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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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Man, who can keep up with your marathon posts!?

Oddly, I thought Goldin was dead. This post was a great overview of her work.

Posted by: Todd W. at Jul 28, 2004 12:27:17 PM

Excellent post in appreciation of a remarkable photographer. Last year I saw a big exhibition of Nan Goldin's work at the Musee d'Art Contemporain in Montreal, it was mostly about friends of hers who have died of AIDS. The exhibition was harrowing, beautiful, strange, haunting - but also straightforward. she is very gifted, I think, and part of that gift is her emotional directness and refusal to manipulate the viewer or play intellectual games.

Posted by: beth at Jul 28, 2004 8:13:47 PM

To permalink or anybody else out there who may be able to assist,

I'm a photo researcher and MA student trying to find out more about Goldin's image "Trixie on the Cot" NYC, 1979

I stumbled across this blog while looking on the net and have read through all the sources you've mentioned. I would love to find out more about where the photo was taken, to know who Trixie is.

Also, I'm trying to work out what collections (private or public) contain prints of this work.
So far I've discovered that The Guggenheim Musuem has one (my understanding is that the edition is of 25)

If anyone is able to help me with any information I would be really appreciative. It was wonderful to read your informative and beautifully written piece.


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