Sex, AIDS, drugs, love, violence, grief, drama, abuse and death. Nan Goldin’s (1953) camera has been capturing all these subjects for over fifty years. The things she photographs are taken from her own life. She doesn’t want to stage any of her shots in order to “show exactly how it was”. She took pictures of her friends having sex, she took a picture of herself when she was completely beaten up as a result of domestic abuse by her boyfriend, she took pictures of a friend staring out of a window, she shows her friends when they’re laughing, or when they are grieving. She even took a picture of her best friends open casket at her funeral. Perhaps it is difficult for many people to decide whether these photographs have to be received as art or a mere photo album of friends. Her photographs can be found in almost every modern and contemporary art museum (Tate Modern, MoMA, Centre Pompidou, Whitney, Stedelijk Museum: you name it) and she is named in art historical photography handbooks as a very influential photographer. Does being part of handbooks and museum collections simply imply and determine what’s art and what is not?
It is – actually – not an inappropriate question to ask since she started to photograph people for another reason than to make art. She started taking pictures because her sister committed suicide when Nan was young. When Nan realised she did not remember her anymore, she never wanted to lose a real memory of anyone again. In her photographs, she just shows us her daily grinds. She wants to obsessively record every detail of her life. Goldin herself perceives her work as “the diary I let people read”. And she tells us that the pictures are a result of relationships, not observations.
So why would we perceive her photographs as art? I think it shows a wonderful zeitgeist of the 80’s and the 90’s in New York. I’m not trying to belittle and depreciate her work in any way. I think it offers a very interesting sociological insight of the lives of her friends. The pictures are true and intimate without pretension or charades. They are a mirror of the flourishing drag queen scene in New York, the rising up of the grungy punk and drugs scene and in the 70’s and 80’s and the devastating loss of AIDS in her New York community.
Her biggest accomplishment – although I don’t believe it was her initial intention – is that she’s done a great deal of including people who are usually defined as “marginalised” – such as homosexuals and drag queens – in the art world. Because of the way she casually depicts them, in a way you casually depict your family and friends, she enables emancipation of them. She is not provoking or staging them as “not normal”. She simply offers a picture of how she sees her friends.
However, don’t call her a voyeur! As she said it best: “I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history”.