Nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed by Laura Poitras provides and overview of the life and career of Nan Goldin through the lens of her recent struggle with opioid addiction and her subsequent activism against the Sackler family. Here we look back at this article about her iconic project The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Written by Max Kozloff, it appeared under the title “Family of Nan” in our November 1987 issue.
View a PDF of the original article.
MUCH OF THE PHOTOGRAPHY exhibited in art galleries these days depends upon a familiar paradox. A typical image will announce its artifice in such loud terms, it will so exaggerate its staged departures from the depiction of any “natural” conduct (as most new narrative work demonstrates) that its very fraudulence becomes an act of disclosure. As compared to the media off which it feeds, such photography explicitly demands to be disbelieved. It would deprogram and reinform all of us who are targeted by the media by isolating the media’s rhetoric and detaching it from its context and audience. Such a photographic genre is understood to be “critical” in stance, and it has become so familiar as to be unexceptional when it appears.
A minority photographic report has now emerged, dealing with some of the same issues that “critical” photography has explored-the myth of the American family, with its erotic tumults; the deficits of various lifestyles; and the violence of cultural forms themselves. This report is even more narrative than the mediacritique work, but it gains its force by reducing artifice. Much of its credibility stems from the way it jumps right into the swim of behavior that appears to be happening spontaneously. If the people in these photographs are acting out their own neuroses, we’re persuaded that the action was a real event, and that the photographer was somehow involved as a participant. This self-critical stance offers a powerful moral seduction.
I refer to Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. This ongoing project has a twofold identity: it exists, first, as a huge body of work in the form of 35mm color slides, which are continually re-edited in shows with musical sound track and presented by Goldin to audiences around the country; second, an extensive selection from the series has recently been published as a book (New York, Aperture, 1986; since I have only seen a videotape of one of the slide shows, I will here address the work in its book format). Shot over the last ten years, mostly with flash and in bedrooms, the pictures are primarily of young, punkish people engaged with one another in scenes of desire and frustration. Goldin herself appears in many of the pictures, and many of the subjects are clearly her companions and friends. As a sign that her subjects have allowed her to share the intimacy of their disheveled quarters, and, it appears, their messy lives, the bed acts as the ideal prop in Goldin’s narrative. Her subjects sprawl on mattresses. Sometimes naked men are shown sleeping. Couples or singles have sex without being in the least bothered by the camera. When her friends are seen shaving or showering, bathroom scenes vie with the candor of the bedroom ones. We are given immediate access to what are usually off-limits episodes and embarrassing rows. The Ballad depends on an openness of personal territory where the setting, even when it’s a hotel room, belongs to photographer and subjects alike—as their common pleasure site and private hell.
What stands out particularly, amid the exhibitionism of a few and the abstractedness or lonely mien of other subjects, is the depressive state of some of Goldin’s women. It is as though the photographer came naturally upon them in such moods. The Ballad has the character of a tawdry story, carried by thematic momentum, as distinct from linear plot or expositional plan. Goldin’s announced topic is the incompatibility of the sexes, or alternatively, their ferocious liaison, and her pictures offer a visual brief for that state of affairs. The smirky weddings, raunchy dances and parties she shows are overwhelmed by scenes of estrangement, tension, dubious coupling, different kinds of sulks and regrets. It appears that at any moment matters could quite easily get out of hand. In one unbearable shot, Goldin portrays herself with facial trauma, the result of being viciously sloughed by a lover (it’s titled Nan After Being Battered). Pairings don’t work out in her circle, and yet couples keep on reconstituting themselves in new combinations.
THERE CAN BE NO DOUBT that the work has been realized as a “family” snapshot album—this is her extended family—and that it is a sad album. Like snapshots, the pictures here are historical in aim, with the hope of remembering close ones as they were. But Goldin reverses the family album’s typical wholesomeness, where power plays are often covered up as jokes (though the latent psychodynamics of the family album, usually ignored, are another question). Goldin may assume a familial tone when she shoots, but her work lacks the cheeriness and official naiveté of the snapshot model. Her subjects are in complicity with the bluntness of her project, since they have let their most private behavior be exposed on her film. Even when they overtly relate to the camera ( as they occasionally do), the photographic act is incorporated as an authentic episode in their lives. Here, the fact that those who cavort or break down before our view can expect and perhaps need to have their activity recorded means that they can never be spied on, nor can they disavow the photographer as witness. Having set up the tableau for a timer, Goldin herself often joins in as one of the objects under surveillance. What emerges is a family album like no other, one that takes part in the domestic bad news as it happens, and also the lechery.
So, for example, the photographer’s sleeping men are objectified in their naked, defenseless flesh and often almost gloated over. Streisand never looked more fondly on Redford sleeping in The Way We Were than Goldin looks on male bedmates in the Ballad. The camera is used to appraise these hunks, libidinously, possessively. One such tattooed fellow, loosely tied up on a bed, next to his indifferent dogs, gets smooched by a clothed woman (who may be Goldin herself). This scene has a particularly wonderful glitter. Yet the countervailing, brazen force of the men is felt everywhere, often as partners who wield the upper hand. In one photo, David smiles for the camera while Butch, the woman with him at the bar, struggles through her tears to do the same. What a dissonant moment, in which a couple demonstrates obvious good will toward Nan, though the woman is wretched. Direct as it is, the photo pivots on a mystery that results from the camera’s intervention: is David merely polite on this portrait occasion, or is he smug about his role in the immediate, conflicted past?
The photographer herself states that she found it difficult to “understand the feeling systems of men; I didn’t believe they were vulnerable and I empowered them in a way that didn’t acknowledge their fears and feelings.” At the same time, she goes on, “People cling together. It’s a biochemical reaction, it stimulates that part of your brain that is only satisfied by love, heroin, or chocolate.” All amorous gambits, in other words, are motivated by the same addictive needs, and the point about people who are so hooked is that they have no sense of emotional moderation. When they come on to each other, they’re the ideal characters in a cliched structure that has been used in popular culture back, say, to Jules Feiffer’s cartoons, to Franky and Johnny (a real ballad) and why not even to Tasso’s Rinaldo and Armida? In her manner of generating pictures, Goldin herself lacks any restraint (she’s addicted to photodocumentation of her life), but she achieves a certain balance of expressive possibilities. The distinctiveness of these images lies in the contrast between their author’s would-be romanticism and her realist position and style. The vulnerable man is a figure of romantic culture; the brutal man is a protagonist of realist art. Human interactions, she seems to say, are shaped, above all, by physiological cravings. Such single-minded desires take hold in scenes served up as raw as possible.
BECAUSE THE BALLAD issues directly from an insider’s perspective, J. Hoberman (Village Voice) was quite right to say that it was a diary, but thoroughly wrong to call it a soap opera. One has to insist on the difference between real access to the intimate lives of people and media representation of them. Soap operas are such elaborately text-ridden, opinionated forms that they smother all visual life under a blanket of judgments about character, style and even gesture. No one can possibly breathe the same atmosphere as the members of the cast. Goldin, in contrast, lets in the air, through the nervous and impulsive rendering of her pictures, which enhances their confessional tone. Actually, she distinguishes (in her preface to the book) between her uninhibited written diaries, which are private, and this visual one, which she makes public. She allows that her undisclosed writing is more personally judgmental than her pictures—inappropriate, therefore, for general consumption. For her, the value of the snaps is that they are free of her opinions yet remain embedded in her experience—she considers her images to be as everyday, unstudied and idiosyncratic as “talking or eating or sex.”
Goldin’s documentary keenness is rooted in high-energy traditions in recent American photography. She was kindled by the lessons of Garry Winogrand, Lisette Model and, above all, the legacy of Larry Clark, whose Tulsa (1972) was serious photography’s original family album. In fact, the Ballad particularly recognizes and extends the promise of Clark’s book. In both autobiographical campaigns, the diffuse history of socially marginal or outcast figures is substituted for that of the photographer’s relatives. Lacking blood ties, the solidarity among these figures becomes all the more poignant because it is compensatory and ingrown. Clark’s junkies were actually at a dead end, a fact underlined by his projection of Tulsa as a memento mori. For their part, Goldin’s friends are urban members of underground bohemias—East Village filmmakers, rock musicians and drug-doers.
The presence of such fringe beings has led at least one critic, Andy Grundberg, to imagine Goldin’s chief precursor to have been the Robert Frank of over 30 years ago, not in his role as the perennial outsider but in his admonishing vision. Still, the characters depicted in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency don’t really come across as alienated, however sullen or woebegone some of them might be. For that to have been felt, there needed to be implied a hostile outlook on America, a sense of the country as very unhealthy for the featured group—and this sense the Ballad rather clearly lacks. In contrast, the slide shows of the Ballad, with their rock, heavy metal and country-and-western sound tracks, point to the experience of these young people as something shared with countless others, everywhere, tuned into the same musical stimuli. As long as her principals are heated up or upset, come what may they’re alive to their moment; the tone of the picture may be lurid, yet also warm. But when Goldin’s camera visits bourgeois interiors (some party scenes and pictures of children), she notes a decrease in such warmth and, with that, a failure of even ordinary human connection. Here, her mood turns harsh, and displays a certain kind of antagonism toward the undemonstrative body, the immobile face.
GOLDIN’S BALLAD OPENS with a shot of the artist fleshily hugging her man, whose doleful expression bodes poorly for their future. This tableau is immediately contrasted with a portrait of the photographer’s natty, pinch-lipped parents at a French restaurant. To drive home the point of the emotional chill (from which her subsequent imagery departs), the parents are juxtaposed with a picture of effigies of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at the Coney Island Wax Museum. The self-protective reserve of the older generation, and of the well-off middle class from which Goldin is a refugee, is assumed to be corrupted behavior, taken over by a hateful lifelessness. Of course, this kind of presence has been fastened upon by new narrative photography all around, and has in fact become a recurring motif. Yet one glimpse of the current gallery scene is enough to see how Goldin stands apart from the trend of narrative in photography that refrigerates the formal voyeurism of commercial media. Her volatility challenges this wasteland of stiff or frozen depiction. From Goldin’s view, artists who do that are hopelessly distanced from their subject matter, locked up in bloodless strategies that obscure desire.
A more interesting counterweight to the Ballad, because of its clear erotic focus, is Bruce Weber’s O Rio de Janeiro, which purports to be a quasi-narrative photojournal of sexual preludes or languorous aftermaths down by the Rio beaches. With an expensive team and paid models, shooting on location in the exotic, indigent Third World, Weber, an ultra-successful fashion photographer, naively constructs a “personal” diary, filled with handsome frowns and moues. Here, the bodies all look glossy, spruce, voluptuous and fine; the sex, he suggests, is really tops, and the tints are plummy. There’s no question about this market illustration being a sincere fake, for it lacks consciousness to be anything else. Weber’s sexual high jinks are conceived as a charade reduced to a tourist fantasy with imperialist overtones.
I don’t know if Goldin’s album acts as a challenging entry into the feminist politics of our visual culture. But it certainly urges us to think that it is a strong, front-line report on women who are in primal engagement with men, and who apparently lose ground in the process. The work has been criticized by some feminist writers for visualizing only a stereotypical female victim, or for being overly heterosexual. But these complaints miss the actual fluidity of the album and seem not to grasp that the erotic themes are fused with social description.
The regulars in Goldin’s milieu, for instance, are economically hard up. One look at the fleabag they stayed at in Mérida almost suggests that they were on the lam rather than on vacation. Though not outlaws for whom time is running out, like Clark’s friends, Goldin’s evidently drift just as much and are just as restless. If they are centered by any productive work, she doesn’t show it. They turn up among skinheads in London or at discos in Berlin, on trains or in cars, without giving the impression that they’re getting anywhere. In terms of social class, the women are of undetermined origin, while the men display emphatic proletarian style mixed with rock and motorcycle regalia. A fair percentage of the women appear to have been hardened to this company, but Goldin gets closer to those who are uncomfortable with it. She’s a virtuoso at charging the atmosphere with a kind of opulently glowing sleaze in which characters glance suspiciously at one another. They may have been caught at loose ends or in tentative moments, but the effect is of too much having been left unspoken. In this suspicious environment, one takes one’s pick, either of callow dalliance or of baffled solitude.
Actually, Nan Goldin is not alone in placing herself in the thick of all these emotional ricochets and shortfalls. Hundreds of students in photography departments across the country have found in variations of her confidential mode a way of pictorially exploring their own sexual identities and psychic interactions. But Goldin’s downbeat photographs examine real conditions, in the midst of which her young subjects torment themselves, without insight into their own self-destructiveness. This work does pose problems: what sort of awareness are we to attribute to women who need to cling to men readily capable of brutalizing them? And to the men who do the beating? Is there no way of growing up free of the more repressive aspects of social conformity without arresting one’s emotional development and fixating on bad vibes? Finally, how admirable is the act of coarse self-exploitation, which devalues privacy and personal dignity in the name of artistic license?
Yet the exceptional interest of Goldin’s project depends on the candor that invites such damaging questions. With so much riding on the honesty and unsparingness of her pictorial statement, one has to take seriously the neuroses to which it alludes. The Ballad is involved in a politics of the body, whose language is intrinsically visual. Early in her life history, Goldin, rejecting the cerebral but inexpressive male authority figure, embraced the physically demonstrative but menacing male lover. Her images are weighted toward the second of these polarities. The very toughness to which Goldin’s characters are generally drawn becomes the source of their undoing. In recognizing and caring about what happens to them, the photographer acts out her own dilemmas.
As the Ballad finally appeared in published form, it was overtaken by public events that infuse it with unexpected overtones of alarm. These events were not likely to have been on Nan Goldin’s mind, nor do I believe she would have heeded them even if they were. During an era in which some people feel compelled to test themselves negative for the AIDS virus before they even kiss, and in which the press hounds political candidates into the private recesses of their sex life, the sensational aspects of the Ballad are retroactively boosted. What kind of moral sense can be made of them at this point? The appearance or projection of new social restraints is one symptom of Americans’ public anxiety about sex. Where organized religion sometimes proscribes it, the media wallow in it and officials of all sorts counsel abstinence from it, eros is urged to turn in upon itself. Within this increasingly loveless public atmosphere, the punishing attractions of the Ballad contribute a demonic twist of their own. We seem to be looking at an earlier promiscuity that no one can afford anymore, and therefore at a spectacle with penalties for anyone who would play a role in it now. An ordinary viewer is unsure whether to consider the Ballad an unwitting object lesson in destructive self-indulgence, or an exemplary call to arms for erotic spontaneity. Goldin’s best photographs raise these conflicting issues, which have accrued through our current predicament.
Though very present-tense in feeling (some of her rock-musician and filmmaker subjects are right now achieving fame), the album looks backward, illustrating behavioral codes to which less and less of middle-class bohemia think it prudent to subscribe. The bringer of a more up-to-date message may indeed be Bruce Weber, who tells us that bodies are only there to be looked at. His photographs retail a collection of fleshy still points, arranged for the appraising eye. With far fewer perks and less-good physiques, the family of Nan simply moves me more because the people in it are far more dramatically themselves, gripped by their limitations even as they seek release. They want everything, fail in their knowledge of how it can be obtained—and they lash out at one another. They’re located where we see them because that’s where their flawed lives are, and we viewers are secondary. A world in which access to objects of desire is by implication permitted only to those with an excess of cash is in the end a world debased, exhibitionistic and shallow. How much more authentic is the Ballad, where it is painfully learned that desire can’t be satisfied without affection, and affection can’t be bought, only earned. □