This large book (492 pages) documents some of the
large body of work of photographer Nan Goldin, and was published on the
occasion of a major exhibition of Goldin's work at the Whitney Museum of
American Art. The photographs span more
than two decades, starting from the early 1970s, documenting the lives of
Goldin and her friends and acquaintances.
Most were taken in Boston and New York City, with many also taken in
other Massachusetts towns, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and a few other locations.
Goldin is maybe best known for her ever-evolving
collection of photographs that she shows as a slide show called The
Ballad of Sexual Dependency also published as a book in 1986. Her work is unusual in its ordinariness; she
captures herself and others at various points, often emotionally revealing, but
rarely does she dramatize the events.
The titles of the pictures convey much of the relevant information
and Denise in the Profile Room, Boston, 1973.
in her chair, Boston, 1972.
putting on makeup, Boston, 1973.
bleaching his eyebrows, Pleasant St., Cambridge, 1975.
and Bruce after sex, Provincetown, 1975.
with blue hair, Cambridge, 1978.
masturbating, NYC 1980.
on the bidet, New Jersey, 1983.
on the phone, NYC, 1981.
with Brian having sex, NYC, 1983.
one month after being battered, 1984.
napping after acupuncture, Cambridge, 1989.
with Max at my birthday party, Provincetown, MA, 1976.
in her casket, NYC, November 15, 1989.
after breast surgery, NYC, 1991.
at the Paramount Hotel, NYC, 1993.
and Gotscho embracing, Paris, 1992
at Johnny Lat's Gym, NYC, 1995.
with medication, Berlin, 1996.
by the lake, Skowhegan, Maine, 1996.
pictures document telling moments of ordinary people. Some of her friends are gay or lesbian, or transvestites, have
AIDS, or at the margins of society in other ways, are included, maybe even
centrally, in these pictures, but there's no sense here that these pictures are
meant to tell the truth about people on the edges of society. It is true that her friends are neither
traditional families living in the city suburbs or Midwestern cities, nor are
they African-Americans living in the deep south; they are mostly non-wealthy
unmarried whites living in urban centers, especially New York. But that's just Goldin's life, and she
pictures people who matter to her.
The book contains a number of
excellent essays and interviews about or with Goldin, and many of them try to
analyze what is distinctive about her work.
For example, Joachim Sartorius writes, "Nan Goldin is not a
documentary photographer. To think
soor to limit her to such a categorywould be to misconstrue her work
entirely. He work is about life itself:
About the depths a person plumbs in time.
Which explains her irresistible urge to photograph a person time and
time again" (p. 322). Goldin
herself says, "I don't believe in the portrait. I believe only in the
accumulation of portraits as a representation of a person. Because I believe people are really
complex" (p. 454).
Goldin's lack of obvious style is
disarming. Even when the moments she
captures are unusual subjects, such as herself after she was battered by her
partner, or drag queens performing, or friends of hers sitting on the twin
toilets together, she gives little sense of drama to her picture. She seems to play down such possibilities,
as if any stylistic quirk would get in the way of the picture. Her ability may even lie in her talent for
making the extraordinary ordinary, not in the sense of robbing it of meaning,
but in rather in of accepting everything she pictures. Even in the pictures of herself after her
battering, there's little sense of outrage, either personal or political. Rather, there's just a need to record what
happened, and maybe to show the friends who were with her at that time.
That is not to say that Goldin's
work in not political. Clearly any work
that depicts people who play with or transgress traditional gender roles, the
impact of domestic violence, and people with AIDS is inherently political. But her work is intensely personal. There's nothing artful, exhibitionistic or
sensationalistic about this work, and it has no didactic message, and this is
especially what distinguishes it from the work of other contemporary
photographers such as Natasha Merritt or Chris Verene. Indeed, her photographs seem to resist
interpretation, either psychological or political. Even when they are aesthetically pleasing, it takes one a while to
notice the beauty. This subtlety is
bemusing; one might even be tempted to ask what is so special about these
pictures. But, speaking for myself at
least, as a whole this collection of images is hugely impressive, maybe
precisely because Goldin avoids simplistic messages and yet remains very
connected with her subjects. This is deeply
humanistic work without being saccharine and is a powerful articulation of a
© 2002 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is
Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring
how philosophers can play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help
foster communication between philosophers, mental health professionals, and the