In my last review for Photobookstore Magazine, I talked about autobiography in photobooks, how all photobooks in a way chart a photographer’s life, since he or she physically takes the pictures, but how an actual autobiographical photobook is rare, because it demands an intention to deeply examine one’s own life, then to tell that story, and well. I also talked about the specific problem of photobook autobiography: Because the photographer is taking the picture, he or she can’t usually be in the photo. (I don’t think of Lee Friedlander’s Self-Portrait as a genuine autobiography, more just his having fun snapping his shadow.) In a photobook of autobiographical intent there’s an inevitable reflected quality: This is my story because I’m taking the pictures of a story around me that matters.
Well, now we have Jim Goldberg’s The Last Son, the inimitable photobook maker’s own story that really is his own story.
We know Goldberg’s style, from 1995’s Raised by Wolves to 2013’s redo of Rich and Poor. (Actually, 2016 brought us a repurposed version of Raised by Wolves, done in the form of Xeroxed pages, as the book was first designed, and in the street spirit of the kids who populated it, especially Tweeky Dave.) Goldberg takes deeply personal photos of folks willing to tell their stories, souls wealthy, impoverished, feral, and then lets them scribble essential messages about themselves near their portraits. He also collages a lot, throwing in, in Raised by Wolves, random found snapshots, film strips of a snowy-screened TV, even a Carl’s Jr. advertisement backed by a long personal confession by one of his street urchins. He’s an anthropologist of sorts, printing in set type long interviews with his subjects.
Turn the page on a Goldberg masterwork, you don’t know what you’re going to find: the bottom of a well-decorated skateboard, a letter from a physician throwing up his hands at the unresponsiveness of one street kid, a map with felt-tip-pen markings of where one of the subjects had been.
And always brilliant, raw, revealing photographs taken by Goldberg of at least Danny Lyons intensity: A boy with a throw-away needle between his teeth. The most squalid of crash pads. A gun barrel used as a pointer finger.
Raised by Wolves, in particular, reads like the most complex and powerful of social-realist novels. The stark, powerful photos tell stories, but the added subject comments, interviews, and the unexpected visual leaps (don’t forget the open drawer with stilettos and a pistol among a lot of rechargeable batteries; the childish pen drawing by Ronda of “Daddy fucking me”) that twist and turn the story, making it nearly inexhaustible. This is an incomparably rich book.
And now, in The Last Son, Goldberg directly tells his own story. (It’s the second of three autobiographical works with the estimable Japanese bookmaker Super Labo.)
The Goldberg style I’ve painstakingly catalogued above applies fully in The Last Son. There are a lot of self-taken shots, but since this is an out-and-out autobiography, there are also numerous historical Kodak snaps; a personal history typed out on cut-up slips of paper; contact-sheet shots marked up with yellow and red grease pencil; random-seeming, nonidentified portraits; a running motif of big white circles taken from sprockets of old home movies; even a full-bleed color spread of a huge gas-guzzler outside a farmhouse, the whole photo chemically damaged, those white circles strewn about, the image itself almost melted away.
As expected with Jim Goldberg, surprises on every page.
But at bottom Goldberg is telling his personal story, as clearly as he can, and pretty much chronologically. This is a book you can—and should—read straight through from beginning to end.
We open with the family: labeled photos of Dad, Brother, Mother, Sister, Me. We then get a typescript explanation of Goldberg’s place in the family: “I was always told the story that the reason I was born so long after my brother and sister was because my mother refused to have another child until there was an extra bathroom in the house…. I don’t think that this story was true.” (Indeed, elsewhere Goldberg talks about feeling unwanted, a mistake.)
But think about the prose. It’s a huge strength of the book. The writing is perfectly straightforward, the history is clear, and Goldberg wryly tells us just what we need to know to understand his life.
Of course Goldberg didn’t become a writer but instead a photographer (initially, as he tells us, to get into special places and to pick up girls)—and he is a photographer—so it feels right that lot of his story is comprised of shots he’s taken, either one per page or in clusters throughout the book. We’re not always able to discern the meaning of these photos to his own personal life, other than that he took them—and that they’re strong, revealing shots—but his storyline is always clear because he quickly returns to those typed slips of paper telling us what happened to him next.
An overall theme develops: To become who he was fated to be, Goldberg “photographed everything and anything.”
What specifically does this mean? Well, one rainy afternoon he follows an old man who reminds him of his father to Georgia’s Rooming House, a fleabag joint in Bellingham, Washington. There he goes door to door, introducing himself, and for months gets involved with the rooming house denizens—and of course takes their pictures. It’s implied that this is where his singular photographic practice begins: Put himself in a strange demi-world and record, in photos and interviews, just what goes on.
He was also a good son, and in the way of the book, we make a leap from one theme to another by a page of photos, followed by a written explanation. So we get a page of sunny snaps of what we can guess are his parents on vacation. The slips of paper on the next page tell us it’s a trip to Florida to check the state out as a retirement move. His father’s health is deteriorating. “Jimmy” is pained but has his own troubles, “an ex-girlfriend beating her head against the wall because we had broken up,” “a bad mushroom trip.”
He does have his photography, though, and in 1974 moves to Philadelphia to be with a photographer he’d met, John Bundsen, who turns out to be “less the mentor I had hoped for and more just a sad alcoholic.” Still, “the good part was I could go out during those winter days happy to wander and take pictures.”
Always taking photos. It’s an astonishment to me how, in my own work, taking photos, especially stumbling upon a good one, can redeem the day. My guess is that Goldberg knows this truth more than most.
Back to his story.
On to California in early 1974, crashing with a friend in Santa Monica. There’s a fascinating handwritten sheet of what Goldberg saw his first month there, including: “the special quality of light,” “Chandra the tantric dancer,” “the Santa Monica Blvd. bus stop,” “a very drunk man who threw up on me,” and “ ‘luck in the air.’ ”
Goldberg was ambitious; he was determined to photograph the nascent glam scene at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. He finally gets invited to shoot there but doesn’t have a flash. In a hilarious passage he tells us about hitching to Westwood to pick up a rig, getting picked up by a guy named Mark, who takes him home, gives him a joint laced with angel dust, comes on to him. Goldberg somehow makes it out but ends up at the English Disco with a too bright strobe and very little film. For his troubles he does get a picture of an epicene dude in sunglasses flipping him off. Maybe not so much luck in the air that day.
On to 1975, Goldberg calling his folks, now in Florida. All seems well. He’s going to go to school and study photography. Then his father says, “Let’s tell Jim the good news.”
Jim: “Good news?”
And that’s it, the book’s perfect inscrutable ending, except for a couple shots of his aging parents and a full page filled with a Bazooka bubblegum wrapper.
Overall, The Last Son is an astonishment. You can curl up with it, read it like a book; indeed, I’d call it simply “a good read.” The story it tells, Goldberg’s coming of age, is plainly told and engrossing in its forthright honesty, and yet … this is a serious photobook. The photos don’t just illustrate his life (though they do some of that, too) but enlarge upon it. The editing is inspired. Not a bad shot in the book, and with every one, if we can’t immediately place who or what it’s about, we inevitably wonder how it fits into Goldberg’s story—who is this, why do we care, why put this shot into the book, what does it mean?
Answers hover but never fully resolve. Goldberg has found inspired, original ways to blend words and images. The photos make this autobiography a meta-experience. It’s Goldberg’s life … but much larger than that, too.
The Last Son by Jim Goldberg is available here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here and his latest book here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.