April 12, 2016
This short opus is going to examine Nan Goldin’s photography and present the key aspects of her work. I will discuss, if making connections between Nan Goldin’s work and various artistic theories is sufficient for understanding her art.
The theoretical framework to which Goldin’s photography belongs to is not easy to determine. Her ability to structure a messy reality into a strong compositional shot (Fig. 1.) and the way she works with light (Fig. 2.), is striking. She is also considered to be one of the most influential photographers working in a snapshot aesthetics. Sean O’Hagan cites the words of the photography curator and writer Susan Bright in an interview published by The Guardian: "She gave legitimacy to an approach that has crudely been adopted and understood as "snapshot style" or "diaristic". I would go as far as to say her work has come to represent an entire style." (O’Hagan)
The compositional resolution of the photograph Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! undressing (Fig. 1.) structures the shot dividing it into two parts. We see Jimmy in the doorway, and two other people reflected in the mirror. The flashlight directed at Jimmy makes him the main subject of the photograph. We notice the gracious posture, the mysterious smile, and the eyes full of playful mischief. In the mirror, we notice another person, perhaps this is Tabboo. The compositional decision to include a mirror in the shot introduces multiple clues into the image allowing us to decipher what was going on when the photograph was taken. We see an unmade bed in the room, where Jimmy is standing, clothes on the chairs, a half-finished bottle of, maybe, wine reflected in the mirror. It seems that the evening before was quite intense. Judging from the fresh make-up on Jimmy’s face, we can also assume that at the moment when the shot was made it was twilight, evening, and the group was getting ready to go out and party more. Drag queens have been an important part of Goldin’s life and work. “My desire was to show them as a third gender, as another sexual option, a gender option. And to show them with a lot of respect and love, to kind of glorify them because I really admire people who can recreate themselves and manifest their fantasies publicly. I think it’s brave” (Westfall) When she was 18, she lived with the drag queens all the time, but this photograph was taken after in 1991 when Goldin has already attended and graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The photograph Couple in Bed (Fig. 2.) is from the series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which, according to Goldin herself, is the defining work of her life. (Goldin) The photograph presents a couple in, what appears to be, a disagreement. The colors, the composition, the geometric shapes on the wall, the light passing from the window blinds and falling on the arm of the man are so aesthetically appealing, that the tension between the man and the woman in the image is not directly noticeable. However, once you notice it, it does not leave you alone. The objects in the room do not give any clues that would help us understand what might be the reason for their sudden alienation from each other. They both seem to be frozen, contained in their own impenetrable world of reproach, which hurts even more when the person is close to you. This tension in the relationships is a recurrent topic throughout the series. “The essence of The Ballad is that struggle in the relationships between intimacy and autonomy, that’s what the piece is really about. And it is about the dependency one can get on another person that is totally inappropriate for them… on every level… but, the sex is good” says Goldin.
Although Nan Goldin’s body of work includes a very wide array of subject matter, impossible to encompass in only a couple of images, I would like to examine one more image, which was done after she discovered that daylight makes a different color in the photographs. The appearance of daylight in her work followed her release from the rehab clinic, where she was taken after heavy drug abuse period, provoked by a painful breakup.
In the image titled Guido on the Dock, Venice (Fig. 3) we see a man standing at the seashore. This photo, as a lot of her later work, is less crowded, simpler compositionally, evoking a meditative, reflective state of mind. The image is blurry and it doesn’t really mean much if we view it outside of the context of Nan Goldin’s work. However, while the idea of retaining the reality, preserving memory was so central in Goldin’s early work, it changed with time. Commenting on the place of memory in her later work in the interview given to Stephen Westfall, Nan says: “I don’t rely on it in that way so much in the new work. I’m not wedded to memory in the same way. When I got sober I had a lot of amnesia, and it’s only coming back now. I don’t feel this need to remember anything now, anymore. It’s a great freedom in a way.” I speculate that she refers to freedom from an illusion that if you photograph something obsessively, you’re never going to lose it. “With the death of seven or eight of my closest friends and dozens and dozens of my acquaintances, I realize that there is so much the photograph doesn’t preserve. It doesn’t replace the person and it doesn’t really stave off mortality like I thought it did. It doesn’t preserve a life,” she continues in the same interview. (Westfall) Perhaps this change, along with the discovery of daylight, explains the meditative, contemplative character of the image.
Another aspect associated with her work that is widely mentioned is the depiction of subculture and “outcasts.” Luckily, Goldin, unwilling to be pigeonholed, commented on this approach in the video broadcasted on MOCA TV saying “We were never marginalized, because we were the world. We did not care, what straight people thought of us”
The controversial importance of memory in her work, mentioned also in the documentary film I’ll Be Your Mirror provides a possibility for art historians and theorists to view her work in the context of Barthe’s phenomenological method.
However, a closer examination of Nan Goldin’s body of work reveals that looking at it through the theoretical prism or focusing on just the formal analysis of her photos often brings the risk of taking us away, intentionally or unintentionally, from the main challenge in Goldin’s work poses. She is neither concerned with the issues connected with “aura” (Walter Benjamin), nor the point of view of the lens and the unusual angles the camera can assume to make us see in a new way, nor even with Barthe’s phenomenological approach.
Depiction of the society that lives by its own norms, and does not care about conforming, is, I believe, what makes Goldin work powerful and constitutes the main challenge it poses to the respectable, well-structured world.
Nan Goldin photographed the way she did because her life depended on it (Goldin). She did not conform to the rules of our society and did not “grow up” into the models that are generally associated with a fulfilled adult life, such as: a steady job, a house, a marriage. Moreover, her subjects are also like her, nonconforming, or unable to conform. It is quite dismissive, however, to call the people Goldin photographed “subjects.” They all have names, and their names are put into the descriptive titles of her photographs, making the people depicted more present, alive, and not just another human specimen. Her photos do not leave us in peace, and they certainly cannot be placed into the category of a commodity, a nice addition to your house design. Perhaps her work is touching on the secret feeling deep within each of us, rational grown-ups who wonder what would it have been like if we did not settle down? What would it have been like if we continued our search for identity, and not be satisfied with the ready-made models?
It is very comfortable, and, perhaps, even based on the instinct of self-preservation, to dismiss her photos as a work about outcasts, not us, a subculture. To feel like going to the zoo, and looking at exotic animals. Or even to write long essays discussing the importance of memory, light, and composition in her work. Anything that will “cover up” the challenge, and make it as harmless as possible. When in fact her work presents an alternative possibility of social existence, and in that sense, it is also political and. A social construct where people are not concerned with being applied and useful, and are in constant search of an alternative mode of existence, and often the alternative they find is self-destructive, such as drug abuse, for example. Her work opens a world of intense feelings, sexual freedom, saturated, wild fun, and a constant search for identity. The world which, frankly speaking, does not even seek an approval from an “ordinary” society. At the same time, there is no romanticizing of the subject, despite numerous accusations (Perl). There is nothing romantic, she makes sure to put the wounds on display. Nonetheless, it is extremely convincing, despite the wounds, the violence, the drug abuse, due to the intensity of life it shows, the level of trust that bonds all the people in the images, and their independence from the approval from the “normal” people. This frank suggestion of an alternative existence is impossible to miss, but it is possible to redirect or recontextualize it as an “example of snapshot photography” or “subculture”, or mask it with the extensive theoretical analysis. One of the prominent critics of the time, Jed Perl, right after seeing the challenge, hurries to distort it, diminish its impact, and the artist herself:
“Goldin bonds with her subjects and produces some terrific photographs, but her attitude toward those photographs is pious. When she gathers her work together into slideshows and books and exhibitions, she glorifies the imagery, she turns her friends into downtown poster kids. And when the photographs deal with death, we're forced into an emotional bind, because the real-life tragedy becomes the trump card that's supposed to ignite the art, and if we have reservations we can be accused of callousness. Goldin is being promoted as a photographer who hit New York running and kept up the pace for a decade and became a profound artist along the way. I don't think that she's anywhere near that important.”
The explicit demonstration of the possibility to live without even slightly caring to conform, is captured by Nan Goldin excellently. She does not need to assume unusual angles to reveal the possibility to see in a new way. “For me, it was the content that mattered”, says Goldin, and the content is strong and poses an immediate threat to the regulated norms of the society. To dismiss this challenge and focus on phenomenology, memories, light and angles is simply immoral. Comfortably for many critics, half of that society has died of AIDS and drug abuse, and the photographer, who made it all so explicit, powerful, convincing and unfiltered through the artistic theories, is a woman - these factors are quite handy when you want to dismiss something as unimportant. Nonetheless, the convincing power of that society is there, intact, even despite all the negative factors associated with it. The invitation to dive in is still very powerful.
To be fair, not all critics are trying to re-contextualize the challenge posed by Goldin’s work. Walter Keller, after pointing out the handling of light, compositional abilities, and the idea of outcasts commonly discussed in association with Nan Goldin as insufficient for understanding her work, writes:
“But why don’t these pictures leave us in peace? Perhaps because Nan Goldin’s photographs are not photographs? Perhaps even the fact that Nan Goldin uses a camera is irrelevant? Perhaps because Nan goldin touches us in a place in the heart where we are most fragile or vulnerable? Because Nan Goldin reminds us that identity is not a condition, but rather is - if one must put it into words - a permanent search, that every human soul, every human is familiar with more than one side of the coin? Perhaps these pictures, seen once, so reluctantly leave us alone, because they target and reach the center itself of what is human. If only we allow it.
Underneath or behind the photographs lies a much far-reaching, comprehensive project that the simple depiction of specific social scenes or margins of society. That real meaning surfaces slowly, discloses itself to us only gradually, after many, an infinite number of pictures”
Picking up on this, I would like to shift Goldin’s work from art platform to a social platform. If her work is a reminder to all the respectable, serious people, that the model of the society we actively perpetuate is too rigid and materialistic, does not leave enough space for search, failure, experimentation, what should we do with it? I don’t have the answer but until Goldin’s work is regarded as a depiction of “anything but us,” “outcasts,” the problem is not going to disappear.
People who cannot see themselves within the existing norms and accepted models will create alternative communities, and more often than not, it will include drug abuse. The proof can be found in Goldin’s own words: “Well, I really believed when I did drugs that my brain opened. The drugs that I was doing were extremely mind-altering, but not necessarily mind-expanding. In the end, anyway.” Although she never advocated drug abuse, but her words are a powerful illustration of one of the factors that can drive people into taking drugs. State regulations and a war on drugs is not enough to prevent it, because they don’t change the society, which is structured to produce and consume items, ideas, lives that perpetuate exclusively rational, materialistic norms, are easy to control and aimed at immediate efficiency and making as much cash as possible. Where even Goldin’s work, so explicitly showing not only the positive but also the painful, negative aspects of her community, can be perverted and used for marketing and business purposes (Blanchard).
In conclusion, I would like to state that analysis of compositional structure, use of light and theoretical framework of Goldin’s work in most cases take us away from the main challenge it poses. The power of Goldin’s work lies in explicit, unapologetic demonstration of a community, who lives by its own norms, far from controlled, well thought out world of ready-made identities, lives, and destinies. This is the threat it poses to the “respectable” community, and this is the threat that is being neutralized by lengthy discussions about Barthes, light, memory, composition, the 70s, Sontag. While I do not have an answer or a solution, it is nonetheless clear to me, that as long as we view her body of work as one about “others”, instead of critically thinking about flaws in our money-driven, ever consuming society, nothing will ever change. We will continue to grow-up into ready-made models, and label those who didn’t find themselves among the ready-mades as “outcasts.” And this sounds depressing to me.
Fig. 1. Nan Goldin, Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! undressing, 1991, cibachrome print, 1015 x 695 mm. From: TATE http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/goldin-jimmy-paulette-and-tabboo-undressing-nyc-p11513 (accessed April 11, 2016)
Fig. 2. Nan Goldin, Couple in Bed, 1977, cibachrome print, 40 x 59.6 cm. From: Artnet http://www.artnet.com/artists/nan-goldin/couple-on-bed-chicago-5opSdngZVGj_peqCkcYa5Q2 (accessed April 11, 2016)
Fig. 3. Nan Goldin, Couple in Bed, 1977, cibachrome print, 68.2 x 100 cm. From: Artnet http://www.artnet.com/artists/nan-goldin/guido-on-the-dock-venice-a0jBSzVDFYq2bFqaqFHp7w2 (accessed April 11, 2016)
Barthes, Roland , “Extracts from Camera Lucida” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells London and new York, Routledge, 2003, 19-30
Benjamin, Walter, “Extracts from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in The Photography Reader, ed. Liz Wells, London and new York, Routledge, 2003, 53-58
Blanchard, Tasmin, “A Smack in the Face for the Gurus of Heroin Chic”, Independent, published: May 22, 1997, accessed: April 11, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/a-smack-in-the-face-for-the-gurus-of-heroin-chic-1262928.html
Keller, Walter “I Am You”, foreword to The Beautiful Smile, The Hasselblad Award 2007 , Edited with Jack Ritchey, Gerhard Steidl, Walter Keller, Göttingen : Steidl, 2007, 164
O’Hagan, Sean, “Nan Goldin: I wanted to Get High From a Really Early Age”, The Guardian, published: March 23, 2014, accessed: April 11, 2016 http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/nan-goldin-photographer-wanted-get-high-early-age
Perl, Jed , “The Age of Recovery”, New Republic. New York, USA, February 17, 1997, vol. 216, issue 7, 28-31
Westfall, Stephen, “Nan Goldin”, BOMB, no 37, 27-31, 1991, (published on March 03, 2015, accessed: April 11, 2016), http://bombmagazine.org/article/1476/nan-goldin
Goldin, Nan , I’ll be Your Mirror, directed by: Edmund Coulthard, Nan Goldin, documentary, 1996, accessed; April 11, 2016 http://videos.sapo.pt/Ystuom59225zPJLZrmp7
Goldin, Nan , The Ballad of Sexual Dependency - MOCA U - MOCAtv, youtube video, directed by: Emma Reeves, published: December 6, 2013, accessed: April 11, 2016)