Another photographer hailing from a middle-class suburban background who plunged headlong into the abyss of a drug-fuelled life, Nan Goldin also uses documentary technique to narrate a story that is not about the other, but essentially an autobiography: “People commonly think of the photographer as a voyeur, but this is my party, I’m not crashing.” Her photographs also culminated in a short film collaboration with the BBC, I’ll Be Your Mirror, which is available online here. After her unruly sister committed suicide at the age of 18, Goldin ran away from home and began looking for ways to work with that loss: “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough… in fact my pictures show me how much I have lost.” Since Barbara before her had issues with the societal norms of femininity, Goldin’s own gender exploration can be seen as a way of continuing her sister’s legacy of refusing to conform. Goldin also says how photography allowed her to be in control and out of control at the same time – by recording the things she got up to under the influence of drugs and alcohol, she was then able to recreate the events of an evening by looking back through the developed film, becoming in a sense her memory! “Nan used drugs heavily and so most of the photographs for which she is famous were taken both of people using drugs by a person on drugs. And yet despite this proclivity for controlled substance use, the photographs have pristine clarity.” (Claire Raymond, U.Va)
The film looks at the scene in which Goldin moved in the early 1970s, where there was liberation and there were blurred delineations between sexes – as she says: “we shared friends, clothes, finances, drugs… and occasionally lovers“. The narration and the interviews give frank recollections and accounts of the atmosphere and the goings-on – again, the ups and the downs as one interviewee recalls 70s group sex while another muses on his own imminent death as ‘an option’. Goldin muses: “I’ve never believed in a single decisive portrait of someone, but in a variety of pictures that record the complexity of a
life.” If nothing else, the film gives an insight into how the sexual liberations of the 1960s led to the AIDS epidemic and scare of the 1980s. The film uses still photography and moving footage from Goldin’s personal archive, and the effect is much like that of a home movie shot on super 8 – in fact in one sequence in the film she is showing her friends the slides she has shot, much like a family slideshow.
She records all her friends and lovers, all the joys and pains and sorrows of the community she is a firm member of (whom she refers to as her tribe – persons on the sexual fringes of society; LGBT, drag queens, drug users, etc). In one of her more celebrated images she has pictured herself after being particularly violently abused by her boyfriend, Brian (“our relationship was intense, jealous, sexual… and bonded by drugs“). She says in the film that he burned her diaries and almost blinded her, and that she took these photos so that she would never go back to him, but that the emotional battering she suffered transformed her heroin use into abuse (thin line between perception of glamour and self destruction).
Why this image more than any other has become iconic and representative of Goldin’s work has probably more to do with the history behind it than anything else. It has been pointed out that although we are not told that Goldin was beaten by a man, the elements of male dominance in the image are enough to convey this attitude (the styled hair, delicate earrings, silk blouse and pearl choker are markers of feminine self-presentation – even the pretty curtains can be seen as suggesting a woman’s pleasure in decorating the domestic space!; Goldin has made an effort to make herself look desirable and feminine for the camera despite her bruising); while the red lips are emphasised almost defiantly (her assailant was targeting her eyes – she is after all a visual artist) – the lips are undamaged and as such can still speak, resist, remain unsilenced. “…in this photograph Goldin shows the hidden transcript of male violence against women and she shows the public transcript of woman’s self-engagement in systems of domination, the “happy” story of woman’s pleasure in shopping for clothes, fixing hair, applying makeup… But by revealing her wounds Goldin shows the violence that holds in place this very system of domination that imposes on woman the supposed happiness of make-up and pretty curtains.” (Raymond)
Although it is obscene and unforgiveable for a man to beat a woman, it has been argued that perhaps Goldin pushed Brian too far in that she was photographing every moment of their lives together (which included drug taking, post-coital and even on the toilet); one thing is clear – we never get to hear Brian’s side of the story!
Another image shows the pain of losing a loved one who gradually succumbs to the ravages of AIDS. In comparison with Nixon‘s images of AIDS sufferers, this image is much more intimate, taken in the style of a family album snapshot and showing a tender moment between lovers as opposed to a coldly removed, high resolution black and white print from a view camera. If anything were to settle the debate about whether Nixon’s images are intimate or intrusive, it has to be this image.
Her other work that is mentioned, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is a more interesting and organic piece, and has been presented in a number of formats since the 1979 performance where Goldin hand loaded the slides and there was no accompanying music. Since The Ballad has changed over the years, its title seems apt (a ballad “relies on performative reiteration for temporal and cultural continuity”) and we must credit Goldin with a certain amount of foresight that her project would be a continuing performative exercise.
Shelley Rice wrote that since Goldin traded in her biological family for her friends, the work represents a “redefinition of autobiography and the family album for our supremely degenerate age” and an “intimate expose of lives on the edge, a counter-family album for those who can’t find their picture in the conventional snapshots of the American dream” (2001, p 30). Rice goes on to note the complexities her work embodies and encapsulates:
“Alternatively narcissistic and voyeuristic, exploitive and deeply compassionate, her book is not only about sexual dependency: it is also about love and need, and the search to find sustenance and support in a world where the family and the social contract are at risk” (ibid, p 30).
The fact that Goldin was inspired by the images of Clark can be seen when we look at Clark’s early work (which centres on drug users, rent boys and otherwise marginalised youth), for example Tulsa, which was a landmark in raw, graphic inside story narrative. This kind of insider narrative was something new, since hitherto documentary had always been focused on revealing the plight of the Other. Clark and Goldin have both been criticised for their exploitation of their apparent confreres for material gain or notoriety. They have both also been accused of staging or choreographing their compositions.
In an interview for The Guardian Clark is quoted as saying: “When someone I knew would die, which happened a lot, I’d think they were one of the lucky ones… I honestly used to think I was cursed to stay on earth and make photographs.”
These early pictures include interior detail as a kind of juxtapositional background to the main activity or theme in the images. When we look at some of Goldin’s work, we notice similarities:
In both these images, for example, the background is at least as important as the subject matter (Cookie or Joey), and in fact give essence to what the subjects are engaged in.
There is some debate over the authenticity of Goldin’s images, and she has been accused of merely depicting what viewers assume such a bacchanalian bohemia should look like and how its inhabitants should behave. It has also been shown how The
Ballad has changed shape over the years from intimate slide shows presented to audiences comprised primarily of the images’ protagonists to a saleable mass consumption formats: “First presented as a slide show in clubs during the early 1980s and with a pre-history in the informal circulation of Goldin’s early prints, The Ballad has subsequently been “recounted” in a wide variety of media, and for an increasingly disparate audience that is also increasingly distanced from the original community of reception that its narratives served.” (from ASX) Even to the extent that some of the original content has been marginalised to make the book available to a wider readership: “The book of The Ballad presents a partially denatured version of bohemia, emphasizing “the pain” and addictive quality of heterosexual relationships – themes with which the larger audience the book required might more easily identify — and marginalizing those aspects of the lifestyle — homosexual difference and drug use — that might balk reception.” As such, can Goldin really still be considered an insider, or has she sold out the community she lived among for so many years?