A Record Of Real Life: Nan Goldin

“I knew from a very early age, that what I saw on TV had nothing to do with real life. So I wanted to make a record of real life. That included having a camera with me at all times.” – Nan Goldin

Do you ever look at someone’s work and think “I just don’t get it. Why is this important? Why is it in a gallery?” I have thought that of Nan Goldin’s work for years. To be honest, her work just dumbfounded me. How could this be considered art? I always thought they were just poorly lit, grainy snapshots. I wouldn’t take more than a fleeting glance without immediately passing judgment that I didn’t like it and therefore it wasn’t worth my time to examine or understand. As I was looking for a subject for the Spotlight, Nan Goldin’s name was suggested and my gut reaction was no. I realized, however, that if I don’t like something the least I can do is ask myself why not. I have come to the conclusion that all art is worthy of examination and questioning. If you don’t know anything about the work, you should find out as much as you can and you may come to appreciate it. Understanding the why behind what someone does can influence and sometimes even change your opinion of the work itself.

Even if you’re not familiar with many photographers by name, you may have heard the name Nan Goldin. Since the 1970s, she has been known for her shockingly raw images of desire, addiction, sexuality, and abuse. Her style is a part of the “snapshot aesthetic” which became popular in the early 60s and contains everyday subjects that don’t seem to be framed in any particular way. Goldin’s work, however, can’t be defined by just one particular style. When you find out what it was she was trying to do with her pictures, you learn that there are layers of meaning that go far beyond the first cursory glance.

Goldin was born in 1953 in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Living behind a facade of perfection and respectability, her parents taught her that there were certain things you just didn’t talk about – the biggest being her older sister’s suicide at the age of 19. Goldin was only 11 at the time and withdrew into herself. She says she didn’t speak for a very long time, but she still managed to cause trouble. She ran away at 14 and ended up in several different foster homes, but it was during this period that she was enrolled in an alternative education program. This was a place for kids that had been kicked out of “normal” schools – she says they all did drugs, had sex, and partied – but it was a place where she found people she connected with. It was here where she was given her first camera, a Polaroid, by a teacher. After that, the camera rarely left her hand.

When she left the school she enrolled in a photography program at Tufts University in Boston. She continued to shoot everything she could. Her first subject was her roommate, David Armstrong, who remains her best friend today. He had just started to do drag and he introduced her to the gay and drag communities in Boston. It was here that she she felt she had found her family, the people who didn’t fit in most places. “Normal people thought they were freaks,” Goldin said, “gay men didn’t like them at all, and lesbians thought they were mocking women.” They all lived a nocturnal life, unable to go out during the day because of the abuse they would endure. They would go out to nightclubs and bars and Goldin would shoot constantly. She was not, however, a voyeur. Everything she photographed, she participated in. Because of that, her photographs are raw, intimate and real. “My work was all about homage because I thought they were the most beautiful people I ever met in my life,” she said.

Her work has always been tinged with the words like “pornographic” or “heroin chic”, but to her it has always been about love, and about our search for intimacy. “It was written in the tabloids that I was a 51-year-old junkie who made my fame or living by photographing pornographic pictures of young girls,” she said. “I was shocked. I never took pornography. I hate pornography. I knew a lot of people who worked in the sex trade when I worked in a bar on Times Square. I knew pimps and prostitutes, and I knew friends who entered the sex trade to make money to do their art. So I was familiar with the world of pornography, and I always found it distressing and based on contempt. To me, pornography is all about money. That’s the difference between pornography and art.”

One of the most important aspects of her work is the honesty with which she shoots. Nothing in her photographs is ever arranged or moved to make a better composition, nor does she fabricate anything. She wanted to capture moments as honestly as possible because she couldn’t trust her memory. She wanted to remember every part of what she was living saying, “I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history.” She doesn’t shy away from any subject, even (or especially) when it comes to herself. Some of her most famous and most graphic images are her self-portraits. She has taken photographs of herself in rehab, her self-inflicted cigarette burns, and her face after being beaten by her then-boyfriend, Brian. Goldin has photographed it all.

It was after that particularly violent episode with Brian that she hit her all-time low. Although her work had gained notoriety amongst big name galleries – with shows at the Whitney in 1985 and the Rencontres d’Arles in 1987 – her personal life was in a downward spiral. She ended the relationship with Brian, but drugs began to take over. She didn’t leave her house for six months, but finally pulled herself out of the depths enough to check herself into a rehab center. When she got out, her photography took on a new life. She began photographing herself more to find out what she looked like without drugs and as a way of trying to fit back in her own skin. Her photographs also had light in them… natural light. She had lived for 15 years in the darkness, spending most of her awake time at night. The photos before rehab were grainy or lit with on-camera flash because she didn’t know any better. She just wanted to capture the moment. “I didn’t really care about ‘good’ photography,” she once said, “I cared about complete honesty.” After rehab she discovered what light was and how it affected color.

This discovery did not change her subject matter or her style, however. By this time her friends were no longer partying, they were dying – from suicide, drug abuse, and mostly AIDS. Her camera was an extension of her being and it was never away from her. She wanted to use it to see how to get as close to someone as possible without drugs. She shot her friends in hospices, at funerals, and in caskets. She also began taking photographs of children – her nieces, nephews, and godchildren – trying to celebrate the joy children have in just being alive. While her earlier work was about our desire to find closeness with someone else and the difficulties in relationships, the newer work became about people’s internal lives and real intimacy.

Nan Goldin’s work can be seen as a major influence in today’s society, just look at Instagram. There is a big difference, however, between the pictures on Instagram and what Goldin does. Much of what is seen on Instagram is superficial and staged. There is truth, but often there is no intention or purpose to it. Goldin makes photographs not to get noticed or to see how many likes she can get, but rather to capture her life – moments that exist for her in order to bring them even closer. She tries to find out what it’s like to be inside other people and there is no barrier between her art, her craft, and her life. They are all one and the same. Yes, after doing the research, I have changed my mind about Nan Goldin’s work. I wouldn’t say it is beautiful, but that is not what the intent is that drives it. Her work is not about pretty pictures or even trying to create art for art’s sake, but it is a mirror of her life. “For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress… I think that you can actually give people access to their own soul.”


Nan Goldin at MoMA
Nan Goldin – In My Life (Documentary)
Nan Goldin on Pinterest

Recommended Reading

Nan Goldin: The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency (Aperture Monograph)

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