I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
My first encounter with Nan Goldin’s ongoing epic sequence of photographs, The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency felt like a swift kick to the stomach. The time was the mid-’80s, the place was the East Village, and I was deep into what I thought was a very glamorous, ambition-fueled despair. I identified with Nan’s subjects and the porno-luridness of her color, not that I wanted to think about it very much. But her pictures lodged in the mind, impossible to shake loose. I had tended to romanticize the world that Nan was presenting from the inside out, as it really was. There’s love there, but don’t kid yourself. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but a lot has changed. More people have died, for one thing. Others, like Nan, have survived and grown. Her recent work is more selectively elegiac and openly tender, commemorating her friendship with Cookie Mueller, recording her own stay in the hospital and her intimate relationship with her girlfriend. I caught up with her just before she left for a year’s residency in Germany on a DAAD grant.
Steven Westfall Do you think that photography can instruct in some way?
Nan Goldin I don’t know. That depends on how it’s used. It can reveal. It can help one understand one’s self and one’s life and the world. The pictures of Cookie [Mueller] are coming out in a book. I’ve been working on it since the show at Pace-MacGill. And I’ve been approached by about four different people to do a new book lately, But I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do.
SW The Ballad of Sexual Dependency …
NG Returns …
SW Continues. What gave you the title?
NG It was from a Kurt Weill song. It’s not an exact translation but a compilation of different translations. It’s what I came up with.
SW I constructed this myth about you as someone who came to photography the way you pick up a Brownie Instamatic and just start shooting. There was an aura of haphazard urgency to the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, that seemed intensely un-art-like. I’m curious about how you got started taking pictures.
NG I left home when I was 13 or 14 and lived in communes and went to one of those free schools in the ’60s based on Summerhill in Massachusetts called Setya, which means the existence of the knowledge of truth. Rollo May’s daughter was one of the teachers at Setya and she got a grant from Polaroid. I became the school photographer and that’s how I started. I was about 15 or 16. When I was 18, I started living with this man who was in his thirties in downtown Boston and I fell in with these drag queens. I started living with them and photographing them. That’s when I started taking pictures seriously. At that point I had no photography education. I was very affected by early Warhol films and by Fellini. When I was at that hippy free school, I went to the movies every day because there were no classes really and in Boston, the film scene was really vital then. I saw Jack Smith’s films, I saw just incredible stuff. And French and Italian Vogue were my influences. I was very influenced by Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. I wanted to be a fashion photographer. I was living with these queens and I wanted to put them on the cover of Vogue. That was my big aspiration. I used to take the film to the drug store to get it processed. Then I decided to take a studio photography course, so I could learn to use a studio camera. I went to one class and I couldn’t deal with the technology. So I started taking classes with this man, Henry Horenstein. The first time he ever saw my work, he said, “Do you know the work of Larry Clark?” And he showed me Larry Clark’s work. He showed me Diane Arbus’s work. He showed me Weegee and August Sander.
SW So you saw Larry’s work, the same time you saw Diane Arbus’s work?
NG My reference to photography was fashion photography. So I had no real relationship to art photography at all.
SW They must have created quite an impression.
NG I just loved Larry’s work right from the beginning. I actually never liked Arbus’s pictures of transvestites. I still don’t. I love Arbus’s work, but not her work with transvestites.
SW What bugs you about the transvestites?
NG I think that Arbus’s work is all about herself. Her genius is about not wanting to be herself, about wanting instead to be each person that she photographed. At the time she was photographing them, she was really trying their skin on. It’s the work of someone with empathy that borders on psychosis. But I felt with the drag queens she was seeking to reveal them and that wasn’t my desire. My desire was to show them as a third gender, as another sexual option, a gender option. And to show them with a lot of respect and love, to kind of glorify them because I really admire people who recreate themselves and who manifest their fantasies publicly. I think it’s really brave. I just really have so much love and respect and attraction for the queens. So I don’t like her stripping them and exposing them according to her own preconceptions of who they are.
SW As psychologically-frayed wires.
NG When I look at a queen I don’t see a man dressed as a woman; I see a merger of a third gender. I see a kind of freedom.
SW Did you ever go to art school?
NG Yes, I did. I started going to this school called Image Works. It was an amazing place that existed in the early ’70s for a few years. And then the director drank it away; it went bankrupt. Lisette Modell, Gary Winograd, Robert Heinekein, all the big photo stars at the time were there. The teachers all came up from the Rhode Island School of Design. I had my first show when I was 19, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then I went to the school of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a couple of years. I’d already had this body of work when I came to school so they encouraged me to do the same thing, only better technically—and to go back and rephotograph the queens. I wasn’t living with them anymore and the photographs didn’t work at all. It’s not good work.
SW Were you doing black and white photographs at the time?
SW I remember the late ’60s and early ’70s as a very black-and-white world, moving from fashion photography to art. In the magazines I was looking at: the Fox and early issues ofParachute, down from Canada, Avalanche and, of course, Artforum; there was a lot of emphasis on the grainy black-and-white installation shot, on the grainy black-and-white film.
NG I wasn’t really aware of the art magazines. I was brought up on Interview, I subscribed to it since its first issue, from the age of about 13. A lot of black-and-white film. This work is going to be shown in Paris in September, the earliest work I ever did.
SW It’s going to be a retrospective?
NG Well, no—I’m having two shows in Paris in September. One is the Ballad and new work at a photo gallery. The other is at a gallery called Photo Du Jour, and it’s the early black-and-white drag queen photography and then the last eight-and-a-half months. I have been photographing drag queens who I’ve been hanging out with again. So it will have some of the new work.
SW But the early work that’s going to be shown in Paris was made prior to your use of the wide-angle lens,
NG Yes, prior to using the wide-angle and the strobe. There might be one or two shots from that period. But it’s mostly going to be the earliest work, when I was living with the queens.
SW What do you think was the difference?
NG Well, back then I was living with them. My whole life was about them. I wanted to be a drag queen and I was in love with one of them, which is a phenomenon that’s not discussed anywhere. I mean, being a woman, at age 19…
SW As a woman wanting to be a drag queen?
NG Well, a woman in love with a drag queen: like sexually in love with a drag queen. And I’m not the only woman. There was another woman who hung out on the scene, who’s still with the same drag queen 20 years later. They’re still together in Boston. I know a couple of other women now, who are with drag queens. But I remember going through psychology books trying to find something about it when I was 19. There was one little chapter in an abnormal psych book that made it sound so…I don’t know what they ascribed it to, but it was so bizarre. And that’s where I was at that time in my life. I lived with them; it was my whole focus. It was my whole context. Everything I did—that’s who I was with all the time. And that’s who I wanted to be. I was really kind of slavishly devoted to them. When I photograph the queens now, it’s very different from the work I did then because they’re not my whole life.
SW Obviously, there is a formal and technical difference. Moving to the wide-angle lens and strobe invites the intervention of a kind of technology.
NG Well, I never really learned technology. In October of 1990, I got a Leica. All the other years I used cameras that I could buy hot in the bar where I used to be a bartender. In the early ’70s, technology in the photo world was what Postmodernist theory is now. I have the same aversion to Postmodern theory as I did to technology. I don’t think either of them have anything to do with the creative process. I responded very strongly against the obsession with technology that was in the photo world in the early ’70s. When we went to school, it was the rocking tree school where your photographs had absolutely no content, but you made perfect pictures and perfect prints. And photographers, particularly male, only discussed their cameras and equipment. My response was to not get involved with that at all. Actually, we used to call ourselves the scratch and dust school. (laughter) Unfortunately, now that somebody is printing my early black-and-white work, it’s a bit of a problem because my negatives are so fucked-up. My students are still shocked by how little I know technically. They teach me a lot.
SW Maybe it’s a gift of postmodernism that we are in a position to appreciate gorgeous prints of fucked up negatives. I think of Barbara Ess’s pinhole camera. But let’s get back to where we were before. We were talking about…
NG Technology. What was more important for me, was that at the age of eighteen, I started drinking. They say nobody wants to grow up and be a junkie. I did. And did.
SW That’s part of the romance I was talking about. It’s very much a black and white world.
NG Yeah, it was and I had a totally romantic notion of being a junkie. I wanted to be one. I went through that briefly when I was eighteen; then I stopped. I started drinking when I started hanging out at the drag queen bar. Part of my work had to do with drinking. I wanted to remember everything that had happened the night before. When people talk about the immediacy in the work, that’s what it was about: this need to remember and record every single thing. Until I got sober, I was totally obsessed with memory. When I got sober I forgot everything, and it’s been sort of a big freedom. My memory’s terrible now.
SW You still religiously keep a journal.
NG I still do, but not like I used to do. I used to write while people were talking to me. I needed to write down everything. The thing is, a lot of it you can’t even read because I was so drunk. I wrote down everything and I haven’t reread any of it. Actually, when I was in Austin, after getting out of the hospital, I reread part of one journal and it helped me enormously to remember what it had really been like and what I’d really been like. I feel very lucky that I have them, but I still am not ready to deal with them.
SW A photograph shares something with obsessive journals in that differentiation of detail. There’s no hierarchy of detail in the photographic field. The person next to the person you’re concentrating on appears in the same focus.
NG I don’t know if that’s true about my new work though. I don’t think it is.
SW But your new work is much more directed.
NG Quite possibly. But there is something wonderful about the disinhibition of substances, you know. Because of the euphoria of substance use you think that the work is really good. It’s hard to feel adequate without them. It’s not hard. It’s just different. It’s a different process I have to learn.
SW It’s funny. When I was on my highs and making work, I really thought I could see around corners and what counted was the half-formed intent.
NG Well, I really believed when I did drugs that my brain opened. The drugs that I was doing were extremely mind-altering, but not necessarily mind expanding. In the end, anyway. But that sense of expansion came when I was under the euphoria of that drug. It’s not clear that it actually expanded my vision but I felt that it did. When you’re tied into that belief, it’s really hard to get sober as an artist. I really believed that if I couldn’t work without drugs, that I could not stay sober. I said that the whole time I was in the hospital.
SW Do you think that also ties into the notion of being part of a counterculture, or outside the mainstream, outside of your family, starting a new family that has so much invested in being disenfranchised.
NG Oh, I think those are two different issues—maintaining this position of being marginalized and different. I loved that position and I still maintain it to some extent. Drugs assured me that I wasn’t my mother, assured me that I wasn’t like the people that I see functioning in society whose structures I basically don’t approve of. Then there’s the internal feeling that that’s where your creativity lies, the belief that drugs really expand your vision, that you can see more and articulate more, realize more. Writing in the journal was left-brain activity; the obsessive, neurotic need to retain. I felt like the drugs freed me to my right brain.
SW The photographs from that time have a funny duality. On one hand, they’re more improvisational, spontaneous. On the other hand, they’re the most detailed and accurate document of what was there, from whatever warped angle. If you were listing sideways, the photograph was going to list sideways also.
NG Right. But that was a lot of the power of the work; that I was in the exact same state that I was recording. These were the people I lived with, these were my friends, these were my family, this was myself. I’d photograph people dancing while I was dancing Or people having sex while I was having sex. Or people drinking while I was drinking. There was no separation between me and what I was photographing. Also, I have this real acceptance of things. I still do. I can be a real dis queen, but I don’t judge what I’m looking at. I don’t name or analyze it. I just accept what I’m looking at as being what it is. That’s something that shows up in my work. I see people as who they are. When you talk about the lack of hierarchy of detail, there’s the same lack of hierarchy on a lot of levels.
SW Yeah. In the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, I think there’s a withholding of judgment. The color in the Ballad is like a bruise. It’s a non-aesthetic color. The color in your new photographs seems more considered. Also, the older photographs aren’t layered together in a grid. They’re in more of linear sequence; a nonlinear line. Whereas putting your recent photographs into a grid established a very specific set of sequences.
NG But that’s what happened in the Ballad slide show. The sequencing was more exacting even than it is now. That’s why I’m doing grids, just because I haven’t been doing a new slide show. I do the Ballad once in a while, and I put new work into it. I want to start constructing a new one, but I haven’t yet. So it’s like having a subcategory from the show up on the wall by having these grids. I feel limited by the single image. I’ve been shooting very heavily the last six months. I don’t know what to do with the work unless I put it into a slide tray. It’s not enough to just make prints and put them on the wall. I don’t believe in the decisive moment. I’m interested in the cumulative images, and how they affect each other, the relationships between them. There is so much more said than by a single image.
SW Your taste has definite activist edge to it. The slide show presumes a larger audience than a single person standing in front of a photograph. It’s more of social outreach into a social arena…
NG Definitely. For the slide show, the music is extremely important, as a soundtrack that’s about 40 different songs over the 45 minutes. And the slide show comprises 750 images shown in 45 minutes. It’s just like a film, really. In a way, the Ballad is a book of film. The slide show is really the original work. Having the narrative voice of the soundtrack gives it larger context than just pictures of my friends. That’s where the relationships between the personal and the universal come in, where I can make more political points about sexual politics, about gender, about relationships. That comes from the juxtaposition of images with narrative, with lyrics. That’s what I’m frustrated about with single images. It’s a way of owning and clarifying my voice and of directing the images, so the viewer can see the images. There’s a lot of manipulation in film or in a slide show. You can really affect the viewer emotionally. I’m happiest when I’m in an dark room with images projected. That’s when I feel happiest in my life, is when I’m in a film.
SW Have you made films?
NG I made films when I was a teenager, the worst films ever made. I just used to put my friends in the room, make them take their clothes off, put these hot lights on them and then zoom in and out on them. And they make early Warhol films look like …
SW David Lean or something …
NG (laughter) Exactly. Like a really strict narrative. I mean they’re really, really boring. I never did anything with them, but I keep talking about making film. I’m thinking of buying a movie camera before I go to Germany.
SW When you were making your early work, you said how important it was to remember what you couldn’t remember. Now you can remember, but the camera has a kind of funny function as a surrogate memory and, in a way, it replaces memory.
NG I don’t rely on it in that way so much in the new work. I’m not wedded to memory in the same way. When I got sober I had a lot of amnesia, and it’s only coming back now. I don’t feel this need to remember anything now, anymore. It’s a great freedom in a way. Like I said in my text about Cookie…I’d always believed that if I photographed anything or anyone enough I would never lose them. With the death of seven or eight of my closest friends and dozens and dozens of my acquaintances, I realize that there is so much the photograph doesn’t preserve. It doesn’t replace the person and it doesn’t really stave off mortality like I thought it did. It doesn’t preserve a life.
Stephen Westfall is an artist and writer living in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee