Jim Goldberg's Nursing Home Series
Review and discussion
by Katherine Enos

It is the photograph of an old man. Lying on his side, head barely lifted from the pillow, this old man's mouth is agape, his tongue lolls forward, resting exposed upon his lower lip. His eyes are open, but his gaze is unfocused. This old man's arms are folded over his chest, each hand reaching to clutch at the withered flesh of bony sides. On his left wrist there is a hospital band: white, probably plastic-coated, with punched holes at equal intervals.

The viewer sees the image of old age, with all the attendant miseries that a youth-conscious society can project: senility, abandonment, sickness. And yet, although the notion signified by the picture is a familiar one, intimately known by young and old alike in American culture, the photograph lacks the eloquence of the crooked, arduously scrawled words below:

I was handsome
I had a stroke
I lie here all day long
Listening to voices squeaking
I am fed up with my ailments
I am through with this world
I want to go to a happy place

The photographer is Jim Goldberg, the work a seven-month (1985) study of the occupants of the Neville Manor nursing home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time I wrote this essay, Goldberg's "Nursing Home Series" was on exhibit at the Matrix Gallery of the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California.

Jim Goldberg's style is not located in the photographic image per se; rather it is found in the complicity with which the photographer enables his subjects to claim the portraits, change their meanings, with whatever words they choose to pen below:

This is me.
The Administrator of Neville Manor Nursing Home.
As Administrator I assure that the needs of the patients are met and the quality of their lives are maintained at their highest level.
I'm proud of nursing homes but its older peoples last resort.
Most people can't face dying but its part of the business of who we are.

                — Mr. McDonald

I look horrid
My son always looks good,
Even my husband looks good
My son cannot have me
My husband is happy that I am here.
My family can't take care of me.
I worked my whole life to have a home, and family and now I don't have anything.

                — Margaret Thompson

This is a big picture.
I like it
I am hidden away in my room with a sickness
Time goes by slow
No one notices me
I'm an invisible person
I'm all gone.
I'm all gone.

                — John Mallon

In its concern with private lives and social issues, Goldberg's apparent documentary work might seem at first glance to rest rather uneasily against these white museum walls, not far from the sepia-toned prints of the early photographer Atget, the paintings of Hans Hoffman. However, it is the very qualities of Goldberg's work which make it seem most questionable as an "artistic" proposition which add to its validity as postmodern expression.

By the 1950s, the camera image had acquired a degree of acceptance in museum spaces, particularly in France; however, photography has not generally been highly esteemed in "mainstream" modernist circles. In his 1859 Salon Review, Baudelaire maligned the camera with a virulent and cutting sarcasm, considering it the downfall of artists who did not know better than to try to merge the diametrically opposed realms of art and science. From a single silver halide image, hundreds of apparently identical prints could be created — the work of many artists over many lifetimes — seemingly without effort. The camera suggested the existence of a single visual reality, escapable to the eye, but caught swiftly and rendered in scientific exactitude by the machine. Some argued that the camera would make painting obsolete, many still do argue that it necessitated the rise of modernist abstraction.

If the aesthetic of the camera seemed, even deceptively, to capture once and for all the reality which painters had sought for centuries, the aesthetic of the new, modern abstract art sought to defy the limitations of cultural context; indeed, to ignore them altogether.

1. Habermas, Jurgen. Modernity —
An Incomplete Project,
in "The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture." Edited and with an introduction by Hal Foster. 1983, Bay Press, Port Townsend, Washington.
In his essay, Modernity — An Incomplete Project, Jurgen Habermas spoke of a "radicalized consciousness of modernity which freed itself from all specific historical ties."1 Abandoning the realist aesthetic, the modernist artist toyed with the notion of having escaped the smallness of regional values, the heavy anchor of tradition. S/he searched instead for an aesthetic transcending localism, cutting across cultural boundaries. The modernist artist, according to Clement Greeberg, understood the distinction between the "kitsch" which endeared itself to the artistically illiterate, and the pure language of formalism understood by the educate and devoted few.

Postmodernism is an act of reclaiming, a transgressing of modernist standards of purity to reinvigorate a sterile art with local codes, positing it once again as a product of a dialetic with cultural life. A neo-conservative viewpoint may argue that the work which goes against the grain of modernism, a work which seeks postmodernity, must oppose unrooted abstraction with a representational statement. This is thought to be the benefit of the camera as a medium for postmodern expression. The notion of representation is, however, highly problematic since it often assumes a single shared reality.

If one seeks to return to art its regional roots, it is necessary to acknowledge a diversity of visions. Thus, although the photograph does not necessarily depict "reality," its value as a device for postmodern expression lies in its apparent accessibility — that which is secured through its representational aspect. However, Goldberg and other photographers of the postmodern spirit have an interest which goes much further than an apparent accessibility.

2. Leverant, Robert. "Ontology of the Snapshot," in Photography and Language, edited by Lew Thomas. 1979, NFS Press, San Francisco, Caliornia.
Every time a shutter is triggered and an image results, a fiction is created. Something is separated from its sources and surroundings, from the stream of life.

When this image is of an identifiable object, an illusion results, both from this separation and from the image being placed in a different context.2

With the rapidly increasing technological prowess of the 20th century, there has emerged an awareness that what is seen does not necessarily coincide with what is true. Kindled in the mind is the notion that what is seen can, in fact, have variety of meanings depending upon a range of factors, including the cultural and individual background of the viewer and the context in which an image is placed. Recognizing such issues, many linguists and visual artists developed an intense interest in semiotics, the "science" of signs and signification. Additionally, the increasing pace of technology and its abilities to replicate and simulate have elicited worry over the impact of the sheer numbers of images which wash over society without benefit of the cultural anchor of context. Some critics, including Susan Sontag and John Berger, have suggested that words can frame a photograph, provide it with that necessary context. But then, whose words will do the framing? And to what purpose? Jim Goldberg answers this question not by framing the photos with his own sympathetic descriptions of the sufferings of the elders of the Neville home, a description which, at best, might evoke from the viewer a quickly forgotten twinge of sorrow. Instead, Goldberg simply relinquishes the power to provide the meaning with his own words altogether. The postmodernist seeks to anchor art in a context, in local codes. By allowing individual subjects to write on their own photographs, Goldberg gives them the power to retrieve their images from an impersonalized subject "image bank," and to posit them in a context of personal histories and regional ties.




3. Fab 5 Fred, a graffiti artist known for having painted a train with a soup can motif after the Warhol vision, quoted in "Graffiti in Well-Lighted Rooms," an essay in Suzi Gablik's Has Modernism Failed? p. 113.
Goldberg's work is inadequately described as "black and white photographs." I would propose, rather, that it is a multi-media project. Silver-halide images are but a single component of the compositions. Goldberg's work extends beyond the darkroom, his compositions have a distinctly textual feeling. This is evident in the presentation of the works: although a photographer will, for archival purposes, allow a significant amount of white photo paper space to frame an exposed image, the amount of vacant space left by Goldberg for the text of his subjects to occupy, in many cases far exceeds the space alloted for the black and white print. Moreover, the text is not at all the formalized sort of caption that a mainstream "gallery-worthy" image would bear. The verbal text of the works is always in the personal handwriting of the subject. This handwriting lends what is truly an outside aesthetic to Goldberg's vision: the "vandalism aesthetic" of graffiti.3

Suzi Gablik discusses the rise of graffiti in modernity in her book, Has Modernism Failed. She considers graffiti an aesthetic seeking to undermine the bland "international" style, a style which discarded what was regional and therefore more immediately accessible to the lay person. She suggests that graffiti is the appropriation of private property — a criminality which New York's Mayor Koch attempted to deter by deploying attack dogs in subway train yards at night. I would contend that not only is graffiti appropriation — a reclaiming of power from an international style which has deprived many of a more personal and intimate culture — but it is in essence a forced recoding of an elitist style so that its object assumes, or "wears," a local meaning. It is this aspect of recoding which Goldberg's work begins to achieve.

A photograph can inhabit an image world as impersonal as the shots of homicide victims routinely filed away in police files. Or it can be intimately related as the framed photograph of a loved one resting atop a mantlepiece. Goldberg's notion of a subject's own scrawl on a photograph lends each image a rare and radical intimacy not afforded by the classic, fracturing vision of a master such as Edward Weston. Through this device, the subjects of Goldberg's study retain their individuality, they reclaim their lives and are able to articulate opinions which contrast with society's jaded notions of what old age must be. Such a photograph can be appreciated by a lay person for its depiction of a personal moment in time, while retaining an ability to communicate on a critical level its theoretical deviation from the modernist norm.

An interesting aspect of this exhibit is that within its scope, subjects were able to offer comentary on the perceived truthfulness or falsity of the camera's depiction:

I try to be a good person but there is nothing to be good about
This is probably an accurate picture of me as I am.

This picture stinks
I come out lousy
I am more attractive

We look like we are friends
I never talk to him
We have nothing to say
There is nothing to say
We aren't like this picture.

In this manner, Goldberg allows the work to address the needs and responses of the subjects as well.

The presentation of Nursing Home Series at the University Art Museum was also, as I discovered in a brief conversation with the curator, deliberately geared to enhance the communicative strength of the photographs. The approximately forty prints of varying dimensions were hung in a highly informal manner: no framing and only push-pin supports. According to the curator, it was Goldberg's hope that this would create a feeling of "immediacy" for the viewer. This sort of aim is directly in opposition to formalist tenets which would have every art work hung in such a way so as to proclaim itself as "art," creating for itself a detached and cool distance from the viewer.

Jim Goldberg's work is a strong expression of postmodern sentiment in its unflagging interest in social issues and its communicative intent. Presented by the Nursing Home Series is a strong statement against modernist "purity," particularly that sentiment which came in the course of this century to condone the presence of the photographic image within a museum space — but only if suspended aloof from the social/cultural context which engendered its creation. Goldberg's "multi-media" composition technique integrates verbal text — graffiti — with visual image, in an effort both to anchor individual images in a cultural and historical context, and to allow broader participation from audience and subject. By the adoption of such methods, Goldberg works consistently towards a double-coding which provides a multiplicity of meanings depending on audience background and interests.end


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