Term Paper: Nan Goldin Photography

Pages: 12 (4021 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 12  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Women's Issues - Sexuality  ·  Buy This Paper


[. . .] Her photos are melancholic and speak of loss against a backdrop of normalcy (Raymond "Class Lecture"). She effectively, and empathetically, acknowledges the impact of individual loss on the body and mind.


By definition, obsession is a fixation, consuming passion, mania, compulsion, preoccupation, addiction are just some of the synonyms on offer (Parr 32). Obsession and human desire, like empathy, is another common theme used in Goldin's artistry. Much of her work reflects a desire to evolve and transcend one's current state, albeit through escape methods such as drug addiction, sexual relationships, or other forms of self-expression. Goldin is obsessed with the possibility of shaping the self without moral judgment (Danto 35).

Nan Goldin demonstrates an obsession with love and relationships. Two important works help to highlight this in her work. In two pieces affectionately called Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, USA, 1983, Nan depicts both herself and her long-time, abusive lover named Brian (Ruddy 359). They are dark photos, however the glint from Nan's wedding ring can be seen in the details. Brian is naked, sitting upright and smoking beside her in what looks like the light of the setting sun. Upon further inspection of the second image, the observer can notice the angle of Brian's body, which is turned away from her. It seems to indicate indifference. In addition, the true source of light is exposed as being a simple light bulb which is really unsophisticated light for a gifted photographer.

These images expose an obsession with true love, which is often very different from reality. The space and distance between the lovers, the artificiality and illusion of the light, and the body language of both partners offer visual clues about reality (360). The wedding ring she wears hints at the pursuit of idealistic love and an obsession with projecting an image to the world about a couple's desiring of each other. What can also be inferred is sorrow associated with a dying relationship (361). As Brian smokes, Goldin looks hesitant and unsure -- weak and weary. In truth, the relationship between the two was full of conflict and physical abuse. A subsequent photo, Nan One Month after Being Battered, New York City, USA, 1984, shows Goldin beaten wearing bright red lipstick and sporting a black eye (363). This is an example of depictions of obsession so common in Goldin's work.

In a 1997 interview with Michael Eade, Goldin discusses her aim and underlying theories about desire and love affairs (16). She states that her photos are not posed and that her work can best be classified as romantic. She also asserts that her ultimate aim is commentary using cleverness, irony, wit, and unconventional thought. For example, she seems to be obsessed with sexual labels. She considers her work a political discourse regarding ideas about gender. She states:

Of course it has a political agenda, it always has. The agenda is about making what is considered private in a society, public… it's about making it clear that all possibilities of gender and sexuality are legitimate in life, and any choice is as valid as any other…I think there are many genders. I have transsexual friends, pre-op friends, female-to-male transsexual friends, gay friends, bisexual friends. Nobody is supposed to symbolize anything. The work is about what it's about; it's not symbolic (16).

One could also argue that Goldin is obsessed with sex. Intercourse, androgyny, women bathing, naked bodies, exposed breasts and displays of affection are her most common photographic motifs. She is openly bisexual, and many of her photographs have very sensual and sexual undertones. This aspect of her work, however, is deeper than the sex as indicated by Goldin's statement that sex is "a mirror for the soul and thus part of a deeper and more complex relationship, linked to the pains and joys of love and friendship" (Ruddy 348). Her work breaks down personal boundaries allowing the viewer to see rare, intimate moments between lovers and friends, without boxes and labels.

Another area of obsession for Nan Goldin is drug use. At a very early age, she became a heavy drug user and required rehabilitation (Thomas 74). Many of her photos are of people using drugs and ironically are by a person on drugs. It is worth noting however, that despite her own drug invoked state during many of her shoots, she remained very clear in her artistic abilities. Nearly all of her photographs have pristine clarity (Saltz "Chasing a Ghost). She has the uncanny ability to capture all going on around her no matter what her own mental and emotional condition might be.

Goldin is also an artist obsessed with historical reflection. Many of her subjects are photographed repeatedly over time to illustrate their human evolution (Raymond "Class Lecture"). This is particularly true of her photos depicting the HIV / AIDS situation of the 1980s. Goldin has said that her approach involves photographing life from the standpoint of risk and uncontrollable possibilities, which comes from experience (Chrisafis "My Camera Has Saved My Life"). She takes advantage of the immediacy inherent in photography. Viewers are welcomed into moments of utmost intimacy -- lovemaking, hospitalization, violence, addiction and the rollercoaster of human emotions.

In addition, she is obsessed with intimately sharing her own personal history. Her work is an honest diary of her own turbulent life and traumas, as well as her love experiences. She also admits to religiously keeping a personal journal. In a 2011 interview, Goldin states:

I have nothing to do with Nan Goldin. She died about ten years ago… I've had so many changes. Before I was battered and after. Before I was on drugs and after. That's not what I am talking about. I'm talking about this public Nan Goldin; this famous person, this cult figure, has nothing to do with me (O'Brien 151).

Nan focuses on the evolutionary journey of all people, but in particular those on the fringes of society. This is what makes her work memorable and impactful.

Perhaps the most important analysis of Goldin's obsessive expression in her work is her obsession with the truth as a whole. Her preferred settings are the interior spaces that tend to showcase personal dramas. Her collections feature trashy kitchens, unmade beds and crowded bars. She also focuses heavily on the interplay of relationships, showing diverse couples making love or kissing. Her use of color and light are strategic tools for showing honest emotion, and she often infuses addiction, abuse and other extremes in ways that subtly portray them as being somehow chic or stylish. The result is bleakness that creates an empathetic and sad response in the observer. She documents everything as the appearance of essential expressions of self (Danto 34).

Modern Themes and Works

Today, Nan Goldin lectures and teaches while continuing to not only do photography, but also film. She remains a controversial figure -- crossing lines where others will not. In 2004, she created a very moving film called Sisters, Saints & Sibyls, a centerpiece of an exhibition titled "Chasing a Ghost" (Saltz "Chasing a Ghost"). It is a 35-minute three-screen and musical projection of the suicide of her troubled older sister, Barbara. Mixing family snapshots with her own photographs and other videos, she lets viewers in on the devastating impact major events like her sister's death have had on her life.

Such pieces continue to evoke empathy and offer commentary about real life vs. illusions (Kois 53). Some of the facts she reveals about her and her sister's upbringing include the fact that her father really wanted a boy and that their mother was very hard to please. Barbara, a beautiful and gifted girl, was continually corrected on her posture, etiquette and speech. When their brother was born, he became the center of both parent's affections. Goldin pokes at the illusion of the perfect family and illustrates how it ultimately led a horrific end for herself and her sister. This is the reason she is so dedicated to truth-telling in her work. She shares disturbing images of one of her later rounds of rehab and the deep burns she self-inflicted on her arm with cigarettes. She seems to say that where there is no honesty, truth and love, peace cannot reside (Williams 26).

Much of Goldin's art is criticized for being overly raw and manipulative (Squiers 16). The addition of her musical selections has been mocked for carrying too much other narrative (Chrisafis "My Camera"). Some examples include melancholy songs such as Johnny Cash's aching cover of the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" or screaming and violent quarrels which add an empathetic touch. Sisters, Saints & Sibyls also begins with images of paintings of Saint Barbara. Goldin explains that the saint converted to Christianity and was beheaded by her father, but she declines to elaborate further allowing the observer to conclude what they will.

Many supporters argued that this piece, more than the others,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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