When is a photobook not a photobook?
Not a riddle, but instead a way into a discussion of all those works containing sequential photos that aren’t actual books, with covers and pages and binding and such. Specifically this piece is a look at Jim Goldberg’s recently released boo … well, his not-a-book; instead a collection of forty-five 4-inch by 5-inch Polaroid or Polacolor prints on cards, comprising what we might call the Jim Goldberg Bootleg Series Vol. 2. I’m of course both making an allusion to Bob Dylan, whose authorized bootleg series is up to sixteen by my best count, and Goldberg’s own official “Bootleg” version of his book “Raised by Wolves,” from 2019 (the only way, as I understand, he could get the book back into print; rights are held by the first publisher).
The original “Raised by Wolves,” from 2007, is arguably Goldberg’s most essential book; and it’s no surprise he’s mined it for further work. “Fingerprint” is simply these forty-five cards in a lovely and disturbing aqua-and-black cardboard box, with a striking photo of a young man with an eye patch riding above his right eye as he uses three fingers to show Goldberg his face’s damage. The cover photo isn’t one of the cards in the book, but the boy, ZHodI, is, as he glares at Goldberg’s lens, the inscription “My black eyes from fight” written along the lower white frame of the card, crude arrows swooping up from the text to the eyes in question.
ZHodl and the other subjects of “Raised by Wolves” are deep in their subcultural world, and Goldberg is, too. Indeed, he’s a most original photo documentarian. To make his best books he immerses himself in a singular world—teenage street runaways in “Raised by Wolves,” the rich and the poor in, well, “Rich and Poor”—then stays longer and digs further than anybody else than, perhaps, Bruce Davidson in “East 100th Street” or Mary Ellen Mark. Unlike those two, Goldberg gets his subjects to write about themselves in their own handwriting, and works these sheets into the books. Hence we get this gutter-scrawl near-verse, “Born a wicked child / Raised by wolves / A screaming kamakazi / I never will crash,” which gives his earlier book its name. We also get the perfect-penmanship of the Rich section of “Rich and Poor,” revelations such as “This is an elegant photograph / My life is luxurious and my taste is refined. / I don’t worry about what people think of / me or my lifestyle. I am a nice person.” Both word excerpts are revealing, though obviously (and not wholly unexpectedly) there’s a lot more poetry in the writings in “Raised by Wolves”; that is, a lot more Verlaine and Rimbaud than smug country-club braggadocio.
That’s certainly one of Goldberg’s many gifts, the way he draws out his subjects and enlarges our understanding of them by their own words and snapshots of the objects they cherish, such as a favorite skateboard or a red-tape-wrapped broken-bat truncheon. (Yes, a truncheon; these kids don’t mess around.) In “Raised by Wolves” he also works in a personal diary, in which he tells us where he’s been, and recounts conversations there. “Wolves” especially is as multimedia as a photobook can be; and in truth, there’s nobody out there doing anything quite like what Goldberg does, going so deep and so wide.
Which is why it makes perfect sense to get this “Bootleg Series” release of more “Wolves” photos in the form of the 4 x 5 cards. The new work definitely mines rich material, and gives us a new and in some ways more immediate take on his teen subjects. Also, many of the cards are in vivid color, whereas the vast majority of shots in “Wolves” are in black and white. Many cards are straight-on portraits, sometimes with a name scrawled on the front, others with words on the back. Some are just photos (there’s one of a lonely guitar case by a civic pool), and yet every last one is fascinating. Like all of Goldberg’s photos, each is deeply revealing, of character, situation, and simple or elaborate doom. Some shots are manifestly startling. I’m thinking of the hand reaching down to pull a shiv from its holster next to a heavy black boot, and another card of a guy asleep on a mattress on the floor, his nickname Morbid inked below his written comment on his current state: “to drunk to fuck.”
Any way you take “Fingerprint” as a photobook it’s a powerful work. Yet of course it isn’t a book but a collection of repro Polaroids.
Which is just the way it should be. On my own shelves I have a small white box by the intrepid photobook maker Jason Jaworski called “Thinking of You” that’s full of cards. Next to it sits a bright-red mock Chinese cigarette pack with what looks like actual cigarettes inside, covering an array of photos capturing the importance of smoking at Chinese weddings, the brilliant “Until Death Do Us Part.” And on another shelf is Antony Cairns “LDN EI,” which repurposes an obsolete Kindle to show the full range of those ghostly LDN photos he’s taken for years, simply by swiping away.
My feeling? The more ways artists find to make photobooks that aren’t books, the better. The further we stretch the definition of the book, the better. And the more times any photographer can turn one artistic project into a wholly new and mindblowing one, the better.
So props to Jim Goldberg for “Fingerprint.” And a simple suggestion for what’s next for his guttersnipe cast of characters.
How about a musical?
I’m serious. As Broadway and the West End open up again, “Raised by Wolves” the musical would be the perfect next iteration of Goldberg’s masterpiece, “Rent” meets “Three-Penny Opera.”
I’d sure go see it. At least if the tunes and score were as rich and complex and deep as the Polaroids in this very special bootleg box.
Fingerprint by Jim Goldberg can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.