26 May 2013 Lecture on Nan Goldin, December 2012
This lecture was delivered in my Gender and Violence class, Sociology 2380, at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Goldin Lecture (12/03/12)
Nan Goldin is an American photographer born in 1953. She began taking photographs in the 1960s, as a run-away teenager, living in Boston. Her first photographic subjects were the drag queens with whom she lived (Goldin is bi-sexual). She photographed the boys—as they like Goldin were run- away teens—in drag and as boys, favoring black and white photographs. She studied art at the Boston School of Fine Arts and subsequently moved to New York City, where she found her niche in the demi-monde. However an atypical demimondaine, Nan Goldin did not find work as an artist model: she herself was the artist who photographed others. Nan was an obsessive photographer, carrying her camera with her at all times. Like her friends and, as I will get to, her boyfriend, Brian, Nan used drugs heavily and so most of the photographs for which she is famous were taken both of people using drugs by a person on drugs. And yet despite this proclivity for controlled substance use, the photographs have pristine clarity. Goldin made her mark with a massive collection of photographs that she originally displayed as a traveling slide show, called the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, after the Brecht play. Goldin would show the photographs as slides firstly in bars to her friends—the subjects of the photographs—and she set the shows to music, the background music initially as important to her as the photographs. Eventually word of the power of these shows got out, and she was invited to show the images in more up-scale venues, leaving the bars and scraping a place for herself in galleries and museums. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, as a slide show, contains thousands of images. Goldin has published a fraction of them, notably in the books The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and I’ll Be Your Mirror (titled after the Velvet Underground Song). Goldin is one of the most prominent and critically acclaimed female photographers of the latter half of the twentieth century.
This clarity of her images is derived in part from Goldin’s fondness for the use of heavy flash and her decision to switch to bright colors (by the 1980s she was photographing in color and no longer using black and white). But the other part of the clarity of the images is not so much technical—not a product of heavy flash and bright color—as rather a product of Goldin’s eye for formal composition caught in the moment of the snapshot, infused with a brilliant capacity to notice and capture symbolic structures. Of importance for our class is the way that some of her photographs, notably those taken of herself and her erstwhile boyfriend Brian, reflect patterns of gender domination. Not all of Goldin’s photographs of men and women track patterns of abuse, but they do often reflect patterns of the precursor to abuse, domination. However, Goldin as the photographer rather than the photographed subject may in some interesting ways challenge those patterns.
Goldin’s photographs of herself following the beating that Brian meted out to her have become the most famous in her oeuvre. We might well ask why these images of Goldin’s utter humiliation, defeat and indeed mutilation have become so iconic, and even popular. The question of whether the extraordinary popularity of Goldin’s photographic self portrait “Nan One Month After Being Battered” reflects a sadism on the part of the public, a pleasure in viewing the damaged, harmed woman, haunts any reading of Goldin’s work. Why has this image, of her thousands of compelling and brilliant photographs, become the image by which the artist Nan Goldin is known, the iconic marker of Nan Goldin. Goldin claims that she took the photographs of herself after being battered so that she would always remember what Brian did to her and not be persuaded to return to him, whom she loved. She never did return to Brian, in that sense the self-portrait as a battered woman worked exactly the way that Goldin intended. And yet the image’s popularity spills out of this boundary of Goldin’s personal pledge to not return to an abusive man.
It is a self portrait of unflinching and gritty verisimilitude. Goldin takes the prime conceit of photography—that is shows us reality—and translates this conceit into a revelation of the usually suppressed knowledge of gender based violence. Although the title of the image does not say the name of Goldin’s assailant and indeed does not specify that her assailant is male, and yet we read in the image the strong possibility that the person who battered her was male. Of course, it is well known and indisputable that the person who battered Goldin was her boyfriend, Brian. But here I raise the question of whether, without that biographical information, we can read in the image the presence of male domination.
Firstly, Goldin’s bright red lipstick dominates the color scheme of the image. When Brian beat her, the apparently main target was her eyes. One eye was so badly damaged it was doubtful if Goldin would regain her sight (but she did regain it). The lips then are the one site in the face that are not harmed. The heavily painted lips function both as a site of resistance to the mutilation of the beating—the symbolic of lips is that they can speak, and her undamaged mouth as a focus of the image suggests that the image is made in part as a form of speech, of refusing to hide and be silenced after being victimized. The lips, though, also bespeak one of the prime codes of gender domination—the need to appear sexually desirable, eroticized, erotically available, is the only conceivable reason to wear lipstick. Likewise, the carefully curled and designed hair, the delicate earrings, the silk shift blouse, the pearl choker, are all markers of traditional feminine self presentation. In other words, the presence of masculine domination in the photograph is evinced in the way that the sitter, despite her mutilated condition prepares herself for the camera with every effort made to appear desirable and feminine. These signifiers do not prove that Goldin’s assailant was a man but they suggest that she participates in a system of masculine domination and part of the
power of the image is the way that Goldin brings together what James C Scott calls the hidden transcript and the public transcript of male domination in one image: in this photograph Goldin shows the hidden transcript of male violence against women and she shows the public transcript of woman’s self-engagement in systems of domination, the “happy” story of woman’s pleasure in shopping for clothes, fixing hair, applying make up. Even the feminine lacy curtains behind Goldin suggest the code of woman’s pleasure in decorating herself and her domestic space. But by revealing her wounds Goldin shows the violence that holds in place this very system of domination that imposes on woman the supposed happiness of make-up and pretty curtains. It is this dual level of the symbolic of the photograph that in part explains its power.
Goldin’s frank stare into the gaze of her own camera (she used a shutter cord to capture this portrait) moves the portrait into stranger territory still. The image functions as an absolute engagement of the self with the self: she is confronting herself with the knowledge of her domination, challenging herself to refuse the codes of the domination that, as Teresa De Lauretis argues, impose the “mark of gender” when the excess of the supposed pleasures of the system (the pleasures of being a pretty girl made up to look attractive to a virile guy like Brian) exceed the boundary of the public transcript and violently rupture that transcript with the underlying code of violence as the key tool of all forms of domination. Goldin’s gaze is so hauntingly without pity for herself that, it seems, few have felt pity for her. She is photography’s bad girl, along with Sally Mann, accused of pushing the boundaries of the camera’s eye too far, implicitly accused of driving Brian to beat her by photographing him too often, in too revealing settings (she did indeed photograph him in quite compromising situations, on the toilet, just after having sex, etc.) But this gaze without pity for herself is also a gaze that meets the audience for the photograph and challenges us to renegotiate our imaginary around what a battered woman is. Goldin is clearly a
battered woman, but she does not appear defeated, confused, or even passive. The photograph was taken in the early stages of her career. She survived and went on to become one of America’s great photographers, a pioneer, a woman whose photographic style many have mimicked but none have gotten to the power of Goldin’s ‘snap-shots.’ I think you can see the force of her personality in this self portrait as a battered woman and that force challenges the imaginary of battered-woman as pitiable defenseless victim. Clearly, Goldin was defenseless when Brian beat her: or else she would have stopped him. But she is not powerless and without self awareness in any total sense, and the self portrait makes this poignant case, that assaulted women are not different from other people in any essential quality. Instead, they are the unlucky recipients of the codes of the structural violence into which gender based domination erupts.
What of the other images that cluster around this section of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and I’ll Be Your Mirror, this series of images recording Goldin’s relationship with Brian? Nan humorously photographed Brian while he was watching the Flintstones, a cartoon show about cavemen. The photograph gently implies Brian’s Neanderthal qualities. She photographs Brian on the phone, showing a cavernous ill-kept mouth, suggesting some force of rapaciousness in this man with whom she is in love. All the photographs of Brian are taken before the beating. After he beat her, she never returned to him. Therefore the photographs can be read as indices of the trajectory and tenor of the relationship that devolved to abuse. Nan and Brian in Bed, the cover image for the Ballad of Sexual Dependency shows Brian sitting up, apparently naked, smoking a cigarette. Nan cowers towards the headboard of the bed, her expression almost shockingly submissive and fearful: she appears to be trying to read him, read his mood. She took the photograph, of course, using a shutter cord and so maybe part of her desire to interpret his every move is her knowledge that she is photographing this series of images of their relationship. But the fear in her eyes is unmistakable.
Above the bed is a copy of the print of the photograph in which Goldin captured Brian watching the Flintstones. His face looms over the bed, a kind of kingly presence, his muscular taut back contrasts with Goldin’s not in the least toned or athletic legs, curled supine towards him. The photograph is structured by horizons of height and depth that place Goldin’s head as the marker of the depth of field of the image, placing Brian’s body in the foreground, and importantly show Brian upright while Nan is lying down. The tension in the photographic series is not lessened in the next image when Nan sits up, her face captured in the image as deeply melancholic. The couple do not face each other. He seems almost sheepish as he turns away from her. Maybe it’s just the drugs, but the image suggests some essential malaise of heterosexuality, beautiful Nan disheveled and unhappy.
The next image is less well known and certainly less popular than the rest of the Ballad of Sexual Dependency. It was not made on the same day as the images I have just discussed. It’s questionable whether it is art, or some other documentary accomplishment. The room that with its bloodied wall records Goldin’s experience of being battered is very raw. The interior of the body is exposed in the sense that blood is the interior of the body. The mark of gender, here, is devastating.
Goldin photographs herself after the beating, firstly going outside into the sunlight. This gesture, of taking a photograph outdoors, is rare in Goldin’s 1980s work. She almost never took photographs except indoors at night at parties, primarily because she lived her life indoors at night at parties. If you compare her face, in the outdoor post-beating self portrait, to her face in the bed scene with Brian, you can see the extent of the damage and mutilation that he did to her. She took the self portraits as a battered woman four weeks after assault. In that sense, she took the photographs to show that she was healing—if this is what she looked like one month later, it is excruciating to imagine what she looked like just after the assault. And yet the self portrait outdoors shows a
woman who is determined to recover—going outside was a huge step for Goldin and one that she repeated several years later when she finally went into drug rehab and began taking photographs outdoors, landscape with an eerie shaky quality, of the land around the rehab center. In the outdoor self portrait after being battered Goldin places herself in a public park. She is bringing the hidden transcript to the public. And that is really one the great impetuses of her art.
The other images I wanted us to look at today are Greer and Robert on the Bed, the Hug, Heart Shaped Bruise and the Donna Ferrato image, First Night at the Shelter. Greer Lankton is the Greer whose image is captured in Greer and Robert on the Bed, a slender delicate blond beauty. Greer Lankton was born a man, Greg Lankton, and had sexual reassignment surgery at the age of 21. Greer was an artist who created life size dolls exploring the trauma of gender. After reassignment surgery Greer attempted suicide and Nan Goldin saved her life. Greer, transformed into a woman, was a beauty who struggled with anorexia and drug abuse and frequent batterings because often when Greer got into a new relationship with a man and revealed her origins as a man, she would be beaten. In the photograph of Greer and Robert, Goldin records a gender dynamic that eerily echoes that of Nan and Brian—the masculine partner is upright, the feminine partner is prone or supine, the woman’s legs towards the camera. The portrait of Greer and Robert also suggests the masking quality of gender, insofar as the couple are placed on a bed beneath two masks on the wall. Lankton, in her work, was obsessed with the idea of the fabrication of gender and played through this dialectic in her construction of sometimes beautiful and sometimes grotesque self portrait dolls. I’ve placed a couple examples of Greer’s dolls on our Collab site resources.
The Hug is one of Goldin’s most acclaimed photographs. Its formally perfect handling of light and shadow, chiaroscuro, turns the man and woman hugging into one frightening creature. The images
plays up and plays through gender dialectics contrasting the man’s hypermuscular arm with the dainty bows on the woman’s dress. Of course, given Goldin’s deep and lifelong friendships with transvestites we don’t know for certain if the woman is a biological woman in this photograph. All we read are the marks of gender, the delicate unmuscled feminine figure, the mass of shining floating hair, the small waist around which the muscled arm snakes, as if the man were absorbing the woman. Neither has a face. The photograph is structured by the corner which is the vanishing point of the image and it suggests this sense of being cornered by gendered typology, a ragged conflation of shadow with disappearance of the self, that contrasts with the woman’s silky blue dress. The Hug, like Nan One Month After Being Battered, suggests something monstrous at the core of gender codes—behind or beneath the delicate feminine surfaces of blue dress, or lipstick, or bows, or lacy curtains lurks the monstrous shape of domination.
Heart Shaped Bruise likewise seems to merge the female body with the terrain of suffering for love. The woman’s exposed leg looks powerless, without muscular definition. Her willingness to hike up her dress and pull down her stockings suggests another level of vulnerability—an approachable condition that determines whose bodily space and visibility can be abrogated and suggests that femininity is the condition of being approachable physically. The tawdry trappings of the demimonde, cheap bed sheets and cut rate dress, underscore the pitiable or poignant turn of the image, and of course its singular bruise: love written in the shape of violence, or violence shaping love, is the implied message of Heart Shaped Bruise. This structural vulnerability that is also presented in the Hug as in Nan One Month After Being Battered presents femininity as a codification of almost intolerable vulnerability
But Goldin’s work also subverts and disputes this notion of feminine fragility. Firstly, and less than obviously, the figure behind the camera is always a woman in Goldin’s oeuvre, since Goldin is the photographer capturing these images. What ever terms of fragility she may explore imagistically, the way she lives her life is to insist—literally—on bringing into being her vision, her credo of taking her camera with her always, and taking photographs of the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. Indeed, the feminist chestnut of the phallic camera—the camera as intrusive masculine object—would hardly seem to be misapplied to Goldin’s aggressive approach to photography. Goldin says, “A radiant eye yearns from me” and explains that everyone she photographs she photographs from love, not aggression. Whether we read aggression in her photographs or whether we read love in the images, it is certain that Goldin exhibits steely determination in documenting all that she sees through the work of her camera.
The history of Goldin’s early life plays into her approach to photography. Her adored older sister, Barbara was a “wild girl” in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that is, a girl who was considered to be improper in her display of femininity. Barbara was duly punished by the psychiatric establishment and treated with toxic prescription psychotropics. She committed suicide as a teenager when Nan Goldin was still a young child. Barbara lay down on the railroad tracks and waited for the train to run over her. Nan Goldin claimed that every photograph she has taken is so that the person whom she photographs cannot be taken from her the way that her sister Barbara was taken from her. In this sense, her body of work is deeply recuperative, insisting on resisting and fighting the losing terms of femininity offered by our culture.
Donna Ferrato’s First Night in the Shelter is produced in a very different vein from Goldin’s work. Not a survivor of abuse, but a photographer documenting abuse, Ferrato’s perspective is more
formal and detached in contrast to Goldin’s emotionally heated color saturated photography. First Night in the Shelter shockingly uses the young mother’s bruised eyes as an aesthetic lure: she almost seems to be wearing heavy eye shadow. The mother and child are photographed not by a friend but by a concerned and caring outsider, and the photograph consequently does not seem to be invasive in the way that many of Goldin’s intimate portraits push across boundaries of personal space. The formal composition of Ferrato’s First Night in the Shelter plays off Renaissance tableaux of the Virgin and her infant, balancing the mother’s dark hair with her pale skin, covering the mother so that her body is scarcely revealed, but shrouded as in Marian robes. She reaches protectively, poignantly, towards her infant in her sleep, the baby’s cherubic cheeks echoing the very young mother’s smooth taut skin. The mother’s perfect profile could have appeared on a Roman statue of Venus. And yet the black eye and the word “Shelter” wrench the peaceful, beautiful scene of a young mother and a round cheeked baby and re-set the image with much the same dialectic as Nan Goldin’s Nan One Month After Being Battered—showing both the public transcript and the hidden truth. Here the public transcript is the tender notions of maternity as a protected sheltered condition, whereas the reality for this mother is that in her spouse’s home she was given a black eye and had to escape to a battered women’s shelter. Shelter then plays double duty in this photograph’s title, just as the mother’s black eye confronts us with the shock of the real. At first she seems to be wearing too much eye shadow and then on closer inspection, and drawing from the title we see how deep the shadow goes. Whether these images—in prominent public circulation since 1984 and 1987 respectively—have changed the prevalence of gender based violence in our culture no study has tracked. But they are photographs created by women who intended to use their photographs as activist tools against gender based violence; you can decide for yourselves the extent of their capacity for this power to change the culture.
Claire Raymond, December 3rd, 2012
On Diane Arbus and the Iconic
A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, NYC, 1966:
When Susan Sontag accused photographer Diane Arbus of a kind of tourism of suffering (in Sontag’s 1977 book, On Photography she discusses Arbus in the second chapter “America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly”), Sontag was perhaps not so much grasping something true about Arbus’s work—Arbus is no tourist but an indigene of the terrain of dark vision— as rather developing Sontag’s own peculiar, and damning, interpretation of the culture of the visual, the cult of the filmic image. The glass through which we see darkly, of course, refers to Saint Paul’s comment that now, in embodied mortal life, we see as “through a glass, darkly.” Sontag’s allusion to the New Testament sits oddly with the Old Testament terms of her censure of the image. Sontag is the ultimate iconoclast, mistrusting the image in all its forms, and therefore mistrusting photography most of all because photography is image. Arbus saw this transgressive pull of the photograph—that her camera gave her admittance to other people’s homes and ultimately to other people’s souls that she could never have gained without that magic pass, that black magic mirror. But Arbus loved the image: she transgressed into its flat and dystopic realm with magisterial pleasure. If Sontag critiques Arbus for taking Whitman’s democratic and cosmopolitan vision of America and perverting it, one can counter Sontag’s claim by saying that what Arbus shows is the perverse nature of America. It is not Arbus’s vision that pulls us through a dark glass but instead she illuminates the faults that wait to be seen. As Arbus evocatively put it, her photographs show us the ‘gaps,’ they show us not how we wish to be seen but precisely the aporia between how we think we look and how we really look. In showing that gap, as no one else has managed to so do, Arbus produces icons of estrangement, images of human beings estranged from themselves. Refusing the false image, Arbus counters iconoclasm by producing the icon as window to truth.
A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966, shows the ‘gap’ between the young mother’s desire to emulate what she apparently thought of as her Irish and/or Liz Taylor-like beauty—black hair, blue eyes—and the way that rather than looking especially beautiful, glamorous, or Old World, the young mother looks like a young American woman who is burdened with two children, and already showing the wear. But Arbus’s capturing of the gap between intention and effect is not cruel here. Rather it is poignant, haunting. We imagine that in this image we already see the young woman’s exhaustion growing deeper as the years go by, her waistline thickening. The severe black-and-white patterns of the young woman’s make-up, plucked eyebrows, clothing are in concert with Arbus’s chiaroscuro modeling of the image, an image that establishes itself by contrasting light and dark, the dark wall and the bright sky echoing the parents’ dark clothing and the children’s bright garments. But who here is caught by mortality, by the gap between intention and effect? Not only the parents but also the elder child, who was developmentally delayed and struggles to produce the requisite response to the camera’s always intrusive gaze, shows this mortal gap. In his stunningly honest response to the camera, a simultaneous expression of horror and joy, the pleasure of being seen as a subject of interest—the camera’s intense focus—and the horror of being the object of someone else’s gaze are all legible in his ferocious, askew, and sad smile. The image’s positioning of the human group, the iconic family group (le choix du Roi, elder son, younger daughter) at a kind of trompe l’oeil corner created by the dark wall and the pale sky makes the group appear to be moving both forward and backward at the same time—gazing toward Arbus and her camera before them but somehow pulled back toward the sharply marked vanishing point behind them. That is, the figures are not stopped in time, as should be the conceit of a photograph of a Sunday afternoon outing, but instead immersed, even immolated, in time. The young parents’ estrangement from the American dream—a beautiful wife, a healthy family—is already set in motion not by Arbus’s camera but rather by fate that her camera sets before us with its queerly impartial mood of despair countered by stoicism and aesthetic joy.
Why are they iconic? As Arbus later said, every family is creepy in some way. And the young Brooklyn family presents the border terrain wherein we, as families, become ‘creepy,’ that is, as we accept the marks of fate—of not being quite beautiful enough, lucky enough, and really of simply being mortal—in these groups of biological accident and incident. The young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966, is demarcated by what the economist philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis memorably called the intolerable boredom of Christian Sunday afternoons. What he specifically meant was the boredom caused by the disavowal of sex that must follow the rigors of Sunday morning worship. Castoriadis’s pivotal theory of the radical imagination opens up new ways of interpreting Arbus’s iconic photographs. For Castoriadis, trauma, historical trauma, cultural trauma, is met with the radical imagination that is spurred by the marks of fate to create, against fate, new cultural paths. Far from lacking imagination, as Sontag accuses her, Arbus’s photographs very often succeed because they stare down the mirror of fate and insist that seeing the gap between intention and effect is the iconic imprint of the radical imagination. Here Arbus shows us not a way to make fun of or pity this family but to see what the American landscape makes of family—isolated, set before fate in a strict Sunday sky that offers no protection, no everyday religion that will cover the sky. Instead, American religion has lost everydayness and become fervent.
The trauma of the real, a Lacanian notion that Castoriadis develops even as he rejects most of Lacan, is exposed like a nerve in Arbus’s iconic photographs. Here is what happens to our bodies because we are human and American—we become freaks to each other and to ourselves, immersed in a culture of disavowal of the real. The radical imagination of Castoriadis I cannot help but link to the centuries old debate of iconoclasm, a debate that might or might not have had variant meanings for Castoriadis since he was raised in the Orthodox church (the iconoclasts where thrown out of the Eastern church in the 9th century AD). In iconoclasm, the desire to break the image is the desire to break its hold on how we see the real. The Orthodox conceptualization of the icon is that it functions as a window to truth: the icon itself is not truth, but a window to truth and the real. Here, the term the real is not the same as the Lacanian real, rather it is neo-Platonic. Arguably, Arbus’s photographs assert in the face of the Lacanian real—the trauma of the gap between intention and effect—another kind of reality, that which Castoriadis argues is continually created by the acts of the radical imagination. Arbus’s photograph of the young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966, takes the traumas of the family’s losses, the trauma that its firstborn is developmentally challenged, the trauma that its mother is not quite beautiful enough to make good on her beauty, the trauma that in America the working class do not always prevail (the father of the group is an emigrant from Italy who works as a mechanic), among other perhaps unknown traumas, and transforms them into an image that is something very close to beautiful. The sky behind them could be gold, the path embossed on which their feet implicitly rest. And, surely, as in an altar diptych of the Holy Family, there are hidden but imminently visible animals, rivers, mountains, securing iconographically the centrality of the young Brooklyn family. And, here, in a departure from the Biblical norm, the iconic family contains a daughter, a figure who appears to be reaching out for the bright camera, reaching towards Arbus. Arbus, a daughter whose hand is also raised as she lifts her camera and snaps the shot, is hailed by this baby girl, a feminist salute, for the life or the world, to come, knowing even as she is known.
Claire Raymond, May, 2014