Jim Goldberg: When you’re in the moment, you get it”

The legendary American photographer talks about shooting Olivia Rodrigo for our cover, how he once failed at being a monk and not naming the chickens on his farm.

Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.

Hello, Jim. What’s your morning routine like?

I wake up wishing that I didn’t. Not forever, just for that moment. I wish I’d slept more. There is a terror that comes with the day because you actually have to do something, right? And so then I have my coffee, do some email stuff. Then I make a smoothie. Then I feed the animals on the farm: the goats, sheep, chickens, donkeys, cat, dog.

How many animals do you have?
A lot. More than you.

You don’t know that.
I’m guessing! Right now, I have six chickens, two goats, three sheep, two donkeys, a dog and two cats. We need someone to take care of them during Christmas, if you want a vacation?

I’ll look into it. Whereabouts is the farm?
It’s an hour north of San Francisco. It’s pretty sweet.

Have you named all the animals?
All have names except for the chickens. They die more easily. But I like my chickens! They’re good chickens.

Were you happy with your Olivia Rodrigo shoot?
Very happy. I love the one with the apple on her head. I mean, the Polaroids are beautiful, too, but the one with the apple on her head where I drew the arrow… It’s so to the point.

What’s she like to shoot?
She’s very youthful and energetic. She has a devilish side, which is nice to work with. She’s very much herself for a 20-year-old. She knows who she is and I think that the pictures reflected that, too. She wasn’t waiting for me – she took command, and then we could play with each other. You know, do the photographic dance together.

What’s the photographic dance, Jim?
When you’re in the moment, you get it, and she’s kind of reacting to the camera, and I’m prompting her, there’s a give-and-take which is collaborative. She’s embodying the role, whatever she’s portraying, and I’m trying to capture that in the best way possible.

As a kid, I didn’t talk much, but watched and listened instead”


Do you ever look at a photograph that you’ve developed and think, wow, I missed that completely and I’m only just seeing this now?
I think it’s on a couple different levels. One, I often see what I missed. That’s disappointing, of course, because I wanted to get it. But I can laugh it off, there’s going to be another one. There are also moments that I miss by not taking a picture. I learned early on to accept that fate, that I can’t do it all the time. There are certain things I won’t or can’t photograph, so I don’t, and I’d rather be present with people.

It’s funny, isn’t it, to wish you’d have photographed something when memory is such a great thing to have as well.
And the memory, in some ways… Photographs hold memories, they hold time, they keep time still. But at the same time, they’re only a small part of that moment, which maybe explains one reason why I use text with my images to enlarge the scope of how we see or understand something. But at the same time, even if you have the text or a great photograph, it’s still only an approximation of that moment. Memory and history are approximations of the truth. We never quite get to it. We’re working towards it and that’s all that we can do sometimes – try to tell that story or what we know, so that other people will hopefully get it, too.

Are you always thinking in photographs? Or do you turn it on and off?
I turn it on and off, but I am always thinking visually, seeing many things all at once, from all sides, like a montage. So when I turn on the camera-self, I incorporate that multiplicity of levels of seeing into the way that I think about making pictures.

Have you always felt as though you could see from all sides and angles, even before you were a photographer?
As a kid, I didn’t talk much, but watched and listened instead. When I discovered photography I was able to translate what was in my mind’s eye” into a physical form through the art-making process.

I wonder what you’d have been able to use that skill for if you hadn’t picked up a camera?
I don’t know. I say this, and I don’t know if we should take it with a grain of salt, but I was a theology major, so there was this kind of spiritual stance that I had of seeing the whole of things and all that shit.

You were gonna be a Buddhist monk, no?
I did go to Thailand and I did live in a monastery. I failed as a monk.

How do you fail as a monk?
I failed as a theologist, then I failed as a monk, and I’m often failing as a photographer. But I keep going on.

Remember: you’ll learn more from a three-minute record than you’ll ever learn in school.

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