Jim Goldberg, Fingerprint

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Stanley/Barker (here). Silkscreened box (12×15 cm) with 45 loose leaf facsimile prints, each roughly 10 x 12.5 cm. There are no essays or texts included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Due to minor production hiccups, the time between my pre-order of Jim Goldberg’s Fingerprint and its delivery stretched to three months. During this period, I had plenty of time to wonder what it might look like. Clearly it would not be a traditional monograph, but what exactly was it? Stanley/Barker’s description was clear enough—“45 loose leaf facsimile Polaroids”—but I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around it. One of the defining features of a Polaroid is that, like a Daguerreotype or tintype, it is a one-of-a-kind object which resists easy replication. What would a Polaroid look like as an editioned copy? 

I have now had Fingerprint in my possession for a few weeks and I still cannot quite wrap my brain around it. Stanley/Barker has managed to thread the needle between mass production and unique object, pushing the current limits of publishing technology to produce near perfect simulacra of Polaroid Type 550 prints. The surfaces shine with the familiar gloss of old Polaroids. The backs are just right, with a muted grey finish, Polaroid brand stamp, and traces of Goldberg’s presence: masking tape, handwriting, glue, and torn surfaces. If these physical artifacts are flattened to two dimensional form, it does not detract much from their uncanny semblance. 

Inside the bottom half of the prints’ silkscreened box is a colophon in Goldberg’s handwriting. The ink appears authentic, as if made by sharpie on paper. But it could be a copy. After studying the writing at very close range, I am still not sure. The outside of the box is stamped with titular fingerprints in white paint. Their first impression seems real enough to be original. The thought is tempting because few things signify authenticity better than a fingerprint. But after carefully comparing my box to online images, I am satisfied that they are reproductions. Still, the ambiguity of all these embodiments leaves me rattled. A warning to the counterfeiting departments of all Federal Treasuries: Stanley/Barker should be kept well away from paper currency. Nevertheless they may have minted a cash cow. The first edition of Fingerprint sold out just in five days, and now goes for 4x original price on the secondary market.

Fingerprint may not aim for outright trickery. But its design seems intended to raise questions of authenticity, duplication, and collectability. What is original? What is reproduction? How do we compare and assess the two? Since photography’s inherent purpose involves the translation of reality, these questions have always nagged, snowballing since Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction, and now reaching a crescendo in the digital age. Fingerprint piles on, muddies the waters, and leaves a lasting impression, literally, as dactylogram. By recasting old work in such a beguiling new form, Goldberg tosses preconceptions aside. In the unsettled turmoil new ideas might take root. 

In their original iteration, these photographs were not so fraught. Many of Fingerprint’s pictures appeared first in 1995 in Goldberg’s book Raised By Wolves. This monograph documented California runaway teens in Los Angeles and San Francisco over a ten year period circa 1990. Goldberg’s young subjects were complicated figures, and the book staked out a variety of approaches to describe them. The result was a thick hodgepodge of different materials including photographs, collages, anecdotes, interviews, film scraps, and more. Perhaps Goldberg subtly signaled the potential for future refinement by placing his Polaroids near the end, where they appeared on the last few pages of Raised By Wolves stacked in grids of 3 or 4 rows. By the same token, the thorny original/reproduction question might have teased him when he undertook the audacious step of bootlegging his own monograph in 2016. Despite Goldberg’s best attempts to keep his book accessible, both versions of Raised By Wolves have long since sold out and are now hard to come by. It’s tempting to surmise that such scarcities helped motivate this latest chapter. The market was ripe for outtakes. But Fingerprint’s eventual form turned out to be surprisingly novel. 

There are 45 pictures inside the small cardboard jewelbox. Without access to Raised By Wolves a direct comparison is impossible. But from online archives it’s clear that there is some crossover. Eyepatched Zhodi from the original series appears on the Fingerprint box as the cover figure. There is a half-torso shot that seems to be Tweeky Dave, a central figure in RBW. But his partner Echo is no longer in the mix. Altogether Fingerprint contains at least a dozen original images from RBW. There are also numerous outtakes of the same subjects and a broad selection of new teens. Whereas RBW packaged its photographs in a mass of supporting material, lending it a narrative context, Fingerprint is stripped to the core: photographs only. It is as if the book has been wrecked at sea, and the viewer must piece together its adolescent stories from bits of flotsam. Some of the debris is covered with scrappy notes, handwritten onto the Polaroids by Goldberg’s subjects. These are generally impressionist jottings, closer to poems than prose. 

Even with no adjoining narrative, the photographs spell trouble. A young teen photographed on the sidewalk declares “I fucked a movie star today for $100”. A girl on Hollywood Boulevard is shown with dour mood and scrappy hair, a hand-drawn tattoo on her arm. There’s a dim view of a Greyhound Bus station, with emulsion stains to match its rainy sidewalk. It doesn’t take much imagination to wonder who might be stuck there, or just passing through. In another picture, a teenager yawns as he rises from his campsite, a scrum of sheets and clothing in some forlorn city backlot. “Fuck The World!” shouts another hand-drawn caption, this time on a headshot of a bleary-eyed young man barely mouthing a cigarette. Goldberg shows us a knife tucked in a cowboy boot, a pregnancy on a bare mattress, bruised bodies, smeared clothing, and so on. 

In the Polaroid form, Goldberg has found the perfect vehicle to convey the road-weary fatigue of his young subjects. These prints have been through hell. Not only are they marked up in inks and anecdotes, they are scratched, taped, torn, bent, and crossed out. Sometimes the development or fixing is off. Some pictures have browned with age. They manifest the daily wear-and-tear of life on the street, where nothing stays pristine for long. Despite their flaws, they have been cared for, archived by Goldberg for eventual reproduction. And here they are finally, warts and all, perfectly reproduced.

We do not need Goldberg’s pictures to realize that teen runaways are not a cheery subculture. On some level his pictures tell us what we already know. It’s their sensitivity and intimacy which astonishes, an empathy born of Goldberg’s personal experience. “[The pictures] are about where I grew up, and how I grew up,” he reveals to Blind Magazine. “I wanted to look at those people who were outsiders, like I felt I was.”

Few photographers have penetrated so deeply into this hidden microcosm. Surely Goldberg must have felt the temptation to point fingers, to offer some societal prescription to the powers that be. But his pictures pass no judgements, and their honest record is remarkably even-handed. “The city is made to get lost in,” he writes on the Magnum site. “Some people disappear there by design, seduced by the freedom of anonymity, the chance for reinvention. Others—often those short on means and advantages—arrive seeking a better life but find themselves pushed to the margins, trapped, for myriad reasons, in a cycle of poverty that is extremely difficult to reverse.”

Fingerprint is distinctive enough to stake out its own territory—as a physical specimen it is spectacular—but it might also be viewed as a supplement to Raised By Wolves. In that regard it is instruction as a tale of project evolution. With any photobook, the temptation for reassessment and re-editing is quite natural. Twenty-five years is a long time. Thoughts shift. Yesterday’s outtakes become today’s winners, and vice versa. The current version may reflect Goldberg’s latest edit, but the exact dynamics of RBW are always in flux, and future versions will be different.

This transitional character is burnished by Fingerprint‘s loose leaf form. No longer is this a monograph with firm sequence. That world has been left behind. In its place is a box of prints which invites shuffling and disorder, generating new understandings, connections, and relationships. These pictures can be pinned to a wall, pocketed, given as door prizes, inscribed, or reconsidered. Interpretations are wide open, as are potential future incarnations.

Collector’s POV: Jim Goldberg is represented by Casemore Kirkeby in San Francisco (here). His work has only been available intermittently in the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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