New York

Jim Goldberg

Jim Goldberg’s “Raised by Wolves” is an epic in word and image that probes the gap between dreams and reality in the lives of teenage runaways living on the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Ten years in the making, its complete form includes hundreds of photographs, audio- and videotapes, found objects, documents, transcribed interviews, family pictures, home movies, and handwritten statements by the depicted teenagers. This selection of 45 works was drawn from the larger exhibition recently mounted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., that will be traveling through 1998.

At the core of “Raised by Wolves” is the story of two 16-year-old runaways named Tweeky Dave and Echo, whose intimately entwined lives turn out to have far different trajectories. Their twinned stories are told with a mixture of fact and fiction that mirrors their penchant for self-mythologization in their desperate search for identity. Surrounding their stories is the effluvia of the kids’ pack culture, where dominance is continually asserted in the midst of their endless, exhausting search for drugs, sex, money, food, and the human respect and companionship they, for whatever reasons, could not find at home.

“Raised by Wolves” works through immersion and accumulation. It is not the individual photographs but the relations among them and with the surrounding texts and other materials—the accumulation of particulars—that drives the work. Recognizing this, one tends to underestimate the power of individual images in the work, and for this reason the selection shown here was instructive.

In the entryway to the gallery hung a diptych of iris prints. On the left was a blood-red panel with a line of childish handwriting in black running across the bottom—“Sometimes remembering ain’t no fun”—and on the right a grainy black and white image of Echo in profile, waiting. Her nose and lips, as well as the hand that holds a cigarette, are indistinct and dreamy. She looks out onto a street where things are harder and more focused, but where nothing is happening.

Inside, one of the first images encountered features a young couple backed against a wall, at night, with streetlights arrayed like stars beyond them. A dark-eyed girl gazes into a compact mirror that she clutches in both hands like a prayer. Her boyfriend behind—tattooed hand, cross in left ear—looks over her shoulder, while above their heads juts a striped awning promising an “Oasis.”

The bleak romanticism and posing in much of this work is obviously part of the collaboration between Goldberg and his subjects. The latter’s bravado is a transparent mask. Combined with a four-image portrait of Tweeky Dave is his handwritten message to the viewer: “I’m Dave who the fuck are you. You need me 2 feel superior, I need you 2 laugh at.”

Goldberg’s approach to documentary photography recognizes that any act of representation is necessarily fictive. Just as the teenagers invent shifting biographies and personas to go with their street names and to replace what they ran away from, Goldberg continually reinvents himself as observer and participant, documentarian and fantasist, adult and peer. Together, the photographer and his subjects work to transform the actual into the apocryphal and vice versa. I know of no other current work that so lives up to Robert Frank’s dictum that “the truth is somewhere between the documentary and the fictional.”

David Levi Strauss