Like Raised by Wolves (1995), his compelling, alarming, and fiercely engaged portrait of the young and the desperate, Jim Goldberg’s new book looks like a work in progress, as hectic as it is considered. But where Wolves took as its subject a vivid cast of West Coast runaways, The Last Son (Super Labo) is an autobiography – or, since it cuts off abruptly in 1975, the seed of one. Presented in the form of a maquette pasted up with typewritten texts, handwritten notes, frames from home movies, and contact-sheet photographs marked with grease pencil, Son is rough and fragmentary, less a narrative than a series of memories, incidents, and impressions.
In a conversation with Joel Sternfeld in the oversize magazine Let’s Panic #3, Goldberg calls the book “a coming-of-age story,” and a good part of it describes an unhappy adolescence in New Haven, Connecticut, with ill and distracted parents. He’d fight with them every night at the dinner table, and storm off: “My room was painted black. I wanted to get laid.” He tells Sternfeld that “being a teenager was terrifying.” By the time he graduated high school, he’d run away three times, but never very far or for very long, so his first real forays away from home, camera in hand, were liberating: “I photographed anyone and anything.” The results, scattered across the book’s pages, are raw but never detached; like Arbus and Winogrand, Goldberg was endlessly curious and hungry for the world. Most of the work here was made on the street, but while he was in college in Bellingham, Washington, he photographed the tenants in a cheap rooming house. Taking their pictures and listening to their stories must have whet his appetite for the sort of first-person authenticity he later mined for his breakthrough book, Rich and Poor (1985), but Goldberg doesn’t look to the future here. Instead, he inhabits the past and all its muddled starts and stops, including his attempts to break through to his parents. “I wished I could tell them about what was really going on,” he writes of his weekly calls home from Bellingham. “My girlfriend beating her head against the wall because we had broken up, the fabulous Fellini movie I had seen, the bad mushroom trip….” Talking with Sternfeld, he describes himself “riffing on the traditional documentary form,” but because all those undisclosed experiences (the distraught girlfriend, the bad trip) have seeped into the work, it’s as far from traditional documentary as it is from conventional memoir – and much the better for it.
Richard Renaldi’s Manhattan Sunday (Aperture) closes with a memoir that puts his pictures of New York nightlife in personal perspective. Ever since his fourth-grade teacher taught the class how to do the Hustle, Renaldi has been looking for ways to put his skills to use. He moved to New York in 1986 to attend NYU, but the city’s bars and clubs (Pyramid, Palladium, Sound Factory) provided another sort of education. He became one of the “muscle boys,” dancing until dawn with his shirt off and appreciating the fact that “the lines around race, gender, and sexuality have always been more fluid inside nightclubs.” His book celebrates that fluidity and freedom in a series of portraits and landscapes made in the course of long nights out and many mornings after. Captioned only with the time they were taken, his pictures begin in a frenzy but are strongest in its aftermath, when people find themselves, coupled or alone, on the streets in flattering, lambent, early morning light. Even when his subjects aren’t dressed to impress, Renaldi’s pictures are great fashion photographs, but they’re also wonderfully warm and understanding portraits. These aren’t just creatures of the night, they’re brothers and sisters: extended family.
NOTE: La France D’Avedon, reviewed in the January/February column, has been released in an English edition by Abrams under the title Avedon’s France: Old World, New Look, giving those of us who struggle with French a wealth of new material to savor. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a letter Avedon wrote to Truman Capote in 1958, when the writer was working on his text for Observations: “I’m very lucky to have found photography as I am inarticulate in every way but with a camera. With a Rolleiflex I can say everything I feel. There isn’t a picture in the book that isn’t an expression of a feeling or an opinion.”