New Europeans

Men in tank tops or shirtless, close ups of hands, cigarettes, a girl who was sold into sex slavery at fourteen, Coca-Cola signs, kids playing harmonicas, the various languages and writing of the subjects, shop workers, a child on a straw mat on the dirt covered with flies. These are some of the things that make up New Europeans at Stephen Wirtz gallery, an ongoing project by Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg. The work is a window into the lives of immigrants and refugees in Greece and the Ukraine, but the issues involved are not unique to these two places, war, displacement, migration, racism, human traffic, torture, etc.

The multiplicity of stories and subjects is mirrored in their portrayal. There are images in both color and black and white, some tack sharp and others blurred. There are Polaroids, contact prints, large gallery prints, even a book dummy taped to a table. Some images are matted, some have mat between the image and frame, some images bleed to the frame, almost all the images are framed in black, but there is at least one case where there is an image pinned to the wall unframed.

Goldberg: Polaroid 2
Untitled, 2007, from New Europeans, Jim Goldberg

For me, the most powerful images in the show are a series of Polaroids on which Goldberg has had the subject write. Some write only their name, others write part of their story. In some cases the stories are translated and written on the back of another Polaroid that is placed in the frame next to the portrait. The portraits range from a straight on confident gaze to the mere suggestion of a face floating in blackness, but they are unified by the application of the touch of pen to image and the subjects willingness to share their stories. This inclusion of the subject’s voice is something Goldberg has been doing since his earliest work, Rich and Poor and his ability to get people to open up about their lives is astounding.

My first real exposure to Jim Goldberg’s work (that I can recall) was this past summer when he came to talk to a class I was taking. As part of his presentation he showed various stages of his book, Raised by Wolves. He had a couple of Xerox dummies as well as a couple of dummies made from taped together 4×6 machine prints of the potential page layouts. I thought they were fabulous, both as objects and as a way of working. The form seemed to fit really well with the subject matter. Unfortunately, some of the tactile immediacy was lost in the actual printed version of the book. I understand that it was a necessary step to reach a larger audience, but I can’t help feeling that the final piece was too polished. I feel the same way about parts of the New Europeans show.

For example, there is a group of dozens of small photos taped together that in itself is great, but then the whole thing is put behind glass in a huge frame that must be ten to twelve feet wide. Again, I think I understand why it is done, but it distracted me from the images. There are also some large gallery prints that gave me pause. There is a feeling of intimacy in viewing the smaller images and reading the stories of the subjects. Even the smaller images without text have a personal quality to them. I feel like I’m looking through someone’s shoe box full of photographs. It is this feeling of intimacy that I associate with Goldberg’s work, the need to get up close and examine it, that I don’t get from the larger gallery images. As compelling as those images may be, they feel a bit out of place.

There are, however, places where the method of display added to the viewing experience. On one wall there is a grid of images, five rows of seventeen. The images are black-framed black and white contact prints with extra black around the images so the predominant feeling is a black grid on a white wall. The images themselves are mostly portraits and there are two white gaps in the grid where there are no images. This absence adds a poignancy that would not be there if the grid were complete.

On the whole a very compelling show. It will be interesting to see where it goes and what form it will take when it is shown in Paris in the spring of 2009.

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