Nan Goldin was creating startlingly candid confessional art long before it was fashionable to do so. Now, reports Michael Bracewell, she's belatedly having her first solo British show
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE AMERICAN photographer Nan Goldin first came to prominence in the middle of the Eighties, with a remarkable slide-show of 700 images called "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency". Initially shown to a musical soundtrack which included Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Petula Clark, and The Velvet Underground, "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" was Goldin's photographic diary. With a clarity and frankness that gave the photographs the emotional punch of watching a couple fight in the street, and the affection and good humour found in cherished family albums, this sequence of images depicted the lives and loves of a group of young people, most of whom were Goldin's close friends. There were also self-portraits, in as much as Goldin would include those images of herself that were relevant to her narrative.

Today, as Britain has become dominated by a culture of confession, from docu-soaps to newspaper columnists who serve up slices of their private lives, there is a sense in which the instant mediation of "real life" has become cheapened. With this in mind, the lesson to be learnt from the largely autobiographical photo-graphs of Nan Goldin - who this month, despite having already had an entire retrospective in New York, has her first solo exhibition in Britain - can be summed up in her own words: "These pictures come out of relationships, not observation."

Put another way, Goldin's work rejects the armour of irony, self-promotion and calculated distancing which typifies much of the current cultural obsession with "authenticity". Her photographs of friends, their friends and lovers, taken in their kitchens or bedrooms as they are simply getting on with their lives (or collapsing under the weight of their problems) relate their subjects to the viewer in a way which is utterly open-handed, and generous with compassion.

As portraits of human emotion, they could be described as full-frontal, nothing being concealed. Their purpose, though, is not to titillate, judge or intrude, but to articulate, with total honesty, those states of being which we all share. Figurative and compelling, Goldin's photographs demonstrate the advice once given by the novelist Colette to an aspiring writer: "Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you."

Goldin began to create her photographic diary, recording her contemporaries' highs and lows, in the middle of the Seventies. She had such an eye for detail that her pictures - portraying conflict, parties, boredom, sex, bereavement, addiction, tenderness - seemed all-encompassing, timeless statements to which anyone could relate. Goldin managed to make the local concerns of a small group of characters articulate the universal truths of the human condition. Shot in colour, these photographs convey a sense of immediacy and intimacy that, in turn, make one feel that one is a first-hand witness to the scenes they describe.

Born in Washington DC in 1953, Nan Goldin ran away from home when she was 14 years old and started taking photographs when she was 18 - the age at which her older sister had committed suicide. Goldin herself was only 11 when her sister took her own life, and a psychiatrist predicted at the time that she would follow the same course. Instead, Goldin started to take Polaroid photographs, and then to experiment with Super-8 films. She attended the New England School of Photography, studying fashion photography, but described herself as "too confused, technically" to work with any success (or, one imagines, much interest) in that genre.

She was heavily influenced by the work of Andy Warhol, his transvestite "superstars", Hollywood movies from the Thirties and Forties, and European cinema. She was also inspired by the work of the gritty documentary photographer Diane Arbus, and that of Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, whose genius for photographing the nuances of human expression is a quality which Goldin shares.

Goldin became addicted to drugs at a young age, when she went to Boston with a boyfriend, and she was also treated for alcoholism. It was in Boston that she first encountered the drag queens and transsexuals who became her new family, and whose potent, self-mythologising glamour she would anatomise in her collection of portraits "The Other Side".

In her introduction to "The Other Side", Goldin related these portraits to the subjects of her pictures in "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency": "After years of experiencing and photographing the struggle of the two genders with their codes and definitions and their difficulty in relating to each other, it was liberating to meet people who had crossed these gender boundaries. Most people get scared when they can't categorise others - by race, by age and, most of all, by gender. It takes nerve to walk down the street when you fall between the cracks. Some of my friends shift genders daily from boy to girl and back again."

In "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" and "The Other Side", Goldin showed us a genuine, volatile bohemia, a world of cheap hotel rooms, low-rent apartments and dirty bedsits. As a member of that society, rather than a cultural tourist, she caught the ambience, whether in the amber glow of cheap shaded lamps or the brutalising glare of naked light-bulbs. One of her favourite songs, "All Tomorrow's Parties" by the Velvet Underground and Nico, captured the rituals of companionship, coupledom and the interminable hours between preparing to go out and arriving at a party, and in these collections Goldin achieved the same. The heroic images of glamour and sensuality brought together in "The Other Side" can be seen as a reaction to the instability, conflict and descent into illness and addiction which Goldin had earlier portrayed in "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency".

A key work for Goldin arose from her emotional rites of passage while photographing the life and death of her best friend, the writer and actress Cookie Mueller. Mueller died in November 1989, the first of many friends whom Goldin was to lose to Aids-related illnesses. Goldin's later autobiographical film "I'll Be Your Mirror" would centre around the idea of witnessing death from this disease. Mueller had starred in two John Waters films, "Multiple Maniacs" and "Female Trouble", and the best of her writings in her posthumous collection of essays and stories, "Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black", revealed a wit and emotional range which put them on a par with Dorothy Parker's. In a statement written to accompany the exhibition of her photographs of Mueller, Goldin offered an insight into her work which comes close to defining her entire relationship with photography: "I used to think that I couldn't lose anyone or anything if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pictures of Cookie from over the 13 years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact it shows me how much I've lost."

While continuing to document the lives of her and her friends, Goldin has extended her range to include landscapes and, importantly, the weather. But, perhaps partly because of her traumatised childhood, and the fact that she substituted the adopted, extended family shown in her photographs for her real family, Goldin's work continues to centre around issues of dependency, addiction and recovery. In one of her best-known and most emotive self-portraits, "Nan After Being Battered", Goldin faces her own camera with blackened eyes and a swollen face - the efforts of an abusive boyfriend. And as this image confronts the blunt horror of domestic violence, it also shows Goldin's courage in questioning her own role within this abuse.

In a later work, "Relapse/ Detox", the state of dependency is described in a sequence of photographs which articulate the pain of addiction by juxtaposing self-portraits and photographs of heroin- clutter with images of landscape and weather. In this, Goldin depicts addiction as simply an occupational hazard of being alive. This can be addiction to drugs, alcohol, relationships - or, for Goldin, to photography itself. As she once put it: "People cling together. It's a biochemical reaction. It stimulates that part of your brain that is only satisfied by love, heroin or chocolate."

`Thanksgiving', an exhibition of photographs by Nan Goldin, will be at White Cube, 44 Duke Street, London SW1, from 26 November 1999 until 15 January 2000