Text by Athena Intanate, Copyright 2020
The Caress of Nan Goldin
“For me it is not detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress” – Nan Goldin
Documentary photography, it seems, has died.
The advancement of photoshop and other image-altering apps has decidedly marked the onset of increasingly manufactured images. Even those taken to inform are buffed and staged to an inch of perfection. The Adnan Hajj controversy has metamorphosed, repeating itself in various incarnations from print to editorials. Reality seems to have traded itself in for aesthetics; candid slice-of-life captures are a dying breed.
But with Nan Goldin, whose work so delicately takes you by the hand and envelops you in them, you seem to remember what it feels like to be human, purely and unadulteredly. Since her very first published works of transvestites and transsexuals in 1973, Goldin has arguably cemented her place as one of the defining documentary photographers of the 20th century. No subject matter is too dark, too complicated, too taboo to untangle for her – through her lens, the world is made accessible, open to everyone to peer into, and asked to understand.
Nan Goldin’s expansive career began when she was first introduced to the camera at 15, in 1968 (Hals in The New Yorker, 2016). Still bearing the grief of her sister’s recent suicide four years before, Goldin found solace in the camera, with its ability to capture not only relationships but also political issues in what was popularised as the snapshot aesthetic.
“My work originally came from the snapshot aesthetic,” she says, “Snapshots are taken out of love and to remember people, places, and shared times. They’re about creating a history by recording a history.” (Goldin in Britannica Biographies, 2012)
Goldin’s work attests to such a sentiment, with works of sheer rawness capturing intimacy, her own relationships, the opioid crisis, the HIV crisis, and the queer community. There appears to be a filmic quality to some of them; Goldin herself stated that fashion photography powerhouses Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton influenced her immensely (Westfall in BOMB magazine, 1991). Her self-portrait Nan and Brian in bed (1983) is one such example where theatricality is present. A self-portrait of her and her lover at the time, golden lighting seeps through a blinded window, illuminating the smoke from the titular Brian’s cigarette. His half-turned profile seems aloof, tired; Nan, curled up in the sheets all in black, looks on in longing but also sadness. A heartbreak story appears to be unfolding before the viewer; it is, just as she said, a creation of history “by recording a history” in the most poignant way.
Other works of Goldin, however, are taken in a much more documentative manner, reminiscent of works by Diane Arbus, August Sander and Larry Clark, all of whom she has cited as inspiration (Westfall in BOMB magazine, 1991). One such example is Yogo Putting on Powder (1993). Taken on one of her trips to Bangkok, this is an example of Goldin’s broader work documenting the LGBTQ community, with particular focus on transvestites and transsexuals. From her Asian Drag Queens series, the viewer is given a clear-cut view into the ritualistic act of putting on makeup. The titular Yogo is dressed in nothing but jeans and a belt, and sits perched on a chair. Clothes are haphazardly hung up in the background, a behemoth of sparkle and ruffle and glitter while Yogo, almost nonchalantly, powders their face in a compact mirror. A blurry elbow protrudes in the left of the photo, indicating the presence of another person.
Goldin, in her pursuit of capturing emotion and the pathos of love, found a way to document even the most mundane in sentimental exposition. This is similarly seen in the tender embrace in Teri and Patrick on their Wedding Night (1987), or the tight clasp of The Hug (1980), or her own representation of opioid abuse in Aperture Drugs on the Rug (2016). Goldin’s works are annotative, captures of the relationships she saw around her (as well as of her own), but at the same time evocative, perhaps making her one of the best documentative photographers of all time. While she uses her photographs to demonstrate realities, often in her push for activism, Goldin makes you forget that you are viewing an exercise in instrumentalism. You are looking, instead, at the depths of human nature in their purest, raw forms. Her work seems to plunge its hands into the viewer, reminding us that we are looking at something incredibly human. It is humans, baring themselves wide open to other humans, offering the chance of relief in the splinters of recognition.
And what a joy, what a privilege, Goldin makes that process.
Als, Hilton, (June 27, 2016). “Nan Goldin’s Life in Progress”. The New Yorker. Retrieved online March 27, 2020 at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/04/nan-goldins-the-ballad-of-sexual-dependency
The Editors of Encyclopedia Britanica (December 09, 2019). “Nan Goldin”. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Retrieved online March 27, 2020 at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nan-Goldin
Westfall, Stephen (1991). “Nan Goldin” (Interview). BOMB Magazine. BOMB Magazine. Accessed online March 27, 2020 at http://bombmagazine.org/article/1476/nan-goldin
About the Author: Athena Intanate is a freshman enrolled at Haverford College, Class of 2023. To access additional articles by Athena Intanate, click here:https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/one-day-at-a-time/