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July 28, 2004

Nan Goldin: A Personal Favorite Who Still Sings Ballads Sweetly

Nan Goldin has always been one of my favorite photographers, long before I even thought about photography seriously or knew much about how to operate a camera. Goldin has this type of crossover appeal for a lot of people, because of the raw, snapshot-like quality of her best photographs, which are drenched in emotion, and evoke underground films in their look and sense of storytelling. I know of some traditionalists and purists who deplore her popularity, but in the alternative portraiture class I took last summer, she was probably the most frequently mentioned photographer among people's favorites.

I'm moved to reflect on her by a recent exhibition, Honey on Razor Blade, with a good selection of her recent images at the Yvon Lambert Gallery. (Click on "exhibitions/shows", then "Now" to be taken to five groupings of recent work -- be warned that the site can be slow, and that the progress indicator for images loading can be hard to see)

Goldin's biggest and most well-known success is the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a classic slide show account of artistic and troubled friends and lovers in New York, accompanied by music (also available in book form from Aperture) which has frequently elicited comparisons to harrowing photographic classics like Robert Frank's The Americans, Larry Clark's Tulsa, and Diane Arbus' Aperture monograph. Critic Andy Grundberg made some notable comparisons between Frank's work and Goldin's in his 1986 essay "Nan Goldin's Grim Ballad":

"In terms of style, both artists favor the candid and unplanned over the technically polished and precise -- which is not to say that either is incapable of remarkable images. Both approach photography from the perspective of film, seeking to open the medium's gates to narrative through sequencing and editing. As a book, the Americans is cinematic in structure, and Goldin's slide show, with its screen and sound, closely replicates the experience of moviegoing. But the most profound similarity between the two artists is their emotional immediacy, and the degree to which they express torment and pain."


"Nan One Month After Being Battered" Nan Goldin image

Goldin has acknowledged this reading of her work in frequent interviews...a representative quote:

"A lot of people seem to think that art or photography is about the way things look, or the surface of things. That's not what it's about for me. It's really about relationships and feelings...it's really hard for me to do commercial work because people kind of want me to do a Nan Goldin. They don't understand that it's not about a style or a look or a setup. It's about emotional obsession and empathy."

Despite the comments above, Goldin's influence on the fashion and art photography worlds has been significant, to the point that a few critics who dislike her work and its influence (not to mention politicians like Bill Clinton) have blamed her for the popularity of "heroin chic" and the decline of traditional beauty in fashion and photography generally. Indeed, one can find countless examples of her influence online even today, with many young photographers and LiveJournalists spinning out "me and my friends" type snapshot photo essays dwelling on relationships, issues with self, emotional dysfunction, etc

I feel Goldin's work retains considerable power, and don't feel particularly inclined to blame her for the sins of less original or imaginative imitators. She's quite down to earth for such a popular photographer and art figure, and still strives to make her images available at relatively affordable prices. Because her work has been so influential and has been appropriated so heavily in the commercial and art worlds, though, it's understandable that her work now doesn't quite have the impact it did nearly 20 years ago. Since the seminal Ballad, Goldin has continued to document friends and lovers, and her recent work has taken on a more quiet, elegiac tone, with the loss of a number of friends to AIDs and her move to Europe.

There's plenty of Goldin images to be found online, but they're scattered and generally presented poorly, a surprise given that one would think the quality of her photographs would translate easily to a good interactive presentation online. A good introduction to her work, apart from the Aperture monograph, is the 55 series book that provides an excellent snapshot overview of her career.


Interestingly, one can find a great deal more extended discussion of Goldin in numerous articles and essays online than one can find images, and it's worth perusing through the essays after one has had a chance to look at the books above, as Goldin is like Cindy Sherman...whether you love her work or hate it, it's fun to read about, and think about the issues and emotions and ideas the work evokes.

A good (though somewhat long) online essay on Goldin's work can be found at About Photography...it's tough going, though, if you're not familiar with her work. A better and more interactive introduction and photo-essay can be found at the Centre Pompidou and is highly recommended, though the images are smallish and the navigation a bit obtuse. Another extensive and well written overview of Goldin's work can be found at Brain Juice.

Goldin also makes a fine interview subject, talking about her work and career thoughtfully, and there are a few interviews online...the best one is a 2003 Artforum interview.


Nan Goldin image, from Devil's Playground

Goldin released a book last year, The Devil's Playground, based on an exhibition of more recent work of friends and family, mainly set in Europe, that has elicited more divided reactions...and it would surprise me if a 500 page book this big and pricey didn't do that. As a fan of Goldin's, I think many of the photographs in the book are beautifully captured and organized quite thoughtfully, and many are highly moving in the spirit of her early work, though with a more positive tone...there are even a number of pretty landscapes. I love the book, but it's clearly for fans of Goldin's...non-believers are less likely to be impressed, and might view Goldin's generosity of spirit toward her friends as excessive.

There's a small selection of Devil's Playground images available here (which look average), and a handful here (bigger images), and again, as with much of her other work, there's a lot more interesting discussion online than there are actual images. Two good and somewhat conflicted reviews (and overviews) of her Devil's Playground work can be found from the Guardian (positive) and the Independent (more conflicted). The Guardian also has a very nice extended profile on recent developments in Goldin's life and her work.

In the end, what I love about Goldin's work is the sense that in her photographs (even the quieter recent work), she takes pictures as if everything depended on capturing those moments in her life, the painful moments as well as the positive ones, the seemingly trivial as well as the life-changing. The primal, intimate nature of her best work is often imitated, but very, very rarely matched. There's a sense of feeling in her images, and the window they provide into her world, that often comes across as nothing more than sensationalism or voyeurism when attempted by others.

The mad passion of her earlier work has been tempered by loss in the case of some friends, and hope in the case of others, which gives a different quality to her recent work that she acknowledges:

"I used to think I couldn't lose anyone if I photographed them enough. I used photography to stave off loss. But with the recent deaths of many of my friends I realized the limits of what can be preserved."


Nan Goldin image, from the Devil's Playground

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July 21, 2004

Bedroom Portraits, Sepia Landscapes, and A Resource for Embattled Photographers

Back to share a few links and resources...

* I've recommended Kevin's fine and very informed PhotoRant essays in the past, which form part of his deep photo-sharing site and weblog. He's now started another worthy venture, Photopermit.org, which is intended to serve as a sort of resource and collective airing of ideas for independent photographers who find themselves increasingly targeted by police officers, security guards, and other people for "suspicious" activities that are often nothing more than personal photography. It seems like there is a new story every week (or more often) these days about photographers who have been hassled, so Kevin's site is well worth checking in on regularly.

* My favorite type of portrait has always been the environmental portrait (a portrait of someone taken outside a studio, typically outdoors in any number of interesting urban or rural settings), but until I started taking classes at photography school, I still tended to favor portraits that were rather "clean" and formal. But then I started looking at more portraits done by students in messy bedrooms, crowded work environments, abandoned buildings, and various other derelict or incongrous settings, and really loved how spontaneous and direct some of the portraits were.

Yes, some of the student work is just as mannered as the slicker work done by professionals, but I enjoy the tension inherent in more quirky and personal environments with the right subjects. And it seems that these days, the casual, cluttered environmental portrait is popular in commercial work as well as fine art.

Two interesting (and arty) spins on the most elemental of environments -- the bedroom -- come from Astrid Kruse Jensen and Brad Farwell. Jensen is a Danish photographer whose series, Allusions of Home, looks at a variety of Scandinavian women in cramped bedrooms pursuing education in foreign places (the best images are on Jensen's website). The women generally seem ill at ease, though there's a sense in the images that they're striving for a sense of order in their personal surroundings, combined with an attempt at asserting some individuality in the middle of an adjustment to a foreign environment outside of the bedroom. (Unfortunately, there is little to no background provided on the subjects depicted in Allusions of Home).

Jensen generally seems like a very interesting photographer exploring transitions and dislocation, based on this series and her other ones, Hidden Places and Moments In Between.


Astrid Kruse Jensen image, from Allusions of Home series

Brad Farwell, meanwhile, looks at high school bedrooms in the wake of their occupants' departure, and what it's like to see the individuals years later in their old sanctuaries. There is an odd sense of dislocation provided by the cleaned-up bedrooms that seem to maintain psychic traces of their occupants' past lives. As Farwell puts in his introduction to the series:

"In looking at the rooms, the most often preserved feature, and the more recurrent, was a bulletin board or similar surfaces, typically used as a visual scrapbook by the occupant, and neither large enough to be inconvenient nor small enough to be easily discarded without noticing. The most often discarded or modified article was the bed itself, which was often simply old, or an inconvenient size for the use of guests, or was taken by the occupant for their own use."


"Katie" Brad Farwell image from High School Bedroom series

* Finally, on a separate tangent, I find it rare to encounter good nature landscapes in a commercial photographer's online portfolio, as landscapes generally don't seem to be something many commercial clients are interested in (at least, not without a car or SUV placed in the foreground)...when landscapes do surface in portfolios, they almost seem thrown in and are often poorly presented. One notable exception is Graham Westmoreland, who has some very lovely panoramic landscapes prominently featured on his site. Some of the color ones are so pretty, in fact, that I wonder if they may be digital composites...but the sepia landscapes are well presented and look outstanding.


Graham Westmoreland image, from Venice series

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July 07, 2004

Links, Corrections, Tintypes, and Well-Toned Personal Visions

Thanks to all the site visitors who have commented insightfully here on the blog, or sent me email, or linked to this site...you've made the first six months of blogging very rewarding.  As the summer gets into full swing, I will be traveling more, and am going to be heavily involved with a couple of projects...which means I'll be posting infrequently the next couple of weeks. 

Let me get caught up with a few items while I still have time:

* Photographic blogs that I've added recently on my sidebar links:  Gallery Hopper and Expose.  Expose is another fine blog exploring various artists and philosophical directions in photography.  In the case of Gallery Hopper, in some of my posts, I talk about galleries that have a particular outlook on photography that I happen to like, and that have a good online presence...and as it turns out, most of them happen to be in New York, not because they have all the great galleries, but because they seem to have galleries that are a bit more sophisticated about online presentation.  Todd at Gallery Hopper actually lives in NY and checks out several of the better galleries and exhibitions in person, so his site is the one to check out for more authoritative details about particular exhibitions.

* In my recent post about the photographers featured in the "Six From the Seventies" exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, I very casually (and very dumbly) implied that Bea Nettles and Joel Meyerowitz were the only photographers from the exhibition who are still active and reasonably visible 25 years later, based on the limited online research I had done. Michael Martone sent me an email to politely assert that he is very active himself, and has been working continuously since 1956...in fact, he's contributed work to the New Yorker recently, among many other notable things he's been doing photographically.  Martone also informed me that he is currently represented by Agathe Gaillard Gallery in France and the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York.

I've made a correction to the original post, and thanks Michael for the note...great to hear that the good ones are still active and doing good work.

* From the Large Format Photography Forum, I picked up a link to a very cool National Geographic video on making tintypes, using a real world example of a portrait done in real time.  I always enjoy watching photographers work with alternative processes (and with their equipment in general when they're enjoying themselves), and this video is fun to watch.

* Continuing on the alternative process front, the work of Beniamino Terraneo consists of moody and heavily toned landscapes and abstracts...my favorite portfolio is the moodiest, Eyes of Remniscence.


Beniamino Terraneo image, from Eyes of Remniscence portfolio

* Smith Eliot uses photographs, mixed media, and installations to explore a number of themes around self and spirituality.  Her work with collaged negatives and photography and acrylic lifts can be quite striking (I generally prefer the subtly toned monochrome work to the louder and more heavily manipulated color work).  "Familiars" and "Fragments" are the two galleries I enjoyed viewing the most, though some of her other mixed media work is enjoyable browsing as well.


"Wallflowers" Smith Eliot image

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July 06, 2004

Gedney-Wool at PS1, and Reconsidering Gedney Further Online

An article in last weekend's New York Times reviewed the current exhibition "Into the Night", at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center, featuring the nocturnal photographs of William Gedney and painter Christopher Wool. Sounds like a welcome and interesting pairing of contrasts: Gedney's images in the exhibition come from a prolific stash of night photographs taken around New York City, which he had intended to assemble for a photographic essay, "The Single Future of the Night" (which was never completed), while Wool's images come from a collection of 35mm photographs also taken in New York (and released as a book, "East Broadway Breakdown").


William Gedney Night image

As the Times article indicates, Gedney's photographs are meticulously composed and captured nightscapes, often with a strong sense of light and mood remniscent of Edward Hopper, while Wool's photographs are much more harsh and slapdash in feel. It's difficult to get more than a superficial idea of the contrasts based on the online evidence, though it seems clear that the styles are different enough that it would take a particularly thoughtful culling of each imagemaker's output to create a compelling exhibition. Gedney has a very substantial collection of work available online, while Wool's photographic work is more spotty online -- the best I've been able to find (night photographs and assorted Polaroids and paintings) is here.

Gedney is particularly interesting to me -- he's had exhibitions, but is generally considered an overlooked artist and sort of a "photographer's photographer"...admired by luminaries like Friedlander and Arbus, but not heavily published (nor exhibited much while he was alive), and little known even among photography enthusiasts. The online collection managed by Duke University is almost too much of a good thing -- with nearly 5000 images organized in a very straightforward way by project, it is difficult for the casual viewer to appreciate just how good his understated and very thoughtful photography is.

For example, the night photography that is highlighted in the PS1 exhibition is part of a "Miscellaneous" grouping that features 23 pages of 16 thumbnails apiece...another example, the India portfolio has 69 (!) pages of thumbnails. It appears that the Duke archive has scanned almost every conceivable photograph in, even when the images are very similar variations on the same scene...I wish there had been more pruning, though I understand that a university archive probably aims more for completeness and searchability of archives, rather than on a more focused presentation of the best of specific projects.

The best places to get a good introduction to Gedney's work are here (probably the best quality images online) and a small portfolio of his Kentucky images here. If those links whet your appetite, then it's worthwhile to rummage through the Duke archive, as there are some amazing images within the substantial collections of images in the New York, San Francisco, and Europe projects.


Gedney image, from Europe portfolio

I really liked a lot of the candid street and documentary work done around Europe and New York, though my favorite of all his projects is probably his work in Eastern Kentucky -- even though there are a huge number of images, I found myself navigating through a large number of the thumbnails, because there was a quiet warmth and directness present in every image...the relatively flat tonality keeps the eye focused on the people, the surroundings, the light...all presented very directly but largely without judgement (not easy to do given the nature of the conditions). Gedney has an eye for composition and the decisive moment, but I'm also impressed by his eye for the bonds between people -- whether it's in his studies of Kentucky families, or the images of San Francisco hippies in the 1960s, he seems particularly attuned to couples and friends and their rituals. As he put it so well in quoting Bartok in one of his journals:

"What matters most of all, is to penetrate into the pulsing life of the people themselves, to become imbued with their way of living, and to see their faces when they sing at their weddings, harvests and funerals…"


Gedney image, from Kentucky portfolio


Gedney image, from San Francisco portfolio

Some interesting writing about Gedney can be found online in a book review here, a review of a 2000 San Francisco exhibition, and a review of an exhibition at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies.

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