Quick question: What do Nan Goldin‘s 1981 “Nan and Brian in Bed” (cover image of her landmark 1986 The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) and this picture form a New Year’s Eve party I attended in 2002 (I’m second from the left) have in common?
Answer: They both preserve intimate moments from the past.
I first saw the photographic works of Nan Goldin on the 28th of August, 2003. I had bought, at the Dorchester Street tourist information centre, a passbook allowing unrestricted access to two dozen different museums and other cultural attractions over two days, and I had decided that the Musée de l’art contemporain de Montréal would be one of the museums that I would see in the course of my two days. Entering the museum, I saw the announcement of a Nan Goldin career retrospective that had already run most of the summer and would continue for only a week or two longer. I congratulated myself on my good luck, showed my passbook, and entered. That exhibition of Nan Goldin photographs was the first time I’d encountered her art, the first time I’d encountered photography as an art form, really, the only thing that I remember from that trip. The pictures were so direct and frank, so honest, so emotional, that I couldn’t help it. Their power was remarkable, as was the history of her career.
Goldin started her career in the 1960s taking photographs of her friends. Heavily influenced by the shimmer of disappearing elegance in Hollywood movies and European fashion photography, these early black and white snapshots record the transformation from adolescence to adulthood. Goldin celebrates the life-stories of individuals by returning to them as subjects over several decades. One series charts the life of her friend, underground actress Cookie Mueller, famous for her collaborations with film director John Waters. The series starts with a portrait of Cookie and her son and ends with an image of Cookie in her coffin, her son grieving. In these photographic records no aspect of the human condition is ignored – from couples making love to friends dying of Aids. She captures her subjects’ shifting realities and creates testaments to their lives. Celebrating the exuberance of self-created worlds, the first drag-queen series reveals a period in her life when she flat-shared with two transvestites. Turning her camera on their public on-stage personas as well as more intimate, domestic moments, these images shot in intensely saturated colour, revel in heavy make-up, glittery costumes and glamorous poses. Later works document Gay Pride in New York, as well as visits to Bangkok and Tokyo. Goldin made her name in the arts world with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, first shown at the legendary Mudd Club in New York in 1979. Now a cult classic, this 700-image slide-show captures women and men in day-to-day activities – lying in unmade beds, talking on the telephone, staring into mirrors, drinking in clubs, coming home in taxis. Accompanied by music ranging from Brecht to Dean Martin, The Ballad also uncovers a darker reality with disturbing images of battered women, prostitutes and junkies.
Goldin has always interpreted her photography as an intimate document, saying so in the introduction to the aforementioned The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read. My written diaries are private; they form a closed document of my world and allow me the distance to analyze it. My visual diary is public; it expands from its subjective basis with the input of other people. These pictures may be an invitation to my world, but they were taken so that I could see the people in them. I sometimes don’t know how I feel about someone until I take his or her picture. [. . .] If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex. The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me (6).
Goldin’s not the only photographer like this; Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton appeal to me on similar grounds, I think, although their works are more contrived and theatrical. Me, I’ve always tried to preserve things. Retained on my desktop, and copied over to this laptop, are all my files: E-mail archives, school projects, IM transcripts, everything. Some of the text documents I can’t read well any more on account of them being product of orphan technology (Corel WordPerfect, anyone?) or technology that’s been mysteriously updated without my knowing (what the help happened, Microsoft Works?). It’s all still there, all carefully preserved. And these are only my electronic documents: back home, Mom’s carefully archived everything, every project and paper, from Grade 1 on. Keeping all this stuff matters. I always knew that it mattered. The blogging started off as a way to keep track of things of note, first elements of my personal life then things in the outside word that interested me. I only fully understood why it mattered when I got know photographers here in Toronto, and I started to take photos myself in a pretty systematic way. The archiving, the writing, the photography: all of it’s an effort to try to preserve moments for recall at indefinite points in the feature, an effort to save the ephemeral and to be able to appreciate it later or (as is one’s wont) with other people. Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? My desire to save everything, myself, has a lot to do with my personal history. Without going into too many details, suffice it to say that most of my experiences were coloured by depression and isolation, and that my memory of those times is pretty fragmented, discontinuous. It really matters to me that I’ve got objective records of those times. It’s even more important to me that I keep records of everything following this time. The photo I reproduce above is one of the earliest photos I have, found on a disposable camera (one of several) that I got developed a few months ago and picked up only recently, a blessedly normal image of me with friends at a party where we were all enjoying ourselves. Where are my snows? They’re stored in high resolution in as many places and formats as I can store them. Now. That’s just my reaction to my past, my reason for preserving–and indexing, fear not, my hard drives and storage boxes are carefully honeycombed–as many artifacts relating to me as I can. How many people feel the same way about their pasts and their archives? How many institutions are driven by similar if unspoken urges? Why does the past matter so much? We’ve got rational reasons for all this, but I suspect that we have been discounting the irrational reasons for libraries and information storage systems of all kinds. I hope we haven’t been doing so to the detriment of all concerned.