Shadow of a dead bird on Simon’s window, Stockholm, September 2013, self-portrait, by Nan Goldin
Shadow of a dead bird on Simon’s window, Stockholm, September 2013, self-portrait, by Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin "People forget how radical my work was"

She may have influenced a generation of photographers but accepts no responsibility for their work

In a great summing up, the Observer and Guardian newspapers' photography critic, Sean O'Hagan writes that we are now living in a world that "Nan Goldin created long before the digital camera and Instagram made it ubiquitous: a self-absorbed, often revelatory world where the everyday and the exotic exist in uneasy cohabitation."

It's a sharp observation that comes towards the beginning of a long and extremely revelatory interview with Goldin, conducted to coincide with publication of her new book of photographs about childhood, Eden and After. Goldin, who is in London this week, signing books at Koenig on Charing Cross Road tomorrow and at the Tate Modern on Wednesday, spoke to O'Hagan in her Brooklyn home, talking through her life work and legacy. She admits that she may have influenced a generation of photographers, but rightly accepts no responsibility for their work.

 

Orlando and Lily dancing, Brooklyn, 2006, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After
Orlando and Lily dancing, Brooklyn, 2006, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After

"Most of that stuff is so easy and lacking in any kind of emotional depth or context. Nowadays," she tells the paper, "people forget how radical my work was when it first appeared. Nobody else was doing what I did."

She also has mixed feelings about her more famous antecedents, such as Diane Arbus. Arbus may have also shot drag queens, but, Goldin says, "what I remember most is that all the queens I knew hated her. Violently. In her portraits of drag queens, she stripped them and showed them as men. To me, the queens were not men. My work was much more respectful to them," Goldin goes on.

"I've never thought of a drag queen as a man. That's really the last thing I think about when I look at them. They weren't women either, by the way, they were another species."

 

Ulrika, Sweden, 1998, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After
Ulrika, Sweden, 1998, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After

She has kinder words for Larry Clark, whose book Tulsa was introduced to a tutor of hers; "it had a huge impact on me," she says. The photographer also talks through her early career, her drug use and rehabilitation, and some incomplete projects too, such as a film about her late sister, who, after a troubled adolescence, committed suicide aged 19.

 

Io in camouflage, NYC, 1994, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After
Io in camouflage, NYC, 1994, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After

"I met all the people she had ever known," she says, "went to every place she had ever been, all the hospitals and the place where she killed herself. I was with a few close friends and we shot for months, but then I just could not edit it. I had a breakdown."

She clarifies her feelings towards the group of people that feature in her pictures. Rejecting the term "outsiders", the artist prefers to think of them as a kind of family, "bonded not by blood, but by a similar morality, the need to live fully and for the moment".

 

Isabella and Guido’s game, the statue, Sardinia, 2003 by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After
Isabella and Guido’s game, the statue, Sardinia, 2003 by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After

Her current book features quite a few of them, but it mainly focuses on their children. With this in mind, Goldin admits that Eden and After perhaps signals some mellowing of spirit. "As a person, I would say yes," she explains, "but, creatively, this book is another part of a bigger journey insofar as I have always photographed my close friends and many of these pictures are of my friends' kids. Because of the subject matter, it's a lot more obviously hopeful, but it's not just about hope and joy. Kids are sad, too, and angry. It's really about the autonomy of being a child, about flexible gender and freedom, the wildness in children that gets hammered down as they grow up."

 

Ava twirling, NYC, 2007, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After
Ava twirling, NYC, 2007, by Nan Goldin, from Eden and After

It's a great summing up of a wonderful new book. Good on Sean O'Hagen for getting such a great interview out of such an interesting an artist. Read the full feature here, browse through a gallery of images here; learn more about the people featured here; if you're in London this week, you can come and meet Goldlin and get your book signed at Koenig books on Charing Cross Road tomorrow (Tuesday March 25th) at 4:30pm, and at the Tate Modern bookshop on Wednesday at 4:30pm; and finally, you can buy the book from the people who made it, here.