Ends and Beginnings: The Generative Photographs of Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin’s Diving for Pearls is a beautiful book of pairings published in 2016 by Steidl on the occasion of the exhibition of her work at Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover. Lyric correspondences Goldin identified, or harmonic, images echoing each other or gesturally complicit: the handsome, wise face of a friend paired with a Dürer from the Louvre; the caught hand gesture of a child at a Coney Island House of Horrors with the 19th-century painting The Nightmare by Louis Janmot at Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon; and Goldin’s self-portrait, 1998, double-exposed and then again, against a double-exposed photograph of David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar from 1983.
Pairing is the expansive impulse of Nan Goldin, who values collaborations and things being open to elaboration and additions—to get the story right, as she has said. In looking at the images on the spreads of this entrancing book, it is my sense that as well as being a close looker, Goldin is also a good listener. The book has about it an aural component, being richly about tone, like the information that comes to you after a bell has stopped pealing. So her own self-portraits abutting the photographs of two friends, now lost among the multitudes still resonant in her memory, are both carefully conceived and intuitive, consistent with the manner, she says, that determines her work. In the interview that follows, “beauty” is spoken. Goldin says, about her photographs from Eden and After, “I desire the beauty. I’m attracted to people who are beautiful. And my people are all kinds of beautiful.” Across the page from her self-portraits are the photographs of David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar. In 2018, the Whitney Museum mounted a retrospective exhibition of the work of David Wojnarowicz. An article about the exhibition in the New York Times (Christine Smallwood, September 7, 2018) quoted his having said, as reassurance to photographer Zoe Leonard, that her photographs needn’t be only political in content. He told her, “Zoe, these are so beautiful, and that’s what we are fighting for. We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty. If you let go of that, we don’t have anywhere to go.”
In her newest body of work, a series of portraits of Thora Siemsen, beauty is where Goldin has gone. Gone inside, as well, quarantining (not the locked-in quarantine of addiction she’d described) but in, to her Brooklyn home, with Thora. Thora’s beauty is the kind writer Glenn O’Brien identifies in Diving for Pearls. Through Goldin’s eye, he says, “We begin to see beauty not as an unattainable ideal, but within reach, where it belongs. Unofficial beauty. Dissenting beauty. Rebel beauty.” And further, “True beauty isn’t found in dramatic bones, ethereal settings, trompe l’oeil cosmetics and hair, but in the atypical and the eccentric accidents of behavior.”
In an apartment with the world outside gone silent and still, two people taking time, Goldin marking the passing of time and deepening relationship, which she describes as a kind of romance between friends, but impelled by beauty, love and desire. Portraits of Thora’s open face, photographs of Thora’s pale odalisque body, the camera’s subject reading, resting, floating.
In the photo Thora at the Mirror, Thora leans in—the gesture suggesting the careful application of mascara to lashes. Half the photograph is in deep shadow, the other partially lit, showing the rich wood of the vanity. Intersecting the image is Thora—in shadow and light. A luminescent pearly light. The long back cleaved and drawing attention to the vertebrae, both perfect and unnaturally attenuated, like Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque, 1814, whose face is revealed through her turned head— Thora’s only partially visible in the mirror. Ingres is called up, his rendering flesh warm and flawless, but Caravaggio also comes to mind with his use of light and shadow—revealing, concealing—a safe place into which to withdraw.
In Thora’s open but also questioning gaze back to Nan Goldin, who holds the camera, there’s the metre of time, a suggestion that it’s there, even in this current period of entropy. You read time, too, in the sky photographs Goldin has taken in the course of her travels over 30 years. She says she exhibits them unframed, unbound, limitless in the way the sky is. She’d said she wanted to photograph emptiness, which has to be something indeterminate, easiest to see if beyond grasping, beyond our focus, out of focus. The skies can be read that way, but Goldin says she never intentionally put a camera out of focus. She told us, “When I took those pictures, that’s how I focused. It’s out of focus because my eyes were out of focus.” So you see the way she saw and, to the extent that real, felt empathy is possible, we can, when we lift our eyes to her photographs, be inside her head and, for a moment, join her there.
Generosity is a quality that suffuses all of Goldin’s work. Free of judgment, instead filled with admiration for her subjects, she’d written in her introduction to the first edition of The Other Side, in 1992, “This is a book about beauty. And about my love for my friends.” They are her gifts to show her friends how beautiful they were, how much she regarded them for their courage “in recreating themselves according to their fantasies.” They are her family, relationships better than any other for having been chosen. Her books open with dedications to people who’d been close but are gone; she leaves no one behind. But the work has changed. She told us the pictures in The Ballad smell like sex, and the people have dirty feet. The photographs were analogue and the outcomes often unpredictable, where, as she said, technical mistakes allowed for magic.
Relationships have changed, too. In the conversation that follows she said, “In the past I have been attracted to people who lived hard and close to the edge and ended up burning up. I’m not so attracted to that idea anymore.”
The quiet photographs of Thora are dye sublimation prints, mounted on aluminum. Goldin said she’d loved the early slide shows with the immediacy of the projector’s whir and the slides clicking into place, but the digital process is giving her something else. Looking at Thora, you see the depth of the black and shadow and the milk, pearl, marble light, as luminescent as the subject it rests on. This is the work now.
This interview was conducted with the artist at her home in Brooklyn on May 25, 2021.
Border Crossings: I’m interested in how artists are shaped. When you were 17 you attended what you have described as a hippie free school based on the Summerhill philosophy, where you never studied the same thing from one day to the next. It must have been a fairly progressive school because you were watching films by Jack Smith and Andy Warhol.
Nan Goldin: It was brilliant. It was run by graduate students from MIT, who got us a grant from Polaroid, and that’s how I became a photographer. For me, it was a great system because I had been thrown out of every school I went to and it was the only one that wouldn’t throw me out. My father had taught at Boston University, and there was a film history teacher there who allowed us to come to his classes, and there was also a cinema in Harvard Square called the Orson Welles that showed four films a day, so we went there. You have freedom when you don’t have classes, so basically what we did was go to the cinema. And I took pictures. We would be studying things like expatriates in Paris and “ontology recapitulates phylogeny,” whatever that means. I retained none of that knowledge, but I did retain the movies I saw.
Were you a wild kid? You have said that your dream was to be a junkie and that you wanted to be “a slum goddess.”
I worshiped Donna Jordan and I worshiped Viva. I had a period in my life when I was isolated at boarding school. I’ve never really talked about it, but that school was very strange. It was basically run by a pederast, his mother and two Great Danes. The teachers were all male and very few girls attended as students. We were in a house down the road from the main campus and I had nothing to do at that point, so I started to listen to the banana album and get copies of the East Village Other. That became my dream. I especially wanted to rebel against suburban America and everything it represented. When I started doing dope in 1972, it was very, very underground. It was basically being used by jazz musicians and my boyfriends.
But having been at the free school was what turned you on to film?
Of course. I had a Super 8 camera in the late ’60s and I used to have my friends sit nude and I’d zoom in and out of them. I thought I was making Warhol films. Unfortunately, we can’t find any of that footage but we did find the stuff from the late ’70s and some of that material turns up in Memory Lost.
That’s the footage where Chrissie is on the beach at Provincetown.
Yes. It’s Gabor Maté speaking. He’s a philosopher, writer and harm-reductionist who ran clinics in Vancouver. He was the head doctor at the first legally supervised injection site in North America. He made it famous and it’s called Insite. Anyway, he wrote a book called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which is my bible, and at the end of the film his is the voice you hear over the Super 8 footage. He talks about how using drugs comes from a normal human need for relief from trauma and that the things we get from using them are what allow us to survive as human beings. He asks people, “What do you get from it?” And they say they feel more social, they feel better in their skin, they feel smarter. That’s what he meant when he said that doing drugs is totally human and totally normal.
So when Chrissie falls backwards into the ocean at the end of Memory Lost, is she drowning or is she falling back into some kind of rebirth? It’s as if you sound the siren call at the end of the film.
That’s true. She’s falling into the nurture of water. I didn’t think of the symbolism, but the way she’s falling back indicates a relief, a sense of complete trust and euphoria. The main thing I want to make clear is that I’m not anti-drug in any way; what I’m against is the stigma around drug use. Even though I started P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to fight the opioid profiteers, I’m not fighting the actual opioids. I work with people who are still using. I have no value judgment on that at all.
The last eight minutes of Memory Lost are very dark.
The whole thing is devastating. I’ve had critics crying when they leave the exhibition. It’s devastating to me. Most of it is about the darkness of being trapped in addiction and it’s as dark as it gets. But I end with Gabor trying to destigmatize it. And that’s the point. Sirens is about the pleasure and euphoria and sensuality of using drugs and Memory Lost is about addiction, the darkness of my addiction and what I saw when I was there. That’s my eye on the world during that period.