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“Raised by Wolves: Photographs and Documents of Runaways by Jim Goldberg”

Photographer Jim Goldberg wants to tell the truth. He also wants “Raised by Wolves,” an exhibition of his work with teen-age runaways, to raise tough questions about how society treats children. However, viewers of the exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art are more likely to wonder whose truth is on display here, and whether artistic fiction or journalistic fact is a more powerful vehicle for truth-telling.

“Wolves” is the summation of 10 years Goldberg spent investigating street kids in Hollywood and San Francisco. Blurring the line between participant and observer, Goldberg walked, rode, and hung out with the kids while they shot up, hunted for tricks on the boulevard, and got busted by the police. He listened, photographed, and filmed as they talked about their dreams, remembered why they left home, or admitted they could no longer remember.

The resulting exhibition is ambitious in form: It contains 170 photographs, including color and black-and-white prints, Polaroids, digital Iris prints, and transparencies. Also on display are videotaped interviews, text, and slide projections. A collection of the kids’ possessions—a soiled pillow, a skateboard, and other personal items—add context to the images.

These elements are arranged throughout four large galleries in a visual cacophony, rejecting the linear presentation of most photographic exhibitions. Some photographs are placed on the wall at eye level, but many others are hung just a foot above the floor or almost at the ceiling. Still others are jammed into gallery corners, as if trying to hide from view. Patrons must work hard to see every piece, and given the stories these photographs tell, viewing the exhibition is an appropriately arduous task.

“Wolves” is organized around the relationship of two kids, Echo (aka Beth) and Tweeky Dave, and the many others whose lives intersect with theirs. Goldberg creates a complicated narrative in which the real and the make-believe are intertwined—and, at times, indistinguishable. The fictional element is evident from the beginning. Mounted at the exhibition’s entrance is a bronze sculpture of a she-wolf, a reference to the classical Romulus and Remus tale to which the show’s title alludes. It also signifies that Goldberg’s work is chock-full of fictions that both expose and mask reality.

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Myths about the American family pervade the show. In Echo’s Home Movies (1995), Echo and her siblings play outdoors in the bright sunshine. The image appears on three synchronized video monitors, above which hangs a paper-cutout silhouette of a young girl with curled eyelashes and button nose. These icons of childhood innocence are undercut by text superimposed on the video screen, in which Echo’s mother describes the sexual abuse that marred her daughter’s youth. And there is yet another narrative layer here: Echo herself is now a mother, and further into the exhibition, Goldberg’s photographs show her pregnant and in labor. Weeks after her first child was born, Echo returned home from the streets to live with her mother in New Hope, N.Y. Goldberg reports that today, Echo is in love, working, and, so far, making it.

Tweeky Dave never went home. He died in an L.A. hospital, his love for Echo unrequited. Myths surround Dave’s life, too, but they are those that Dave invented. In one photograph, Dave bares a grotesque scar that runs from navel to sternum. He writes that his mother was a “15-year-old junkie slut,” his old man a “biker from hell…who shot me in the gut when I was 12 years old.” Dave also tells Goldberg that his dad raped him and turned him into a junkie by forcing dope into his veins. After Dave dies, Goldberg finds Dave’s family, the Millers, and over the telephone they seem to be middle-class, churchgoing Texans. Dave’s sister says her brother’s scar was the result of “experimental” surgery performed on him as an infant to correct birth defects and that her dad developed severe arthritis from taking care of Dave. Christian martyr or biker from hell? Both are extremes, too good and too evil to be true.

What is the truth about Tweeky Dave? We never find out for sure. But for Goldberg, the fantasies and the lies are as important as the facts. Reflecting on the stories shared at Dave’s memorial service (which his family did not attend) Goldberg writes in the exhibition catalog, “All these lies and stories in one room add up to something close to the truth.” This observation would serve as a more on-target caveat for this exhibition than the viewer-discretion notice posted at the entrance.

Intertwined with the story of Echo and Dave are the photographs, written testimony, and objects of some of the hundreds of other kids Goldberg met and befriended. In some photos, the kids confront the viewer directly (Paul [1991]; Cellmates, B-4, Youth Guidance Center [1989]) or are captured in beautiful blue light that speaks of the seductive Hollywood dream, usually unfulfilled (Hollywood [1987-88]). Others, in grainy black-and-white images, stare listlessly or embrace or clown for the camera (Jersey Lu [1988]; Stewart and Broccolli, San Francisco [1986]; Crystal Fucked Up [1991]).

As in his 1985 book, Rich and Poor, Goldberg includes with the photographs text written by his subjects. But where his document of class distinction matched the people in the photographs with the text they had written, “Wolves” often mixes up text and image. Perhaps Kato, the chubby girl who looks barely 12 years old, didn’t say, “It’s not like you can go home and watch TV,” but her portrait appears above this statement, a silk-screen reproduction of its author’s handwriting.

By choosing not to pair portraits with text by their subjects, Goldberg eschews a strict documentary approach, creating a fiction to tell a larger truth. Through the collective power of image and statement, he communicates the street experience and the myriad causes—even chance occurrences—that convince young people to leave home. But this technique dilutes the real-life experience of the many individuals pictured. These portraits reveal a lot about runaway kids generally, yet little about any but a few kids. Goldberg has sacrificed the individual child’s truth to create an impressionistic interpretation of a subculture.

His portrait of Rusty is an exception. The boy in this photograph, wrapped in a blanket and dwarfed by the wooded setting in which he stands, writes on his portrait: “I ran away from home/my dad hit me/my mom abandon me/It was all my fault/I was a bad kid/Im a born loser/a peace of shit/I want to die NOW!!!” As a portrait, much of the work’s power comes in our knowing that this particular boy, Rusty, who has scratched out his face in the picture, sums up his life this way. Many of the portraits that lack this personal revelation also lack the specificity that would make them more than just additional information about what street kids look like.

Viewers may be moved by Rusty’s statement, but again, who knows if any of the kids’ stories about abuse and neglect are true? Where one runaway writes, “[T]he only time my father would put his hands on me would be to beat the shit out of me,” another says, “I’ve known a couple of kids who lied about what their parents did to them.” Did they lie to protect their parents and their own dignity, or did they make up these terrible stories to glorify their lives with false tales of victimization?

The truth about the objects in the show is even harder to discern. As with the written text, most of the belongings are not pegged to specific kids in the exhibition. Display cases containing a cracked baseball bat with a red-taped grip, a drawer of confiscated goods (knives, handguns, beepers), and a cosmetic case overflowing with snapshots are placed throughout the exhibit without reference to the locations or individuals photographed. The objects may educate audiences about the culture that created them, and surely that is Goldberg’s purpose. But they may also remain objects, isolated and decontextualized. The bat and the pillow now appear in an art museum, a setting for which they were not created and far from the one in which they were used. The site robs them of their specific history and they become curiosities from a strange culture, like African, Native American, and religious objects viewed merely as art.

Yet when the objects are linked to particular kids, they instill reverence. Tweeky Dave’s jacket, for example, hangs 12 feet above the museum floor, and spotlights illuminate the graffiti-covered denim. Dave wears the jacket in many of the photographs, and a dialogue ensues between the photos and the jacket and the text. Displayed like a flag flying after sunset, the jacket is Goldberg’s memorial to a fallen friend. Overall, though, the exhibition of the objects demonstrates that museums haven’t figured out how to show work like Goldberg’s. There’s something downright silly about a museum label that reads “Pillow, 1989, mixed media.”

And then there are the mattresses. The exhibition design, conceived by San Francisco architect David Ireland, includes four mattresses forming the entryway into the show, one of which carries its title in letters that look like bloodstains. Another two groupings of mattresses have been reinforced with plywood and hammered together to form reading stations. And in the dimly lit room at the center of the exhibition, a queen-size mattress functions as a listening post where one can hear a recorded bedtime story while gazing at a dreamy image of a couple asleep in a bower.

Used solely as design elements, removed from any context whatsoever, the mattresses are the weakest aspect of the show. None of these are mattresses that runaway kids have slept on in squats or under freeway ramps. They are freshly unwrapped, some with grandmotherly blue, lavender, and green floral designs that at worst conjure images of cheap but clean motels. The mattresses are divorced from the experience communicated by the exhibition and risk exploiting the lives of these kids for decorative purpose.

Photography has been criticized repeatedly as exploitative—especially when the camera is turned on a social or economic class other than the photographer’s own. Critics turn up the heat when the subject is children, no matter what their class. Charges of child exploitation tend to stick when photographers use a subject solely for their own purposes. In such cases, photographers are seen as taking advantage of the power imbalance between adults and children.

In the end, “Wolves” eludes these charges. Certainly, the exhibition’s international tour will boost Goldberg’s career. In a 1993 letter to Goldberg, Echo wrote, “You showed us who we are, and let us tell the story ourselves.” Yet, it is Jim Goldberg’s vision, not the lives of Echo or Tweeky Dave, that has lasting impact. But along with Goldberg’s voice speak the voices of an entire population, both in the exhibition proper and in the accompanying educational materials, conceived with help from Echo and national social-service agencies. It is the strength of this chorus that creates out of fractured truths a coherent portrait—a portrait of the truth as Goldberg sees it.