a black and white cutout of an old family photo of two relatives with a red-tinted xray of a chest behind it
An image from the “David Goldberg: A Family History” exhibit at Oshman Family JCC

A family’s immigration narrative seen through photo art

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For photographer David Goldberg, his new exhibition at the Oshman Family JCC is the most personal to date, a departure from what he typically creates.

“My work, my art tends to be quite formal, not narrative, but with a strong visual design,” the San Francisco resident said. “I took an image of the sky downtown, then I double-exposed another image right over the top of my eyes, and added my father’s old taxi license. It worked, and not just in the formal sense.”

an blue-tinted image of a Polish passport superimposed over an image of an ocean liner
An image from the “David Goldberg: A Family History” exhibit at Oshman Family JCC

Blending historical documents and his contemporary work, including a self-portrait and images of the Bay Area, Goldberg, 72, has constructed a visual history of his family, dating back to its roots in Czestochowa, a city in southern Poland.

The documents Goldberg selected are largely taken from his late mother’s possessions. Though he was emotionally unable to look at the items when his mother died about 10 years ago, by 2015 he was able to go through a box of documents and photos that had been gathering dust in a corner of his studio. The 16 images in the exhibit include photos of his family, as well as archival Judaica from the San Francisco Public Library.

“Sometimes I would paint on the images, and create a layering of images both modern and older,” Goldberg said. “People who know a little bit about photography will say that I used Photoshop. None of it was with Photoshop, it’s double, triple, quadruple exposures.”

a montage of black and white portraits, red hebrew letters and intensely bright light
An image from the “David Goldberg: A Family History” exhibit at Oshman Family JCC

For the earliest of the photos in the exhibit, Goldberg created the triple exposure that includes his father’s taxi license. After receiving positive feedback, he decided to create a series. “It seemed to speak to others,” he said, “so I said ‘I’m going to do more of this.’ ”

Goldberg, whose day job is photographing landscapes and horticulture, produced a number of prints, but he couldn’t figure out how to fit the individual works into a whole. It wasn’t until his wife, Pam Peirce, told him — after days of agonizing — that they formed a family history.

“She laid the prints out and said ‘Here’s a narrative from the Old World to the New,’ ” Goldberg said. “Once you had the narrative, there was so much thought that accompanied it. I created the artist’s statement and then I started to write individual text with each image.”

Goldberg’s ancestors’ story is a familiar one, with several surprising twists. At the end of World War I, fed up with the fighting in Europe, they immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. His father was a taxi driver for nearly 41 years; his mother was a secretary and a stay-at-home mom. One of his uncles who served in World War II went on to work for the CIA, running an import-export business as a front for the agency. The family found out the truth only after the uncle died.

Goldberg himself moved from New York City to San Francisco in 1973 — he fell in love with the city on a vacation visiting his brother — and pursued his first career: biology. For more than a decade he worked as a research associate at UCSF before he discovered photography. In the ’80s, a friend “said she needed money and asked if I would buy her camera,” he said. “Once I purchased the camera and started shooting, I knew I was meant to be a photographer.” He went on to study photography at City College of San Francisco.

These days, you won’t find Goldberg inside a shul. When he was about 6, he said, “My mother, who was somewhat religious, sent me to a yeshiva. We must understand that this was a long time ago, and this was New York City in the 1950s. It was an extremely Orthodox, fundamentalist one, and five or six years later, I left as soon as I was able.”

Despite his reluctance to participate in formal religious activity, Goldberg said he is “intensely proud of being Jewish.”

“David Goldberg: A Family History,” through May 10 in the Koch Gallery at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. paloaltojcc.org

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.