Jim Goldberg



If the 1985 publication of Rich and Poor was Jim Goldberg’s only achievement, it would be enough to assure him a prominent place in the history of photography. Yet he has continued to restlessly push himself and his work to reinvent the documentary form. His second book Raised by Wolves, published in 1995 continued to set a high bar for what long-term commitment looks like for a documentarian serious about reporting on issues of poverty and homelessness in America. His 2009 book Open See follows the travails of refugees attempting to find a home in Europe has taken on even more urgent meaning in recent months. There is no need to provide a list of his professional accomplishments in terms of grants, awards, exhibitions and museum collections; they are legion. What continues to astound is Goldberg’s remarkable imagery and his broad embrace of what it means to participate and witness simultaneously.

This interview took place via Skype between San Francisco and Baltimore on May 4, 2015.


MAD: What are you working on now?

JG: Currently, I am working on a small book that’s a memoir or sorts about my childhood – the second in a three part series of personal books that I’m making with the Japanese publisher Super Labo. The book, Bildung, (working title) draws from a larger, unpublished visual memoir called Coming and Going that I began in 1999 around the time of my divorce. I’ve since looked back at Coming and Going and tried use excerpts from it, and build upon it. I am also working on a project called Candy. The title is a reference to my father’s wholesale candy distribution business. While this book is my own coming-of-age story as an artist, I also interweave my personal dreams with those of my father. There are a mixture of styles and mediums including: photographs, collage, stills from home movies, hand-written text… my intention is get all of these different elements to work together, and make coherent an assemblage of memories.



Jim Goldberg, Bildung (working title)



Jim Goldberg, Bildung (working title)


In a past life I think I might have been a sculptor; this book dummy is a wonderful stack of overflowing pages held together with post-it notes and tape on my studio table. While I was making Bildung, I was also writing the afterword for the re-release of Rich and Poor.  It was easy for me to see the fundamental similarities between the two bodies of work. Although I made Rich and Poor in San Francisco, it stemmed from my memories of growing up in New Haven, CT: driving around with my family, ogling at the wealthy houses that we’d wished we had.

Also coinciding with the making of Bildung, I was awarded the Doran Fellowship at Yale University to make new work. So, for the past two years I have been making work in my hometown, New Haven. It’s a mess of a place now, where one in four people live below the poverty line. It was not like that when I was growing up in the 50’s and 60s. At that time we were full of hope and deeply believed in American Exceptionalism. I’m now approaching New Haven as a microcosm of urban America, with the perspective of both an insider and an outsider. One of the elements of this current work is a photographic mapping of the city; I ride on top of an RV and photograph the main streets that historically intersected my life (the streets of my school, home, father’s business, swimming lessons, synagogue).

MAD: You are like a live Google Street View.

JG: I am exactly like a live Google Street View—a Goldberg Street View, if you will. However, unlike the Google cameras, I photograph in an explicit and performative manner, calling out to people as I pass by and make pictures. When I am in New Haven I am click, click, click; shooting all them time: film, digital, Super-8, Polaroids and text …using a lot of different mediums to talk about the place. Yale will be publishing a book of the work and exhibiting it in the spring of next year.



Jim Goldberg, Untitled, from Candy, forthcoming from Yale


Jim Goldberg, Untitled, from Candy, forthcoming from Yale


MAD: One of the things that is clear in your work is a concern for class, how it works, how it manifests itself in the lives of your subjects.  I live in Baltimore, and the city has been in the news this week, as you know. It is interesting to see how the situation here is portrayed in the media. Obviously race plays a major part in structural inequities but class is hardly ever discussed except in the most rudimentary manner. It is rarely discussed in the American context in general. In your work, it is evident that an entrenched class system creates permanent outsiders. Do you think growing up in New Haven embedded that awareness in you?

JG: Yes, I’ve always been interested in issues of class, race, and how we deal with “the other.” I think it is part of my personal psychology… dating back to those terrible teenage years when I felt misunderstood and alienated and afraid to take my shirt off in the gym. Perhaps that was what sealed my allegiance to the underdog. Then of course there were the political imperatives I drew from growing up in New Haven: watching, firsthand, the city descend into racial conflict. I was sitting in the Richard C. Lee High School Cafeteria when a chair hit me in the head during a riot. Race and class were inextricable.

MAD: When was the first time you held a camera with intent?

JG: I had planned on studying theology in college, but in my first or second semester I took a photography class. I ordered a camera from Hong Kong and I waited weeks for its delivery. When it finally arrived, I beheld the camera in my hands, realizing that I could use it to point to something that had meaning to me. Funny that we are talking about this just now, because I was just writing about the first picture that I took with that camera. I was at a Van Morrison concert [laughter]… after the concert was over, I knocked on the backstage door, announced that I was a “photographer” and asked if I could take Van Morrison’s picture. They let me in—and all the pictures are out of focus.

MAD: My first photograph was Robert Plant, the singer for Led Zeppelin.

JG: How did that happen?

MAD: I was hanging out with my friends in Union Square in Somerville, Massachusetts and was approached by what you would now call a media activist, who put a camera in my hands and asked me if I wanted to learn how to use it. I just happened to be going to a Led Zeppelin concert that weekend. As you mentioned earlier, there was some federal money at that time to offer programs to inner city youth and these young radicals went out recruiting kids off the street in order to teach them photography, silk-screening and basic video production. I was on the wrong path, on my way to dropping out of school but photography gave me something to hold on to.

Anyway, back to you. [Laughter] You went to grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1970’s, was John Collier one of your teachers?

JG: Yes he was and after I graduated I co-taught a class with him for a year or two.



Jim Goldberg, Gardiner Hempel, from Rich and Poor, 1980


MAD: I ask because he wrote a very influential book on visual anthropology and the use of the camera as a tool in studying human behavior and culture. I was his teaching assistant for a couple of semesters as well.  Was studying and working with John Collier a formative experience in terms of your approach to photography? He is someone who is largely forgotten but I think he was a really interesting man.

JG: He was interesting, and complicated. John was full of stories and life and experiences that were straight out of an adventure novel. Larry Sultan and I would have discussions all the time about who John was to us. He wasn’t quite a father figure, but he was a person with authority and wisdom that we knew we should listen to. He also was a very bad cook. Did you ever go over to his house for dinner?

MAD: Yes. (Laughter)

JG: His house was a mess, right? His kitchen was even worse, which made for the most unappealing, strangely combined, and half-cooked food I’d ever eaten. And I ate it all because John, with a twinkle in his eye, had made it especially for me. I loved when he would offer a “very special” bottle of wine with the two-dollar price tag still on it. Regardless, the evenings were full of talk and questions about my work that I hadn’t even thought to ask myself. He helped me create an internal dialogue deep within my consciousness; he helped me discipline my practice and gave me insight on how to contemplate work, trust my intuition, and to direct it in ways that it needed to evolve. Yep, John influenced me deeply.

MAD: He had one of those old fashioned hearing aids that he wore around his neck and when he wanted you to respond to something he would hold it in front of your mouth, but if he didn’t like what you were saying he would turn it off or abruptly move on to someone else.

You might be tired of answering questions about Rich and Poor but I am going to ask a few. What was the genesis of that project? Did it begin with an assignment you gave yourself? And was your original conception as large in scope as it became?



Jim Goldberg, Mary and Wayne, from Rich and Poor, 1979


JG: In the spring of 1977, I had basically just arrived in San Francisco and decided to take a “real” photography class at Lone Mountain College. Larry Sultan taught it and the final assignment was to make any kind of book—as long as it had a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I had been taking pictures of people in transient hotels rooms in the Mission District. I bought a hotel guest registration binder at Patrick’s Stationary Store. I placed my subjects’ photos in the binder and then had them write their stories or feelings next to the photographs. I called the book “Guest Register.” I used that book to apply to grad school at RISD and Lone Mountain. I got into both and decided to stay at Lone Mountain and work with Larry.

However, within weeks of starting graduate school, Lone Mountain announced that it was closing. I decided, at the last minute, to apply to the San Francisco Art Institute, a place that had previously rejected me. I scrambled to pull together a new portfolio and made the decision to print my images of the hotel residents 11”x14” and then have the people write directly on their photographs. I wasn’t sure of what I had done, but applied to SFAI and got in! But of course it turned out to be something more, something integral to my practice for 40 years, working on long term projects, working with text, storytelling and narrative. At the time, though, I certainly wasn’t thinking that a few years later it was going to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art, that it was going to be the beginning of my friendship with Larry Sultan, Philip Brookman, and Robert Frank . . . I just saw something that I felt I needed to try to make sense of, which is how most visual artists’ projects tend to start.



Jim Goldberg, Train to Cuzco, from Coming and Going, 1980


MAD:  After Rich and Poor’s success, what happened next? I saw an image of yours on the Magnum website, I think the title is Train to Cuzco, taken in the early 80s it pictures a couple of boys standing on the outside platform of a moving train and I immediately thought of Robert Frank because before he shot The Americans, he traveled and photographed extensively in Peru in the late 1940s. Was that a coincidence or was it a pilgrimage of a kind?

JG: I was at a much different point in my visual career than Robert was when I went to Peru. I don’t even remember if I was aware of his Peru photographs when I went in 1980 or 81. That being said, I was extremely aware of Frank’s influence in my work, and there has always been a shared curiosity in things, and a love of the road. Sometimes working as an insider and sometimes not. Looking ahead, and behind.

MAD: Larry Sultan was your good friend and I know his death was devastating for you. Do you mind if we talk about him for a bit?

JG: No I don’t…but I must say it’s always difficult to talk about Larry. I miss him so.

MAD: How did photography play a role in your friendship? You are very different photographers of course but I think you both shared a strong desire to expand the forms and strategies of documentary, for example.

JG: I would agree that we were different, but we shared an interest in expanding the dialogue about documentary and photography in general. He and I shared feelings of vulnerability—of our places in a room and in the world. Much of our time together, and time making art, was done playfully. Play allows us to experiment. I never expected to become an artist, but luckily, meeting Larry, being his student and assistant, and then friend, well… that opened me up in countless ways to different working methodologies and ways of seeing. But fundamentally, Larry was the person who showed me who I was.

Being artists was fundamental to our friendship, but we were competitive as fuck. Mostly it was healthy, a way to push each other and our art further and deeper. We really competed in every way. Including in poker, but there I always lost. He was my brother; the intimacy we shared was unsurpassed.

MAD: Thanks Jim. I’ll change the subject. In an earlier interview about your book and exhibition Raised By Wolves you said that you were interested in ‘total documentation’. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?



Jim Goldberg, Echo Waiting (Polk and Sutter) from Raised by Wolves, 1986


JG: Hm. I don’t remember exactly what I meant then. It probably was in the Douglas Huebler sense of the term. That is, sometimes I wish I could photograph, record, film, everything and every person within my subject matter.

I am also interested in telling the stories of the people around me. This has been one way that I have tried to expand the medium.  For example, in Rich and Poor, I wasn’t an economist but I was interested in how we speak about issues of wealth and poverty. Most economics are descriptive: they come from the outside looking in. I am interested in stories from the inside. I wanted to open up the discussion, to highlight the complexities of each person’s situation and crack into the (sometimes contradictory) discussions that journalism, economics, and sociology sometimes do not allow. I hope that my work raises questions about how poverty or youth homelessness are framed. What is the language of description and who gets to use that language?

When I began Raised by Wolves after I finished Rich and Poor, I realized that I was trying to do something very difficult. I wanted to photograph individuals who were under the radar and who also were underage; legally I needed their parents’ permission to photograph them, and that was not going to happen. These homeless kids didn’t have parents at that point (which is not to say that they didn’t want to be home with their parents, they just didn’t know how to get back home).  They only had each other, and street preachers, and youth counselors, and predators, and pimps and drug dealers. I wanted to photograph the complexity of the situation, the whole phenomenon of runaway kids; I spent 10 years in that world and tried to show it through Polaroids, through video and sound, black and white and color, and objects that I collected… I wanted to push my working methodologies beyond what I did in Rich and Poor.



Jim Goldberg, I’m Dave, from Raised by Wolves, 1988-89

MAD: I am sorry to say that I never saw Raised by Wolves as an exhibition. The book of course is canonical at this point. You set up the book as a kind of script or storyboard, you list the names of the characters at the beginning and you create a narrative arc around their lives especially two characters Echo and Tweaky Dave. Is that something you visualized going in or was that a decision you arrived at incrementally as you developed relationships and collected more and more material?

JG: The latter. I spent 1985 to 1991 making the work. On October 21st I started making the book with Philip Brookman who was between jobs at the point, damn was I lucky. Philip is wonderful to work with. We basically locked ourselves in my closet studio, going through every single print (making piles of “good,” “maybe,” and “shit”… and then sometimes mixing those piles up). We also sorted through boxes of contact sheets, ephemera, video, and text.  Philip is a terrific editor, and his vision is wise. Through editing and curating, we decided that the best structure for Raised By Wolves was a more cinematic path. It wasn’t until about a year of working together that I realized Echo and Tweaky Dave were the obvious main characters, with many other players introduced throughout the book.

Two films that really influenced me at the time were El Norte, which follows the journey of two siblings escaping Central America to cross the border into the U.S., and The Silence of the Lambs. I liked the way that Demme allowed the viewers to become voyeurs, giving them the perspective of the villain. In Raised by Wolves, I wanted to make readers feel that they were inside the story, that it could be their kid who was on the street.

We sequenced the work over a period of three years and then in the final year I wrote the text, using the sequenced photographs as a storyboard. By the end of 1993, I was nearly finished, and trying to figure out how to end the book. Tweaky Dave and I came up with the idea of “killing him off” in the story, which fit with many of the fictional strategies I had been using (such as changing names and chronologies). And then Dave actually died.



Jim Goldberg, Runaway from Florida who stole her Daddy’s credit card, from Raised by Wolves, 1991


MAD: Do you stay in touch with any of the kids?

JG: Fewer and fewer as the years go on. Most of them are in their 40’s now, if they are alive. I just discovered an obituary for Marcos; I had been close to him. Occasionally now I’ll be mailed pictures, or receive a phone call.  Just the other day Danny contacted my studio through Facebook; he has three kids and runs a tattoo parlor. I am always in touch with Echo. She’s in New Jersey and I try to I see her when I can. Many people disappeared, went crazy, went to prison. Many overdosed.

MAD: In the exhibition of Raised by Wolves you included time-based media including a video triptych of Echo’s home movies and other forms of display that you couldn’t do in the book. Can you talk about how the book and the exhibition were different?

JG: In terms of the book, we were trying to experiment in as many ways as possible with the diversity of material. When it came time for the exhibition (and there wasn’t much of a break before I ended one and began the other), Philip and I looked at the book and thought of other ways to change the viewers’ experience. Simple things, like blowing up the size of an image printed very small in the book or printing on various kinds of paper. I made large inkjet prints with a blue cast of the kids who were the most fucked up. I created a complex three-channel video with Echo’s mother’s text of why Echo left home montaged with Echo’s home movies. If you stood there for 15 minutes you could experience the whole narrative and begin to understand why Echo left her middle class home.  I also projected individual slides and put ephemera in vitrines. There was video, and Polaroid grids, and playing cards inscribed with the names of every kid in the books, light boxes, reading “rooms” designed by David Ireland, a sound piece of Tweaky Dave telling the story of his birth, and a Capitoline Wolf over the entrance.



Jim Goldberg, Napoleon plays chicken, hanging over the wire guardrail of the Hollywood Freeway, from Raised by Wolves, 1989


MAD:  Since there are already so many cinematic elements to your work, have you thought about making films? Documentary or fiction?

JG: I am in the very beginning stages of discussions about making a film with Mikhael Subotzky in Argentina. But presently I’m pretty busy doing everything I am doing, so thankfully I don’t have a lot of time to think about what I am not doing. You know what I mean? I have of course worked with video in almost all of my work… Now I’m shooting a lot of Super-8 in New Haven. I just finished making a short film portrait for Nowness on the Mexican art collector, Eugenio Lopez, and another one about Robyn, a Swedish pop star. It’s fun making those. So yes, I agree, I should be making films.

MAD: Oh, I didn’t say you should be doing it, I think you are already doing a lot.

JG: I should be doing it; I think I would give me great pleasure to do it. It would push me in new directions. I need that.

MAD: Speaking of films, there is short one on Vimeo, I think, of you talking to and photographing a panhandler on the street in the Mission District in San Francisco. He apparently spends his days begging for change in order to buy small amounts of crack cocaine.  I am curious, when you approached him, what was it that you wanted?  Is it simple curiosity? Do you think he might have an answer to something? Or do you have a compulsion to interact with the destitute?



Jim Goldberg, Untitled from new edition of Rich and Poor, published by Steidl, 2013


JG: That’s a good question. My studio is on Mission Street, literally, directly across from the spot where I made my first picture for Rich and Poor. So I am constantly looking out my window at the place that I began in San Francisco, which is probably part of the last “bad” “poor” stretch left in the Mission: between 16th and 18th Streets. The area is being gentrified at a ridiculous rate and this corner is the last holdout of the bad, old Mission where street people, transient hotels, prostitutes, crack deals, and other awful things are still happening.

I have walked Mission Street over many years, trying to find any trace of the people who were in Rich and Poor thirty years ago. I guess in a way the people outside my window today are like the ghosts of the people I once knew. Except now the economic conditions are even worse, and the wealth disparity is even greater than it was in 1985. Anyway, I see these people every day outside my studio and just thought I had to do something. I started talking to and following this junkie prostitute named Crystal; she was a mess, but a very sweet mess with a skull tattooed on her face. I was hoping to make a little film about her but then she disappeared. I then started talking to Robert, who was always on the corner panhandling. You could hardly understand what he was saying. He was just asking for money to buy crack but in a strange, sing-song kind of way.

As part of publicity for the publication of The Photographer’s Playbook (Aperture), I was given an assignment by Eric Carroll, my former studio manager, to photograph someone until he or she was sick of me, which he tells me I used to tell him to do. He gave me a taste of my own medicine I suppose. My daughter Ruby helped in the making the film. So what you are seeing on Vimeo is the video portrait of Robert that I made. In the exhibition it was accompanied by a collage of photographs I made of Robert, and on which he wrote his story.

MAD: I know you have to go soon, so a quick last question. In addition to your own projects such as Rich and Poor, Raised by Wolves, and more recent things, you are commissioned and hired to do editorial assignments for various publications.  One image in particular really intrigued me of the inside of a maximum security that has a panopticon design.  It is a relatively simple image, I am not saying it was simple to make, but it is very straightforward, yet it is such a powerful image in terms of what it evokes.  Can you talk a little bit about making that picture?

JG: The fact that it is a panopticon and that the prisoners are watched at every moment from a central point is central to the idea of total documentation. Doug Dubois and I made that picture together. We were both working in that prison at the same time. The photo is during a shift change: there is a guard in the watchtower that sends down a key on a string so prisoners can be let out to eat or go to the exercise yard. The photograph captures a quiet moment in a very raucous place. The connection between photography and the panopticon is of course a complex one, and permeates much of my work: and the idea of watching while also being watched, and internalizing an onlooker’s gaze. In some ways I try to do this; in other ways, as I said, I invert it, and try to show—despite the obvious surface that a photograph presents—both an internal and a subjective perspective.



Jim Goldberg and Doug Dubois, Stateville Prison, F House, Illinois, 2002.