his stories more telling by presenting them in a crafted, coherent manner.
The pictures as a result seem to me not to present (in the words I wrote down from the Photographer’s Gallery 2010 presentation) Goldberg’s “dynamic approach to the documentary genre through multi-faceted displays of imagery and text”. On the contrary, they reveal his inability to come to a coherent view of his own. He has been to these places and seen these horrible things. He has heard the stories, collected the relics. In these torn and worn objects and reworked pictures, many of them Polaroids for immediate viewing, we confront again that the world is a horrible place. But we do not see what conclusions an artist has come to about that. The result is that once again poverty and pain have been turned into an adventure. Stylistically, these pictures are closer to the hand-wringing of fashiony ‘concerned’ photographers like Peter Beard than they are to the great tradition of clear seeing that Magnum used to represent. And I fear that intellectually the same is true.
The stories that Goldberg brings to us are certainly harrowing. Here are people sold for sex, scars of torture, crushing poverty and disease. “My life is sick because of what they did to me” is Goldberg’s translation of what Ludva, from the Ukraine, wrote on her picture. The title of the exhibition itself – Open See – comes from a scrawled message in one of the photographs which echoes with the desperation of the search for elsewhere: In the Open See Don’t Have Border. One shocking, marvellous frame – Demba’s Map – contains a collaged account of one man’s odyssey around Africa, pinballing from one misery to another. Nowhere within the frame itself do you discover the most shocking detail of all: Demba Balde was not just an ‘ordinary’ displaced person. He was a human trafficker, and all our sympathy at the horrific details of his journeying stops the moment we learn it. But, hey, bad guys can have a bad time, too.
Demba’s Map is an amazing piece, and I’m glad I’ve seen it now three or four times. I have details from it on my phone. It’s a picture which defies simple reactions, and that alone is a good thing.
Ambivalence, some hesitation, even a degree of cynicism at the motives of the photographer. These are my initial reactions to Jim Goldberg’s pictures now shortlisted for a major photographic prize.
And yet. I am not indifferent to them. It is possible to be moved by the stories Goldberg has to tell, on the oldest theme of all, that of man’s inhumanity to man. A picture of two little children simply says ‘We have only seen father once in life’. Is that a cheap shot, a nothing picture given poetry by the very moving addition of the writing? Or is it a wholly legitimate way of rekindling the visceral reactions to photography that we have lost by seeing so much horror for so long?