The photographer Jim Goldberg is well-known for his expansive toolbox of storytelling techniques, and his work is often heralded for new innovations in the documentary tradition. Goldberg often trains his lens on the types of subjects that other photographers ignore, and his work frequently dispels the misconceptions of people on the fringes of mainstream society. All the while, the photographer speaks in various visual voices in a multi-faceted form of storytelling that acknowledges the complexities of his subject matter. It is with these practices that Goldberg presents his latest body of work, Whirlpool.
Whirlpool is an extension of a larger project that Goldberg was originally commissioned to create for Atlanta’s High Museum of Art from a series of grants that urged photographers to explore the culture of the American South. The project brought him to Arkansas, a place where few photographers seem to venture in their quests for stories about American life. Goldberg’s work there culminated in a 30-ft wide black and white photo collage about the lives surrounding the Arkansas Delta that was exhibited at the High Museum, and which featured prints collaged together with words from the many different voices of people he encountered in his venture.
For his Obscura commission, Goldberg revisited Arkansas and, over the course of two weeks in February, produced a new series of images in Augusta, a small, working-class city that has faced a long and slow economic decline since the late 19th century. The photographer’s interests centered on local communities from church groups to boxing clubs, as he sought to unearth the richness of history, family, and culture while being attuned to the complex relationships the place has to struggling economics and attitudes toward race and class.
Throughout the 55 images of this collection, Goldberg takes us on a tour through Augusta. Portraits introduce us to its inhabitants, often accompanied by hand-written scrawls from the subjects themselves that allow them to tell fragments of their own stories. This follows in Goldberg’s decades-long commitment to eschew the typical dictatorial role that a photographer plays in defining their subjects, providing space for co-authorship to enrich the notion of storytelling through collaborative processes.
Whirlpool itself represents a cacophony of visual voices which range from strict, cold B&W renderings to colorful and emotionally warm portrayals of the city’s populace. In the photographs of Whirlpool we encounter pictures that speak with airy romance, but also crude realism. Pictures compete with one another for a supremacy of definition in the emotional, factual, and interpersonal perspectives that visitors may bring to this city with them.
While many photographers subscribe to the narrowly confined styles to illustrate purposefulness in their pictures, Goldberg’s practice reflects the complexity of his subject matter, and the hybridized image-forms that represent this project nod to the notion that documentary should not be conducted in a single voice, flattened by a particular aesthetic definition, but rather opened widely to demonstrate the contradictions that exist within any given place and within any given person as well. In sum, Whirlpool presents an orchestra of conflicting voices that reflect perhaps not what Jim Goldberg himself found in the town, but the biases and assumptions that we as viewers would likely bring had we gone there ourselves.
To view the full collection of Jim Goldberg’s Whirlpool drop:
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