Jim Goldberg

Clarence Kennedy Gallery

Jim Goldberg is known for his series of photo-texts that contrast the wealthy and the poor in San Francisco; these incorporate his subjects’ own comments beneath the photographs he took of them. Goldberg employed a similar methodology for “Nursing Home,” his new series of photo-texts, currently being shown in a traveling exhibition. For this series, commissioned by the Cambridge Arts Council in 1985, he spent seven months visiting the Neville Manor nursing home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Goldberg first spent three months getting to know the elderly residents and then photographed them. After presenting a print to his subject, he interviewed him or her about how it felt to be old. Edited versions of these responses, written in the subject’s (often palsied) handwriting, appear as part of the final image.

Goldberg is drawn to the “other.” The very rich and the very poor are outside most viewers’ experience, as separate from us as members of primitive tribes or inmates of mental asylums. But the elderly constitute an other that is universally inescapable and so perhaps most feared and denied. As one resident writes on her picture, “Young people turn their backs—they’re afraid! . . . THEY’LL LEARN—EVERYBODY GETS OLD.”

The exhibition also includes portraits of the residents families and the staff, and photographs of emblematic objects of nursing-home life (for example, pills neatly ordered in a plastic cup, a tray of bland institutional food, and personal mementos such as trophies and costume jewelry). These are accompanied by a tape recording that features, among other things, residents singing in a variety of languages, a patient’s raspy breathing, and a panicked cry of “Somebody help me!” The cumulative effect is a potent confrontation with that which is disavowed but irrevocable—abandonment, pain, helplessness, death.

“Nursing Home” compels on multiple levels. Socially, it reveals the ageist attitudes that enable an extraordinarily wealthy, technologically advanced society to shunt its elderly into depersonalized institutions, and it alludes to the hierarchy of staff—with black and Haitian aides at the bottom—and its ironic racial implications, particularly for racially divided Boston: helpless white residents cared for by disenfranchised yet powerful-in-this-context people of color. Anthropologically, it propels the viewer into a usually invisible netherworld, whose ambiance and artifacts seem foreign even as they echo our own. (Neville Manor, by the way, is considered a comparatively “good” nursing home.)

Goldberg’s approach emerges from Robert Frank’s social documentation, yet his straightforward style holds little of Frank’s heightened drama. The subjects are usually centrally placed in the frame and cropped at torso or knees, ironically implying the body’s betraying deterioration. Diaphanous white curtains surrounding beds hold multivalent meanings—purity, isolation, the spectral, or the “final curtain.” The text brings a second pair of eyes to the photograph. One of the constant themes of the written comments is the dichotomy between the interior self, which continues to see itself as youthful, and the surprised apprehension of the decayed exterior. A 76-year old-woman wrote, “This is what pain and sickness can do to you. . . . I cannot believe I look like this.” Both Goldberg’s empathy and the subjects’ uniqueness emerge in these works, forming a context within which the viewer may integrate the unthinkable into the concept of self. Thus diffused, this terrifying other is restored as a universal.

Nancy Stapen