June 1, 2009

Nan Goldin: Public and Private

There is a remarkable consistency with which Nan Goldin has approached photography’s potential as a way of gathering together the stray data of a life, in this case her own, and making from it a narrative that is more than the sum of its parts, an on-going history, one in which we are all implicated, narratives of loss and failed redemption, the course of our shared mortality. The celebratory tone of her photographs, their seeming lushness, is more often than not tainted by an awareness of how fragile the illusions we live with actually are and Goldin snatches at them as they pass by her camera and in her life. This is what makes Goldin’s photography, in its own way, so profound – how she can be so immediately inside of what she photographs. Borrowing from the traditional forms of amateur photography, the snapshot and slideshow, she articulates a vision that is fundamentally personal, yet authoritative in its scope, with an ambition to record her experiences as directly as she can. Her self-portraits in particular, one of several re-occurring themes in Goldin’s body of work and one that typifies her approach as a whole, reveal her as an artist who can reflect on both the distinctively elusive nature of her medium and the performative nature of identity, how we can live our roles in front of the camera, without ever falling into critique or recrimination; she is never less than sincere.

The suspicion has persisted, however, that a large part of Goldin’s acclaim rests on a fascination with her lifestyle – the atmosphere of her pictures, that shadow-land of urban excess, young men and women living intensely on the very edge of pleasure. All of which seems to mark her as trading, with no small degree of cynicism, on the outrageous glamour of difference, the thrill of flouting those conventions of “normal” behaviour, with scenes of drug-taking and ambiguous sexuality. It’s true that Goldin is as capable of titillation as all this suggests, and a self-regard that would seem to negate any possibility of deeper meaning, particularly in her more recent projects where the diary-like approach has gradually hardened into a brash stylistic gloss, at times pushing her out of what she photographs. However, what her detractors and imitators alike fail to grasp is the precarious balance that Goldin manages to negotiate, in her own unique way, between the realms of public and private significance. This narrowness is the greatest strength (and also the greatest failing) of her photography, a single-minded determination to show what she lives and how it matters.

Luc Sante has called Goldin a “portraitist of souls” and she certainly is, but more than that she can capture the raw moment of a soul’s exposure, in which individual relevance, the life being lived before her camera at that moment, falls away, only to reveal something that transcends the personal – regardless of how close it is to her, the pictures are closer still to us, collectively, because what Goldin’s pictures really concern themselves with, beyond the particularities of time and place, is that disparity between how we are seen and the image we project of ourselves. So while the popular notion is that photography can strip away artifice, and is at it’s most truthful when it does so, the hallmark of Goldin’s vision is to crystallise the performance, letting it stand as itself – in her photographs all poses are accepted as genuine, or at least true to the moment in which they occur; what is stripped away, emotionally as well as physically, shows itself as another form of concealment, hiding in nakedness, in tears and ecstasy, all those in-between moments of a life shared. And Goldin shares; her pictures rarely suggest an intrusion, but rather a deep sense of complicity, her own stake in what is happening – an involvement that means she can never really stand outside of what she photographs, even if the camera gives her a measure of detachment, a certain coldness.

The colour in her work has a physical presence that moves beyond the surface of the print or the page, it locates the photographs in the immediacy of Goldin’s life – they are present, in every sense. She is arguably and perhaps in spite of herself, one of the most remarkable colourists in American photography. The glare and often fevered hue of her palette is key to the emotional range of her photography, as much in the landscapes and interiors as her more familiar portraits. The electric jolt of the artificial light she used so often in the early years of her photography reflected the artificial highs pursued by those she photographed – and by Goldin herself. In formal terms these pictures are uniquely her own, as personal landscapes of living colour; their smeared neon intensity is a challenge to the viewer – to feel as deeply, as fearlessly, to simply live as much as Goldin herself dares to, without restraint, the consequences as well as the pleasures.

At the same time, however, the pictures themselves don’t seem to matter, as pictures, but simply the fact of her being there, the experience that photography allows, an opening it creates for making a connection, with the camera as a conduit of some intangible energy – desire or compassion, let’s say, or even just something seen in passing, all those half-feelings with no particular name. This is her family album then, an on-going record with Goldin herself at the eye of the storm, which is not to say, of course, that she could not have made these pictures if she was not so intimate with the people she photographs, but rather that her intimacy is the reason she makes the pictures, it is their driving force and why they can matter as much as they do – she lets us share in a way that is as visceral, as profound, as her own experience. Goldin trades in the same economies of desire and loss that we all have to contend with; she takes the raw material of her own life and transforms it into something of archetypal significance. She is our mirror.