Some people just graze the surface of life. They never really take root, and stand poised to disappear at a moment's notice--they're just passing through. This is the tribe that populates "Raised by Wolves," a body of photographs by Bay Area artist Jim Goldberg that opened this weekat the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A project 10 years in the works that was published as a book in 1995, "Raised by Wolves" chronicles the downward spiral of a handful of runaway kids who frequent Hollywood Boulevard and San Francisco's Haight Street. A documentarian in the tradition of Robert Frank and Larry Clark, Goldberg has an unflinching eye, and his pictures of children shooting up, having sex and sleeping in abandoned buildings don't make for easy viewing.
First seen in 1995 in exhibitions in Zurich, Switzerland, and at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, "Raised by Wolves" pushes the boundaries of photography in both approach and presentation. The cropping, framing and focus of Goldberg's pictures are in a constant state of flux, and there's a palpable sense of motion to the structure he's developed. Installing his pictures so as to create a kind of cinematic flow, he intercuts photo images that range from small Polaroids to a 4-by-8-foot photomural, with text, video and souvenirs scavenged from the street; a dirty denim jacket covered with ballpoint-pen inscriptions; a skateboard; a baseball bat transformed into a crude weapon.
Reflecting on what moved him to embark on the project, the 43-year-old photographer recalls, "I had a teenage relative who was having trouble at home, and seeing how the family dealt with it reminded me of how emotionally and hormonally difficult my own adolescence was. I decided I wanted to do something on so-called 'bad kids,' but I wasn't sure what the project would be. Initially the plan was to photograph in juvenile hall, but I couldn't get the clearances I needed, so I started taking pictures in the street.
"It took a few years of learning the rules of the street before I could develop the relationships that are central to the work--I felt completely safe out there too, because the kids I knew protected me," says Goldberg, who's still in contact with some of the people featured in the book.
"Part of blending in was making myself completely available to the kids, and the project invaded my life and took a tremendous toll on me and my family," says Goldberg, who has a 4-year-old daughter with his wife of seven years. "In the beginning I could be on the street then go home and watch TV like everybody else, but the more time I spent out there, the more the divisions began to blur.
"When I began the project I didn't realize this was the end of the line for many of these kids, but I learned how hard it is for them to change," he adds. "The smallest change is hard for all of us, so imagine if you'd been living on the street. It's easy for these kids to see themselves as failures: They haven't been in school, and lots of them prostitute themselves to get by, so it's hard to go back to normal life--particularly since there are things they like about that life. There's no curfew, they do what they want, and they're surrounded by people who love them in a way their families couldn't."
Born in New Haven, Conn., the youngest of three children of wholesale candy distributors, Goldberg says, "I wasn't exposed to much culture when I was growing up, and when I went to Hofstra University in New York in 1971 I enrolled as a theology major. Then the following year I took a photography class and my mind expanded to other possibilities--I became obsessed with photography is what happened," he adds with a laugh.
Moving to San Francisco in 1977, Goldberg set to work on his first major project, "Rich and Poor," a series of portraits of poor and wealthy people accompanied by their own handwritten statements. It was published as a book in 1985, and Goldberg spent the next two years photographing the Army in San Francisco and shooting pictures for a series on nursing homes.
In 1987, "Raised by Wolves" began to take over his life, and it wasn't until 1992 that he emerged from the project enough to set his sights elsewhere. One of five artists invited to collaborate on "Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry," a book and touring exhibition exploring the American hospice movement, Goldberg has a selection of images from that series on view through May 1 at the San Jose Museum.
"Raised by Wolves," however, continues to figure prominently in his life. Goldberg's narrative winds to a close with his two central characters taking divergent paths--one dies, and the other finally gets off the street, lands a job and settles down to raise the two baby girls she's given birth to.