Wednesday, August 11, 1999

Book of Quandaries

Images of love on the rocks, on the runs and in ruins.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 11, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Here’s the deal. Name-brand photographer produces semiautobiographical collection of images and text, handsomely printed and artfully packaged, replete with titillating snaps on the luxe slip-case. Question is, do you need to buy a copy?

The photographer is Nan Goldin (American, b. 1953), whose works – especially those dealing with gender, sexuality, etc. – are well known and widely exhibited. The book contains a collection of images taken over the last 20 years, along with an accompanying essay by Goldin that ruminates on her life, how she came to take pictures, how she uses the photographs, her relation to her subjects and like matters. A simultaneous Japanese translation appears at the bottom of each page.

It’s a cliché to talk about "usual suspects," but then so are the all-too-expectable suspects assembled here – a cliché, I mean: sexual hanky-panky, drag queens, various couplings, straight and otherwise, AIDS victims, withering death. It’s a gallery of ’90s vérité. The relevant question is whether Goldin achieves anything more with this by-now-predictable gallery of suspects than the predictably cliché result; namely, that we go away feeling congratulated for the same sympathies and knee-jerk, politically correct pieties we presumably arrived with.

"My work has always come directly from my personal life," Goldin writes. "I don’t photograph anything I don’t show myself doing. My work originally came from the snapshot aesthetic. I think it’s one of the purest uses of photography, the form that is most defined by love ... (Snapshots are) about creating a history by recording a history."

And that’s what the collection has clearly set out to do: to authenticate a history-as-personal experience. As to "love," that’s another matter.

The images clearly reflect Goldin’s "snapshot" aesthetic; they look spontaneous, the frames tight, the subjects – including Goldin herself – posing sometimes, other times caught in what appear to be candid moments, unawares. Couples embrace; they get into bed (lots of bed shots). But mostly, things don’t seem to work out, so that "loneliness" is what relationships come down to. The colors are rich and reminiscent of old Kodak prints. The content never gets pornographic, not venturing past an R-rating. Some of the photographs – those of landscapes not involving human subjects – are downright picturesque, even pretty. Overall, though, the aim is to be "authentic," like the self-revealing written text, which even includes an obligatory revelation about the before-and-after of getting clean and sober – which Goldin did in 1988, halfway through the collection.

"Good for you!" one wants to say. But what has this got to do with the art? Does gratuitous bio-spillage make the work better, stronger, more powerful? I doubt it. Which is to say, the question of clichés enters yet again. Self-revelation – the rawer the better – has become maybe the most overworked of ’90s clichés, ranging from the ridiculous (Pamela Lee boinking Tommy, Monica boinking the president or trying to) to the sublimely rotten and opportunistic (Joyce Maynard spilling about sex with J. D. Salinger). We – those of us buying books and videos and tuning in on TV – are willing to credit a representation (apparently) only if it humiliates or causes pain.

In Camera Lucida, his beautiful meditation on photography and memory, Roland Barthes examines his objectives in describing his own deepest feelings. But in the end, he withholds the photograph – of his mother – that has been the origin of those feelings: " ... I must, by a necessary resistance, reconstitute the division of public and private: I want to utter interiority without yielding intimacy."

That is what Goldin – I think – wants to do too, but whereas Barthes succeeds, she has mostly failed. Except – and it’s a very big except – when she produces five remarkable images of empty beds, scattered throughout the collection. These pictures – each one unique – are sadder, lonelier, truer, more beautiful, more humane and more profound than any of her images with people, or her Monet-like photographs of natural scenes. Here she truly utters interiority without yielding intimacy, without becoming party to the clichés that organize our empty, informational culture.

So, is this beautiful collection just a pricey cliché, or is it a book worth having? The answer to both questions is yes.

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