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Love scars

by Katrina Osborne, 15 December 2016

Katrina Osborne immerses herself in one of photography’s most fearless chronicles.

Nan and Brian in bed, New York City 1983 © Nan Goldin
Nan and Brian in bed, New York City 1983 © Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin has always declared that she isn’t interested in her own life being ‘susceptible to anyone else’s version of her history’. It is an unwavering life mantra, and one which underscored the peak of her creative expression in the 1980s.

Goldin was born in Washington dc and grew up in Boston. In 1965, aged eleven, she experienced a significant and formative loss, with the suicide of her eighteen year-old sister, Barbara. At the time of her death, Barbara had been struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, alienated in the conservative setting of 1960s suburban America. Ironically, her suicide brought with it its own set of complex taboos.

Conscious of her own awakening as a sexual being, and observing her family’s tight-lipped response to Barbara’s suicide in the weeks and months following her death, Goldin concluded that ‘denial sustained suburban life’. Desperate to escape the suffocating confines of this Pleasantville-like environment, she decided to leave home at the age of fourteen. Her goal: to transform herself without losing herself.

Four years after leaving home, Goldin picked up a camera and started taking photographs. It was the genesis of an œuvre that was to become a kind of portraiture-based autobiography. Goldin was deeply affected by how swiftly her recollections of her sister faded; she has commented that Barbara exists in her mind as a haze of half-remembered conversations and incorporeal memories. She soon realised that photography was a means to retaining a tangible memory of people and events. Goldin states, ‘When I started drinking and going wild and doing drugs, I initially took pictures so that I could remember what I’d done the night before. That was the bottom line. Then it became a more obsessive kind of documenting.’ As a young woman, Goldin’s camera captured a turbulent whirl of wild parties, fierce friendships, experimentation, sadness and euphoria.

In 1978, Goldin moved from Boston to the Bowery in New York City. Photography proved the perfect tool for exploring and documenting life in her new surrounds, and she captured experiences of drug use, love, sexual experimentation and violence – intimate and immediate moments rendered permanent through their transformation into photographs. Goldin notes, ‘The camera [became] as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex’. Working as she did within the lurid palette of cibachrome printing, her photographs took on a raw and gritty aesthetic that intensified each captured moment.

The photographs taken in 1978 became the foundation for a public slideshow, later (in 1981) titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. In this accessible, affordable and viewer-friendly format, Goldin’s honest, uncompromising images were shown in the clubs of downtown New York City, accompanied by a punk and soul soundtrack that ranged from the Velvet Underground to Nina Simone. It brought The Ballad to life, appearing as an extraordinarily intimate photo album or yearbook – viewers not involved in the particular scenes before them could still relate to the visceral themes presented. Exploring the most intimate of subject matter, Goldin’s photography stripped away preconceived ideas about discretion. And screened amidst the horror of New York’s 1980s AIDS epidemic, The Ballad showed love as being both born in, and having departed from, the city.

Suzanne crying, NYC, 1985 © Nan Goldin

One of The Ballad’s most touching photographs, Suzanne crying, NYC 1985, demonstrates Goldin’s capacity to capture an authentic intimacy in an intensely private setting. There is no pretence or flattery in Suzanne crying; the photograph’s subject is exposed in a stark close-up, her face without make-up, her forehead bunched, and her head turned down in quiet despond. The angle of the image makes it evident that Goldin’s camera loomed above her subject, almost aggressive in its intrusion into this moment of human frailty and vulnerability.

At the same time, the gentle intimacy of the image proves Goldin’s skill in using the camera as a natural extension of herself. When considering her relationship with her art, Goldin states, ‘It’s as if my hand were a camera. If it were possible, I’d want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing … The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me.’ Anyone who has been the subject of a photograph knows that the presence of a camera creates an unconscious self-awareness that can’t be controlled. In Suzanne crying, the barriers between photographer and subject are dissolved, meaning the viewer is a party to the integrity of a fleeting moment. The image is inspired and enabled by Goldin’s love, and her deep-rooted desire to document her own history, and the history of those around her.

Philippe H. and Suzanne kissing at Euthanasia, New York City, 1981 © Nan Goldin

At its core, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is concerned with this love. Philippe H. and Suzanne Kissing at Euthanasia, New York City 1981 portrays two people in a passionate kiss, exposed by the stark and illuminating flash of the camera. In the photograph, love is born at the same moment as it is marked by the future breaking of the embrace. Goldin bears witness, her documentary style transforming the temporary into the permanent and the private into the public. The Ballad presents these fleeting, intimate moments, drawing an empathetic response from the viewer.

The violence of the embrace captured in Philippe H. and Suzanne kissing foreshadows Goldin’s understanding of the dark side of love and intimacy. Reflecting on Ballad, Goldin states, ‘I often feel that men and women are irrevocably strangers to each other, irreconcilably unsuited, almost as if they were from different planets. But there is an intense need for coupling in spite of it all. Even if relationships are destructive, people cling together.’ The tortured bonds that bind lovers, and the idea of ‘love departed’, is painfully evident in Nan and Brian in Bed, NYC 1983. The photograph shows Goldin lying on a bed, gazing towards her long-time partner, Brian, as he drags on a cigarette with eyes downcast, averted. When describing her relationship with Brian, Goldin stated they were ‘chained together by unsolvable emotional and material ties’. While the bedroom setting is intimate, the sense of distance between the two lovers is palpable; Brian looks out of the frame while Goldin looks longingly towards him. We perceive their feelings of alienation and distance, and wonder if her gaze will ever be returned.

Nan after being battered, 1984 © Nan Goldin

Nan and Brian in bed can be read as a foreboding precursor to the most devastating image in The Ballad. In 1984, Goldin photographed her own face after surviving a brutal domestic assault that left her beaten and nearly blinded. Goldin states that the photograph represents ‘the ultimate outcome of the subtext of [The Ballad], how extremely difficult it is to be in a couple, the underlying violence between men and women’. Perhaps more than any other photograph in the collection, Nan after being battered 1984 represents the artist’s commitment to truth in photography. Goldin notes, ‘There are people who have said that I pretended to be battered for the photograph. Some of my friends heard the beating and ignored it while it was happening, while others, all men, subsequently told me it was a sign of his love – which is such a bizarre read on attempted death blows.’ Staring boldly into the camera with her face swollen and bruised and her lips painted red, Goldin demands the viewer recognise her experience.

Siobhan in the shower, New York City, 1991 © Nan Goldin

Equally defined by its bravery and battle scars, Goldin’s Ballad is also an expression of the nature of womankind, and what it means to be female. In Siobhan in the shower, New York City 1991 Goldin’s subject stands in the shower, soapsuds trickling down her lithe frame. Her long arms casually grip the shower frame, armpit hair glistening with drops of water. Exposed and unflinching, she gazes down the barrel of Goldin’s camera. We are made to confront Siobahn’s direct stare before we appraise her naked form. Goldin proudly declares, ‘The women shown together in Ballad offer a sense of solidarity, almost Amazonian strength, united with deep tenderness, openly tactile without self-consciousness’. At once vulnerable and resilient, Siobahn represents Goldin’s ode to her friendships with powerful women, rendered whole by complex frailties.

Today, Goldin’s memories of friendship are frequently tinged with nostalgia and sadness. She states, ‘I am still close to many of the people in Ballad, though we are no longer a community; we are no longer a family. And then, I have lost so many people I expected to grow old with… Some of them… still come to me in my dreams.’ AIDS is an undeniable element of The Ballad, with its presence leaving Goldin’s work as much a ballad of loss as love. The disease lurks in images of joy and happiness, appearing before the camera as a presence that destroys not just the human body but the intimacy shared by those on its frontline. Many of Goldin’s friends were directly affected by the disease, or died because of it. As a result, her photographs exist beyond their personal purpose of memory. When viewed in the present, Goldin’s work can be seen as both a memorial of life for those who survive the dead, and a raw documentation of the disease’s devastation.

Mark tattooing Mark, Boston, 1978 © Nan Goldin

In Mark Tattooing Mark, Goldin’s close friend Mark Morrisroe bends intently over a friend, tattoo gun in hand. The machine partly obscures his face, leading the viewer to gaze intently at the technicolour tropical isle and orange tiger he is etching into his human canvas’ back. In this photograph, the male figures are so close as to be almost interlocking. Through the act of tattooing, there is a reciprocal extension of self into other – masculine toughness subtly and subversively bleeds into brightly coloured tenderness.

Morrisroe was one of Goldin’s favourite subjects. A talented and innovative photographer overlooked by the art elite due to his disdain of convention, he made a living as a hustler on the streets of New York. He died in 1989 of AIDS-related complications. When Mark Tattooing Mark is viewed today, the perceived permanence of the act of tattooing is overshadowed by the haunting presence of death. Again, this duality speaks to Goldin’s determination to create images that represent the fragility of life and her desire to imprint her friends’ presence permanently on the world through her art. By bringing private stories into the public eye, the photographs act as a memorial to the experience of love, loss and change.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was a landmark photographic slideshow. More than creating a curated narrative of Goldin’s story and the stories of those around her, it exposed a new level of photographic intimacy, stripping away conventional levels of privacy and the barriers between subject and photographer. To place yourself, exposed, in the wide open, is a brave mission. To position your friends within a filter-free frame is liberating, but also provides the means for self-reflection.

Goldin’s photographs depict the human condition, courtesy of the relationship she has with her camera, her desire to document memory and the richness of the lives around her. Through The Ballad, we are reminded of the strength of life, the fragility of existence and the bonds we have with others, whether they are fleeting or lasting.