Nan Goldin is a famous American photographer who was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1953 (Williams 26). From an early age, she demonstrated a passion for photography, often using it in her teens to document the gay and transsexual communities she frequented with friends. Her earliest works are considered provocative, voyeuristic, and controversial and noted for their depiction of sex, desire, obsession and empathy (O'Brien 151). Although her current work is much more subdued (i.e., landscapes, etc.), she still continues to create powerful motifs involving couples, intimacy, addiction, HIV / AIDS, prostitution, and homosexuality.
Goldin attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There she created The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, arguably her most noteworthy body of work (Danto 33). The 700 image collection set to music presented friends in intimate scenarios in slide show format. It is considered a celebration of alternative lifestyles and sexuality among the then emerging subcultures in New York. Construction of the collection took nearly twenty years and later included photography from her European travels (Perl 31).
Goldin is considered a pioneer of sorts for her attentive documentation of the AIDS epidemic. This work was deeply personal due to her own loss of many friends in the 1990s. She has made noted contributions to real-life depictions of the effect of HIV / AIDS with great emotion, detail and honesty (Rudy 347). This follows along with what Goldin is best known for -- documentation of vulnerable and marginalized people. Her style of photography involves using a very familiar and personal approach to tell the story of minorities, the poor, the dejected, the lonely & broken hearted and those on the outskirts of mainstream society (Williams 26). Empathy and obsession are common themes in her work.
To fully understand the empathetic nature of Nan Goldin's work, it is important to define what empathy in photography truly means. Empathy as a technical aspect of photography can be conveyed through various principles of lighting (natural and artificial), shutter speeds, post-exposure editing, and colorization or lack thereof (Kois 52). The most conventional and useful means of conveying empathy in photography involves photographing people in ways that demonstrate an understanding of the genuine, creative, and complex core of who they are (Kois 52). Goldin is considered by many to be an expert talent in this area. She allows the viewer to see the realness of her photo subjects. It is an open invitation into a world foreign to many. Her work stirs emotions and anxieties that helps to pull the viewer in and allows for voyeuristic participation in the story being told.
Goldin knows emotional tension and hardship well. In April 1964, her 18-year-old sister committed suicide by laying over the Union Station railroad tracks (Thomas 74). The then 11-year-old Nan counts it among one of the defining events of her life and admits to never having gotten fully over the incident. Stories in the Washington Post described the anger trapped passengers had because of the delay the suicide caused. In addition, the indifference in Goldin's 1950s, suburban home made her sister's suicide more tragic. Grieving freely was not allowed, and her parents often edited the story of what happened in an attempt to appear normal to neighbors and friends. In an in-depth interview Goldin stated: "Kids threw stones at me and shouted, 'When are you going to kill yourself, like your sister did?'" (O'Brien 151). She also states that her sister's psychiatrist told her that she would also commit suicide one day. "Instead of dying, I began to photograph," (Squiers 16).
Goldin professes that such psychological trials made her want to explore human emotion and empathy, or the lack of it, in times of high stress and tragedy (Williams 26). The death of her sister encouraged her to scratch beneath the surface of grief and pain in the human experience. This manifests itself in her images that show literal bleakness and raw reality. Her work is both frank and intimate, and highlights difficulties. She states:
My work has strong emotional feelings because I live in an intense light. Psychologically I live in enormous intensity, I couldn't make anything that isn't intense because I'm intense. But the empty landscapes are different. I'm much more interested, now, in the internal than the external (Eade 16).
Goldin left home at 14 and moved into a group flat in Boston, attending a conservative high school during the day and immersing herself in the area club scene at night. She is quoted as saying, "I left home at 14 and found my own family" (Ruddy 349). She went on to study photography for three years to effectively learn technique, and in the 1970s and '80s captured drag queens and the Manhattan club-and-drug scene, and subsequently how AIDS shattered those communities. Her work is often classified as one of the best visual diaries of these era -- a collection of more than 400 mostly black and white images.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency shocked many, including friends. It is reported that they were both stunned and impressed -- surprised at her talent and horrified to learn that their twisted lives were on display (Danto 34). Perhaps Goldin's ability to read between obvious lines and tell the empathetic inside story through images came from her own inner struggles. During the 1980s, she also fought to overcome heroin addiction, abusive relationships, poverty, and severe depression (Parr 32). In 1988, two years after The Ballad was published, she checked into a detox clinic for drugs and alcohol (33).
Her most iconic and studied characterizations include photos of artist Cookie Mueller in her casket, a close friend and longtime subject who died from the AIDs in 1989 (Danto 35). Goldin also features drag queens in full eye makeup and jewels, as well as many self-portraits. Among them are some of her dressed as a dominatrix, having sex with her boyfriend, and showcasing her bruises after enduring one of his beatings. Goldin has always defended the brutal honesty of her work. She states:
I was one of the first people, at least in the Western world, to photograph my entourage and say that it was as valid as photographing any exotic tribe you don't know. We were the world to each other. We were not marginalized people as everyone writes of us: outsiders, drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, blah, blah. It was our world (Eade 16).
The traditional definition of empathy is "the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it" (Kois 53). When applied to Goldin, empathy means that photographs reflect the photographer as well as their personal investment in their subject and the subject matter. She uses raw honesty in her work and serves as a personal mirror, often projecting her own feelings and life condition into the final image. She deals with topics that others wouldn't dare and shows a complete disregard for the camera's presence (Saltz, "Nan Goldin: Chasing a Ghost"). Often, her photo subjects neither notice nor care that someone is documenting their private moments. By capturing truth this way, Goldin is usually able to turn the ugly into the beautiful by showcasing her subject's completely natural and uninhibited nature.
Another means of interjecting empathy into her photography is Goldin's use of black and white, and in more recent work, flash. Many today refer to her consistent use of flash 'Goldin Look' (Perl 36). The technique results in deeper colors and exaggerated natural light shining upon photo subjects. For instance, in Kenny in His Room, a naked young man lying on his bed asleep, is captured via 35mm film and a printing process called cibachrome which prints photographs from slides (Squiers 16). Goldin uses such technique to achieve bright color quality and establish a luminous and more lush and natural image (Parr 33). Even blemishes are readily seen in the subject's face which creates a high level of intimacy for the observer. In short, Goldin works at a very intimate level overall. She feels for and with her subjects and it shows. She states that her camera is an essential part of her everyday life, and describes it as follows:
[It is important] as much as eating, talking and sex. The instant nature of photography, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer by nature is a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I'm not crashing, this is my party (Eade 16).
Goldin's images attempt to disaffirm loss, but at the same time highlight it (Rudy 380). Decades ago when she unveiled her photography, it was considered appalling. Some critics argue that perhaps she wanted to shock the bourgeois society she ridiculed and scorned, most likely due to her own middle-class, suburban upbringing (376). Eventually, her work would expand to focus more on the subculture and…