In early 2021, Stanley/Barker announced Jim Goldberg‘s Fingerprint, a collection of polaroids from Goldberg’s Raised by Wolves project. At the time, as regards photobooks, I was in mindless ‘Buy It Now’ mode, but somehow missed out on the first printing. (They sold out in 5 days.) Stanley/Barker announced a second printing in March and I jumped on that one. When it arrived, I realized that I probably needed to know something about the project these images came from, for context and review purposes, and after some days repeatedly refreshing bookfinder, I found a beat up copy of Raised by Wolves from the Richmond Public Library for less than 1/4 of the going rate.
Raised by Wolves is one of those books you hear about every now and again. I know I heard mention of it maybe twice a year since I started looking at photobooks and thinking about photography. Since it arrived, @swerdnaekalb mentioned the book multiple times on his Instagram (once during his thumbnail review of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, in which he called out my aborted review of Kurland’s book). I brought all this up in my recent review of Ross McDonnell’s Joyrider, where I made some comparisons to RBW, and so decided it was time to actually sit down and really look at Goldberg’s seminal work.
Goldberg made the photographs and documented the interviews over an 11 year period, 1985-1995, mostly in California. There are as many pages of interviews and Goldberg’s comments as there are pages of photographs… not really. I guess text is only maybe 40 pages, plus all the photographs of handwritten notes and things. And, anyway, it’s all worth reading. The photographs and text basically follow two “main” figures, Echo and Tweeky Dave, and their shifting group of friends and acquaintances, as they grow up on the California streets, from Hollywood up to SanFran and back. There are digressions and sidesteps to speak with social workers, police, doctors, parents and siblings, but these are ancillary and provide some context, alternate versions of events. It’s not a particularly happy or wholesome adolescence: there’s loads of drug use, some prostitution, and the kids slowly deteriorate over the course of the book. Yet there’s something very romantic about the whole thing, the whole arc of it.
Echo does emerge. After some rehab, she re-becomes “Beth,” now the mother of two girls and living back near her family on the East Coast. She and Goldberg remain in contact, or did as of 2013 when she appeared in a Skype chat to read her part of an exchange that appears in the first pages of RBW with Goldberg at Kadist, and in a 2020 interview, Goldberg says he hired Beth to act as a gallery guide for a major installation of the work. Tweeky Dave, on the other hand, becomes daytime talk show fodder, appearing on Springer a couple of times and many many others, decaying all the while, and dies after a life-long battle with his liver. Commenters on YouTube call him a “Hollywood Legend” and a “really good guy,” and he seems like it, even if he was a hardcore drug addict and self-confessed liar… In the interview linked above, Goldberg refers to Dave as “an angel in junkie form.”
Anyway, no spoilers.
If you hunt around a bit, there’s also a sort of mid-period video of Echo and Tweeky Dave at Carl’s Jr., where Dave is Dave, and Echo is a bit surly and probably coming off of a long tweek and starting to jones. In the first minutes of this, I decided I didn’t much like Echo; as the video went on, I recognized her completely, came to understand, and I wonder if Beth ever watches herself, the way she acts. If there was video of me acting like that, I wouldn’t, but, then again, if there was video of me and, say, Mr. Blonde hanging out together and Mr. Blonde was dead… I don’t know. I lost track of her a long time ago, and occasionally come across photos of her in my archive and reminisce, but then, too, my friendship with Mr. Blonde was something different than what Echo and Dave shared. Goldberg also shares some video of Tweeky Dave having cigarettes and burgers, also at a Carl’s Jr, and a three channel video of Echo as a child, with her mother’s words from the book appearing over top. I suspect these are part of the exhibition version of RBW, which I hope has a revival at some point that I hear about and find a way to go and see.
I think Goldberg is, primarily, an installation artist. If he makes photographs, and he does so, and very well, they’re only in service of the installation, which includes written text, objects, archival documents and photographs, video, and whatever else Goldberg wants to put in. Distilling all this into a book isn’t easy, and in laying out the book—he mentions as much in an interview with David Campany—Goldberg looked to the master, Robert Frank, whose The Americans served as a model in some ways. First, the easy way: Frank divided his book into chapters denoted by an American flag; Goldberg divides RBW similarly, with big two page spreads of objects on a white ground: Dave’s jacket, a skateboard, a pillow, a photograph and envelope with “I miss you” written on it, a broken baseball bat turned into homemade weapon, Echo’s Cheap Trick t-shirt. Looking at the pictures and the text, these sorta translate to clear demarcations and long-time readers won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t pick up on this chapter thing on my own.
The first two page spread in the book, excluding the TV snow endpapers, is a view of a suburban home as through binoculars. This acts as a sort of introduction, and the earliest words come from Echo’s mom and help focus in on the story. Dave’s jacket, the first object-on-white-ground spread, heads up a chapter that introduces many of the kids, welcomes readers into the world. The skateboard, pillow, and “miss you” photo demarcate sections that cover what the kids do day to day, where they sleep/find shelter, and the holes they fall into. The bat/weapon, then is the crash, where all the trouble comes, the hard-core addiction, jail sentences, etc.; and Echo’s t-shirt is the coda, where the main threads close out.
Again, no spoilers.
I picked up the narrative arc easily in my first looks through the book, and finding out about the chapter markers didn’t really add a ton, but it is sorta interesting. Goldberg’s project, his push, expansion of the documentary form is the more important link to Frank, and it really broke the whole thing wide open.
If Frank’s The Americans was the first to clearly insert subjectivity into the documentary form, Raised by Wolves adds something else, a fictional aspect, insofar as Goldberg largely accepts the outright lies told by the kids, and in that he moved some bits around, rearranged, reordered some bits. The epigram, after all, is a Tweeky Dave quote: “Damn, girl, it’s only a story. It’s not real. And don’t worry, there is a happy ending.”*
So while RBW really is a document of these kids, what they got up to, where they got up to it, and how they went about it, it’s also partial, rearranged, taken out of context, romanticized, subjective, and, really, RBW is as much about Goldberg’s making of the project as it is about the kids. Early on he frets about it, seeks Echo’s counsel on how to organize the project, how to make it flow.
Jim: … I’ve been sort of stressing about my book. Where to start?Goldberg, Jim. Raised by Wolves. Scalo, Zurich, 1995. p. 28
Echo: Begin at the beginning.
Jim: Do I begin with tweezers or normal suburban kids? Right now it’s on abuse and neglect. But I don’t want to make this a straight documentary. I don’t think normal kids are that normal.
Echo: Look, you have this Cosby-type show that people think is going on. Then you have this horrible family, where people think abused kids are coming from. And then you have this stuff in the middle, which is where most people are. I’m trying to think of how you can get the middle part into it. Show little parts of the perfect family, and then show the horrible nightmare. Maybe use it as a basis, so people will be more open to seeing the problems with the average kid. There’s a kind of despair that kills the little innocence that kids are supposed to have.
Then, much later in the book, near the end of the story, Goldberg buys some coffee and fries with a side of blue cheese dressing for Dave.
Dave has no teeth so he sticks his fingers into the bowl of blue cheese dressing, leaving the fries for me. I show Dave the dummy for my book. He reads every bit of writing, looks at every picture, and asks no questions. When he’s done, he wipes his hands on the book.
Dave: Dude, sometimes remembering is much more fun than livin’ any reality of today. Gotta go, Jim. There’s this new little Deadhead chick who just rolled into town, and she’s promising to get me high.ibid. p. 304
Goldberg was in his thirties, I think, for much of the time he worked on RBW. He already had a well-regarded project, Rich & Poor, behind him, so he had some idea how to build a successful project. And it’s important to note the close, mutual friendship he formed with he kids. Not only did he give them rides and food and all, he and his wife put at least one up in their home for awhile, he sought counsel from them, and he stays in touch with at least some of them. It’s a far cry from a Geographic story or something. And while this way of working has its detractors, has some pitfalls, I respect it, and Raised by Wolves is a triumph.
Now to my more personal remarks… if you want to skip to the end, here’s my short answer.
Looking through the book, I felt like I somehow recognized most of these kids, and watching the video of Dave and Echo, I know them. (Should you watch it, Echo is surly for the first half and doesn’t want to be there getting filmed, but she sticks around for nearly a half hour—probably more: she and Dave smoke a pack of cigarettes—and really starts talking later. Also note that the subtitles don’t match what Echo and Dave say.) I grew up with or at least adjacent to kids very much like them. I ran around with a bunch of punks, anti-racist skinheads, ska kids and the like. Many of my friends ran away at least a time or two and many had periods of hard drug addiction, though the group was, in the main, straight-edge and mostly suburban. But still, I recognize the drawn and painted denim and leather jackets, the punk hairdos and jewelry, the general style and all, plus the laissez-faire, devil-may-care attitude. And some of the shifting cast I grew up with moved to North Texas from California or elsewhere, some to escape the things they were into wherever they came from, and still carrying the baggage they brought with them, and we spent some time sharing each others’ loads. My mom was great and super chill (and often out of town for weeks on end), and a few runaways pretty much lived in the guest room for months at a time. I like to think we maybe saved a few lives, or at least kept a few people warm and dry and fed and unmolested for a time.
Overall, though, I was a total poser, mostly just visiting, on holiday. I feel a sort of knot in my gut in looking at RBW and thinking about that time in my life. I mean, I was there. I was there and living as authentically as I knew how at the time. I had some youthful romanticism that I’ve partially grown out of and about which feel no shame, and, really, I was only ever a visitor. And herein lies my discomfort. I wanted to be like Dave; I’d like to claim I was more like Echo. But, really, I was always Wheatberry and Romeo, “trying to smoke cigarettes in order to look older… just weekend warriors….” (ibid, 56) I always had an easy out. And I took it in 2003, jumped ship with Mommy’s help and went (back) to school, first to the University of Illinois at Springfield, then at Stony Brook University with the idea of never returning to Texas. Upon return, thankfully, most of my cohort had dissipated and had largely forgotten me. I met some new friends and, slowly but surely, got out of some of the bad habits I carried from my youth.
Many of my friends, like the kids in Raised by Wolves, didn’t have such a luxury. My shame lies in repeated and ongoing failures to recognize my own privilege. I might feel some empathy, I might feel some bonhomie with Echo and Tweeky Dave, Blade, Tank, Marcos, River, and them, much like that I feel with Case, Sarah, Jason, and them, especially those who I’ve left out and those whose names I’ve forgotten: I can see you, your house, your clothes and gait and remember your laugh… how could I forget your name? And whatever I feel, for whoever I feel it, is all colored by my privilege, the relative ease with which I just walked away from it all. May Allah guide me to be grateful. I’m crying just thinking about it.
Anyway. The short answer: looking at Raised by Wolves I feel like I’m reading about friends, and, from where I sit now, sorta uncomfortably twisted in an office chair in my beautiful house with my beautiful wife, there’s nothing romantic or laudatory about the life they had or the things they got up to. There’s just the humanity of it all. I think that’s what Goldberg was after. The kids in RBW were maligned and distorted, passed over, cast aside, and with this book, they’ve become, if not immortal, then at least memorialized with all their very human and common flaws and beauty intact.
Very very highly, highly, recommended, if you can find it for a good price…
David Campany interviewed Goldberg about the project at Paris Photo back in 2020 and it’s well worth a watch. Goldberg apparently has a retrospective planned in the next few years (he says “3 years” in the interview, but with the pandemic, who knows). Keep an eye out. His work is something straddling the line between documentary and fiction, and if you’re interested in long-form narrative work, Goldberg’s oeuvre is do-not-miss.
Ok. Ok… It occurs to me that this “review,” if one can even call it that, is quite the navel-gazing bit of blather. I would apologize, but, well, this is my self-hosted blog and I paid for the book myself.** And, anyway, if you’re here, reading my reviews, you might already expect some navel-gazing blather. These aren’t your Aperture or BJP or Collector Daily or Conscientious reviews. These are James Cockroft reviews. If I wanted to write like, for example, Sarah Wichlacz, whose review in ASX is perhaps overly wide ranging, yet still quite excellent, I could probably write for ASX and maybe more people would read my stuff. Charlie Fox’s review in Paris Review, is even better, and if I wrote like that, I’d probably get paid for it (and I sincerely hope Fox did). And, but OH! if I had the gall and vim/vigor and, erm, wisdom to write like Hank Burchard, I too might have a hard-hitting, vitriolic review of the exhibition version of Raised by Wolves in The Washington Post. But I write like me and if you’re here reading all this, then maybe you don’t mind. Thanks!
* Goldberg, Jim. Raised by Wolves. Scalo, Zurich, 1995. printed on opening endpaper.
**If you’d like to change that, if you’d like to contribute at all, I recently opened a Ko-Fi… link way down in the footer where no one will ever see it, and any support will be deeply validating. And don’t worry: I probably won’t mention this too often.