American Snapshots 2: Something Real

nan g

A woman enters a bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London. The shop specialises in art books, many of them expensive; even paperback editions and more so imported ones. Outside it’s a dry dusty day sometime in 1986, double-decker buses trundle up and down the road heading south towards the river or north to Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. The pavements carry waves of people; Londoners, workers, tourists, students, shoppers. The woman moves casually over to a central display table, hovering as if uncertain of what she is looking for, but this is a disguise – the first of many. Despite giving the impression that she is browsing, she has come here for a distinct purpose, which, while it isn’t theft might be considered by some shopkeepers as almost the same as theft and certainly, not a thing to be encouraged. She selects a recently published American photographer’s monograph and, resting it on a pile of books, she first looks at its cover then slowly, savouring each one in turn, she begins to turn the pages. Her eyes travel over every photograph in the book, noticing new details or finding that a previously overlooked image has suddenly increased its impact. Those pictures which are very explicit – a naked man masturbating, a couple making love, for example – she turns the page on quickly. Bad enough to be caught looking with no intention to buy, even worse, if you are apparently mesmerized by the elaborate swirling patterns of black hair on a young man’s pale body while he casually, gracefully even, touches himself.
She has done this, looked at this one particular book, at least twice before. She wants to possess this book – to buy it – but it is beyond her means. She wouldn’t steal it – too scared to risk that – so she steals it this way instead. By stealth; by turning its pages, by lingering, staring, memorizing, absorbing with unparalleled awe the audacity, the daring of these images, the way a very intimate world has been recorded and – by means of this book – disseminated. Cock and cunt, tears and laughter, bruises and blackened teeth, Monopoly games and shooting up, babies and beaches and bars.
All of these photos have been taken by an American woman called Nan Goldin and the images are of her circle of friends and family, mostly in and around New York City, but also in places like London and Berlin. No one says ‘no’ to Nan and her camera it seems; no one raises a protesting arm to block their image, to catch the bleaching glare of the flash in the palm of their hand.
Nan Goldin is not the first photographer to create a body of work that is both autobiography and documentary; Larry Clark did it before with his book, ‘Tulsa’ (1971) and while Clark’s friends shoot up, play with guns, ‘wait for the man’, get naked and encounter death, it’s all presented in grainy, gritty black and white – the traditional medium for any serious documentary photography and one which gives a degree of distance between what is seen in the pictures and the here and now. The photos in Goldin’s book, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (1986) are all in dazzling colour and might have been taken yesterday. Turning the pages, certain faces and names are repeated; Nan herself, Suzanne, Brian, Cookie. Stories, or at least their traces can be discerned, most particularly Nan’s story, which includes friendship, love and sex, and then, starkly, shockingly getting beaten up. Not that the act itself is seen, only its aftereffects on her face; the swollen lips and nose, the terrible, hurt eyes flooded with blood and shadowed by discolouring bruises. Her captions are often minimal and blandly factual; this one says, ‘Nan after being battered, 1984.’
The woman standing in the Charing Cross Road bookshop in 1986, stealing a look at this work is herself a mainly self-taught photographer. She is around the same age as Goldin and earns her living as a graphic designer on magazines. Sometimes she gets the chance to go on photographic assignments, taking photographs of political demonstrations, of dancers, writers, actors, artists. Her work is predominantly black and white. She gets her film developed and contact sheets made by a photo lab down an alley off Oxford Street. She is always excited to collect her negatives – back then, before digital cameras; there was always a delay between shooting pictures and seeing them which increased the anticipation. In her mind’s eye she has a rough memory of the pictures she has taken, but sometimes a particular shot may be marred by something being out of focus, or by camera shake or a faulty exposure – by then of course the moment is passed, you can’t reshoot. She collects her negatives early in the morning, on her way across London to work, allowing enough time to go to a café where she opens the envelope with hungry trepidation. She uses a yellow wax pencil to mark up the contact sheet; a large cross through rejected pictures, a happy box around successes and on others lines and cross hatching that indicate how an image might be cropped.
Sometime before, she had attended a week-long workshop in Derbyshire, run by Paul Hill and led by Martin Parr. Brian Griffin, renowned for his surreal editorial portraits in magazines and on record jackets, was also meant to be there, but cancelled due to a family crisis. This was a disappointment, as it was the promise of Griffin that had persuaded her to enroll on the course. At one point Parr had shown the group his recent work – colour slides in gaudy colour – images of brash seaside places, where people wear cheap nylon clothes, surrounded by garish signage, while their children paddle in water bobbing with a tide of washed up plastic and polystyrene packaging. The images are shocking; brazenly banal and unflinching – almost to the point of cruelty.
Later in the week attendees are invited to have one-to-one sessions with Parr during which he reviews the portfolios of work they have brought. When it is her turn he is entirely and obviously uninterested in her black and white efforts whose aim and subject matter are inconsistent and scattered. She feels not only disappointment, but a measure of shame – shame for even daring to show them, or for ever undertaking the workshop.
After this she made an effort to be more consistent; set herself a documentary project, but still resisted the leap to colour, partly because of the cost, partly because she was still enamoured with black and white photography, its simplifying graphic qualities and the control she has when making enlargements in the darkroom.
She stands in the bookshop, turning the pages of Goldin’s book with awe, seeing the future, but still not able to change her own practice.
Time passes. Now she is working for another magazine, and happens to notice on the book editor’s desk – a shining new copy of ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. It has arrived with an invitation to interview the photographer, Nan Goldin, who is in London because the slideshow of her work is due to be shown at the ICA. No one from the magazine is planning to take up the invitation to meet Goldin, so she asks if she might. The response is a shrug of the shoulders – sure, why not? Though they won’t publish the interview and offer her instead a two hundred word blurb to go along with one of the pictures from the book. She contacts another magazine and asks them if she can do the interview for them – she feels she must have the legitimacy of a definite feature before she contacts the press office at the ICA – they agree.
She’s conducted interviews before and taken photographs to accompany articles, she’s travelled to different parts of London, gone to publishers’ offices, hotels, theatres, studios and found herself face to face with famous and not so famous strangers, most of whom are kind and obliging, submitting themselves to her camera lens and carrying out her instructions to sit there, look here, turn towards the light. They trust her. She acts with confidence in these situations. Another of these disguises, this confidence – inside she’s a bag of jittery nerves, fearful of messing up, of being unmasked as an impersonator – not the genuine article at all. But of course, unlike the person who pretends to be a brain surgeon or a pilot, the impersonation of a photographer (as long as there is film in the camera) transforms the actor into the real thing.
She’s goes to the ICA at the appointed time, taking with her a portable cassette, a list of questions and her camera loaded with black and white film.
The woman she meets at the gallery is glowing with life and health and positive spirit, and welcomes her warmly. Goldin had recently turned her life around, going into rehab, where one of the first things they did was deny her use of her camera. In New York she had lived for years either a nocturnal existence or one conducted in rooms and apartments with boarded up windows and thus many of her images were taken with flash. She explained how during recovery she had rediscovered light and thus, in recent self portraits she had shown herself with daylight streaming into the hospital room, almost, but not quite, receiving the light like a contemporary Danaë seduced in a shower of gold.
Goldin talked about her slide show; the way her work had developed, the way it was meant to be seen, of how she was strongly influenced by the 1962 Chris Marker film, ‘La jetée’ – a narrative film (that prefigured and influenced ‘Twelve Monkeys’) which is entirely made up of still images. Goldin’s slide show had a musical soundtrack, ‘I’ll be your Mirror’, ‘Downtown’, ‘This is a Man’s World’, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ – the choice of song adding to and indicating the subject matter on the screen.
Nan talks about her older sister’s suicide over twenty years before, an event which was and is an abiding influence in her life. The two women are alone in a dimly lit auditorium, the interviewer (in her disguise) whose tape machine is still purring along, suddenly has the impression that their conversation has strayed into confidences which Goldin might not want made public. Is it some strange inbred British reserve of hers which makes her think this? Or politeness? Or inexperience – her confident disguise of worldly reporter slipping slightly?
She has forgotten perhaps that in Nan’s introduction to ‘The Ballad’ she had not only written about her sister’s death, but reproduced a snapshot of her standing outside the family home. The revelation, or what had sounded like a revelation, was already out there. It was no secret to be jealously guarded. Where is the borderline between the public and the private? How is it utterly stripped away for some individuals and kept intact for others? Does it depend on the life changing trauma of a family member’s suicide, after which secrecy and silence and control are abandoned? The place of suburban conformity blown apart.
Or is it something to do with the American psyche, which is not constrained by politeness, or class, or tradition. Or just the difference between these two women, one of them in the disguise of someone more legitimately there (because otherwise she will fall apart), the other who has no disguise whatsoever, but whose ‘no disguise’ might be like an inverted version of the emperor’s new clothes?
Nan had written about wanting her eye to be her camera, for there to be ‘no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing’. The other woman had wanted this too, but more perhaps because of a wish to be invisible, or at least invisible in terms of taking photographs, because unlike Nan’s lovers and friends, she is certain those close to her would not wish to recorded at all and every moment, caught forever, irrevocably, a butterfly skewered on a pin.
‘How do your friends feel about the pictures you take of them?’ the interviewer says, reading from her list of scribbled questions.
‘Nothing is taken without their complete collaboration. There has to be trust. They always know and often initiate it. The problem is, sometimes people go through periods of personal revision where they don’t want aspects of their lives to be shown, so I try to respect that. One of my big motivations is to leave a record that nobody can revise, because both personally and socially I come from a revisionist culture where history is constantly rewritten.’
The interview comes to its close; the interviewer asks if she can take her subject’s photograph. Nan agrees and says she’d like a cigarette, maybe they could go outside? In the afternoon light they sit together smoking, chatting now about alternative communities in the US and the UK, about Tepee Valley in Wales and the convoy and Thatcher and Reagan and AIDs. Broken dreams and broken promises.
Then the time comes to take the photograph. In their respective practice, one of them photographs what is there, is real, is a moment out of time. The other creates it, art directs it, choosing a location, relying on natural light, asking her subject to sit in such a way, to direct his or her gaze in a particular direction. One of these women is already a success, is on her way to world renown, the other is a shadow. Now on the broad flight of steps next to the ICA, the shadow is lifting her camera and photographing the photographer. There’s a roll of black and white film in her SLR and a wide angle lens fitted. The steps provide an interesting graphic effect, receding into the background like an exercise in perspective. The American woman sits on the steps. She is very relaxed and comfortable, easy in her own body. Two, three, possibly four shots are taken, and they’re done.
They part company, each thanking the other. One promising to send the published article to the other when it comes out.
But it never does – the magazine that in a sense sponsored the whole affair decides that it can’t be of any interest to its readers as no one knows who this American woman, Nan Goldin is.
Time passes. Shadows shrink and grow, the sun rises and falls many times over. Nan’s fame and influence grows. She is celebrated for her honesty, her single minded vision, originality and consistency – then damned by some for the same.
The other woman takes a different path, moves home several times, loses the original cassette on which she recorded the interview, misplaces the written transcript and the negatives for the portrait, mysteriously has only one half of the written up article and can only lay her hands on one print from the photos she took. It’s in a frame, she has to remove the tape and pull out the framer’s points to open it up. She places it on the glass surface of the scanner. It’s over twenty years since she took it. But here it is – something real.

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