Is documentary-style photography dead?

The rerelease of Nan Goldin's "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" reminds us what we've lost in the Internet age

Published January 2, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Los Angeles Review of Books IN THE NEW afterword to Aperture’s recent rerelease of her classic, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin writes:

I am terrified that everything I believe about photography, about this work, is over because of the computer and easy manipulation of images it facilitates. This work was always about reality, the hard truth, and there was never any artifice. I have always believed that my photographs capture a moment that is real, without setting anything up.

Later, she continues:

Now, it is so distressing: no one any longer believes that a photograph is real. Almost every time I give a talk or teach, I ask this question about truth and photography. If all but four or five in an audience of two hundred artistic people don’t believe that photographs are true, then what does that say about the rest of the world? So this eliminates the larger reason for having done this book — not for me, but if nobody believes it as having happened …what is the point? The belief that a photograph can be True has become obsolete.

If these concerns come off as slightly erroneous or overdue (haven’t photographers been using Photoshop for the last 20 years?), primarily they speak to an issue of context. What appears to be in question is not so much the capability of photography to represent the “Truth” as Goldin posits it — in the general sense of the word, it would seem people do still believe, easily at times, in photography’s ability to factually represent a certain version of the truth.

But in an art context, where the meaning or formal composition of an image, not its validity, is of central importance, to demand that photographs be literally understood as True is to impose a gratuitously limiting dictum. Goldin has always conflated her life and her art though, and perhaps nowhere else as much as with this massive work, which loosely chronicles nine years of her life and that of her friends (in slide form it contains over 900 photographs and covers even more time). Her indignation is thus understandable, since to suspect that her photographs are somehow manipulated is to undermine their documentary value, and that is, she suggests, their primary value. She has always presented her work as a direct reflection of her circumstance, an adjunct to her memory (or, at times when she was too inebriated to remember anything, as a memory itself), a way to puncture the familial denial of her upbringing and breach silence on topics like drug use, physical abuse, sexuality and later, AIDS.

But, whether due to the absolute saturation of diaristic images now in circulation on the Internet, or some other turn, the fact is that in the last few years, the rift has widened between the kind of snapshot, documentary-style photography Goldin champions and — except for certain perennial favorites — the majority of photography in contemporary. More and more, in an art setting, photography is used as a process to create abstract or self-consciously composed imagery, often as a component of a larger conceptual frame; it tends to present reality through metaphor, or by way of a signifier, rather than by straight documentation of subjects’ lives. So, yes, it may be fair to say that people no longer believe that a photograph in a gallery or museum or art book is true, precisely because they are no longer being asked to do so. The question, for the time being, seems almost irrelevant.

And so, the question of whether Goldin’s photos are True or not — by which one assumes she means (Photoshop aside) whether the images were made for the camera or were recorded in the midst of their natural unfolding by the virtue of a camera being present — feels like something of an afterthought. Even if the answer were technically no, it would not render her accomplishment any less legitimate. Because the continuing resonance of The Ballad is cumulative; it has much more to do with the way Goldin constructs a type of filmic fiction from her life (she has often referred to the pictures as stills from a nonexistent film) and in the way she is able — through style, editing, framing, color, (noticeably corrected in the new edition) — to make scenes that are sometimes indefinable, scenes that sometimes show the deep internalization and playing out, as well as countering, of gender archetypes by herself and her subjects, that often depict intense emotional pain, or unglamorous sex. As the curator and photo historian John Szarkowski writes in his introduction to William Eggleston’s first book of photographs, Guide: “Form is perhaps the point of art. The goal is not to make something factually impeccable, but seamlessly persuasive.”

Twenty-five years after it was released as a book, and over 30 since its first presentation as a slideshow (at a celebration of Frank Zappa’s birthday at the Mudd Club on New York’s Lower East Side in 1979), The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is still a striking work for the very reason that it is both raw document and utter construction. It is, as J. Hoberman called it, both a “diary and a soap-opera.”

And, if the emotional tenor of the book occasionally rises to the brink of melodrama, in other moments, when Goldin’s subjects, her friends, are given the opportunity to pose, not only for her, but for an idea of posterity, or to show themselves as they might like to be perceived, a more subtle, self-reflexive kind of drama emerges — a tension perhaps especially common during the self-consciousness of youth. Goldin’s camera (which also finds an equivalent in the book’s reoccurring motif of mirrors) simultaneously elicits and captures this, but mostly just epitomizes it, since, for people of a certain age or psychic disposition, the remove or idea of the camera is often present even when the mechanism is not. In some of the pictures, one can almost witness a deep sense of relief in Goldin’s friends, as some internal narrative suddenly aligns with outward validation — oh, their faces seem to say, to really be seen.


The book form of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency consists of 125 color photographs. The dates of the pictures cover Goldin’s 20s, beginning in 1976, when she was 23 and living in Provincetown, studying photography at the Museum School in Boston, and continue through 1985, including seven years spent in New York City. Ordered thematically and set into miniature chapters, the titles are almost all taken from songs Goldin uses in her slideshow (she began setting the photographs to music in 1982). Her selection of song-based titles — leaning heavily on the Velvet Underground, but also including 1950s R&B and doo wop, blues, 1960s pop (“Downtown,” “Don’t Make Me Over”) and “Casta Divana” from a Bellini opera — though not as powerful without the actual music, add an element of lightly sardonic juxtaposition to certain sequences (if listened to with Paul Anka’s version of the song, “Lonely Boy,” a series of pictures of unsuspecting men by themselves, for example, is particularly funny) and dramatic tone to others. The first chapter of the book, which shares its title, (appropriated from a musical number in theThree Penny Opera), just seven photographs long, holds within it the main seeds of the entire work.

In the opening picture, from her birthday in 1981, Goldin stares happily into her camera, on the lap of her then boyfriend, the world-weary-looking Brian J. Burchill: a drug addict and file clerk and later actor (he appears briefly in Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise), whom she met while working at Tin Pan Alley, a bar in Times Square. Goldin’s relationship with Burchill is the most thoroughly explored of any in the Ballad, and from this opening scene of togetherness, it will twist and bow, ultimately breaking at a centerpiece photograph of her from 1984, staring into the camera again after she has been beaten by him, both her eyes blackened and the right filled with blood.

Goldin speaks of her portrait process as one of accretion, saying once in an interview: “I don’t believe in the single portrait. I believe only in the accumulation of portraits as a representation of a person.” This is extremely effective in her depiction of Burchill. For the most part, he is the ultimate cad — with a cigarette consistently dangling from his mouth, he is most often shown looking away from her (as in the highly cinematic, twilight opus Nan and Brian in Bed 1982 — which graces the book’s cover). But as they progress, Goldin’s photographs of Burchill also show the complexity of her feelings towards him, never arriving at a fixed point. In one moment he is hideous, laughing and baring scraggy, rotting teeth (Brian on the Phone, New York City, 1981); in another, he’s seductive, perched on the bed expectantly in boxer shorts; in other photographs his Marlborough Man swagger appears irreducible, almost like a grimace. He is pictured sunburned in Merida, Mexico, sucking a cigarette and holding a gun at a shooting gallery, a supreme performance of vintage masculinity. In another Mexico photograph, his head is in his hands in a moment of torment. In Berlin, under an unflattering dusty light that exposes every crease in his brow, his rough face is set into a sullen look of guilty confrontation. In New York, he leans over his birthday cake, blowing out the candles like a child.

Goldin is interested in the trappings and profundity of intimacy. As a viewer, one isn’t asked to share an attraction to Burchill — he’s not offered as an object — but instead to try and comprehend the phases of Goldin’s attachment to him.


The next two photographs in the series make something of a diptych of wan fidelity. A picture of Goldin’s elderly parents sitting beside each other at dinner, their eyes cast in different directions, their tight lips barely forming a smile, conspicuously resembles the photo preceding it, a picture of two wax figures, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Coney Island Wax Museum 1981. The composition of each pair is the same; the man on the left and the woman on the right, and each couple wear a similar expression of contented resignation. While the comparison is pointed, the two images also mirror the first picture, of Goldin with Burchill, in some ways providing a genesis for it, and make the following two photographs, of Goldin’s friends gloriously out in the open, and in one photograph sunbathing nude on the beach, seem like a reaction (though probably intended as a thematic parallel) against it.

Much of the content of the Ballad is poised as a retort to and unpacking of the late 1950s and early 1960s American culture in which Goldin was raised, particularly the secrecy of her own parents and the general atmosphere of sexual repression. She states as much in the book’s introduction, which is dedicated to her older sister, Barbara. At 18, after being institutionalized for what now seem mild displays of overt sexuality, Barbara Goldin left the Maryland mental hospital in which she had been a patient for several years, and, in what Goldin calls “an act if immense will,” walked to the tracks of a commuter rail line, lay down, and took her own life. Goldin was 11 at the time. She writes that in the week following her sister’s death, “I was seduced by an older man. During this period of greatest pain and loss […] I was simultaneously obsessed by my own desire.”

That distinct frame for the photographs that follow suggest that The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a book that, in addition to recording the resulting development of Goldin’s sexual awakening, must also contend with the lingering insolubility of loss. Her use of intensely concentrated color, at its most hallucinatory in scenes featuring a single subject in a moment of reflection or anguish, illustrate that disintegration, the color becoming as overwhelming and singular as the emotion or traumatic instance itself. In the pure crimson wash of Suzanne with Mona Lisa, Mexico City 1981 or the scarlet glow of April crying at 7th and B, New York City 1985, the extreme chiaroscuro of Anthony by the sea, Brighton England 1979 — in which a man looks out from a darkened room on an unbelievably blue square of ocean and sky outside the bay window, a sliver of light falling onto the dark red cloth that covers the table at which he sits contemplatively — the chromatic heights achieved make simple scenes ineffable.

Other photographs in the book interact with childhood refuse in a lighter way, with a mix of nostalgia and irony, as in Twisting at my birthday party, New York City 1980 and it’s accompaniment, Monopoly Game, New York City 1980. In both, the encounter with 1950s and 1960s style and artifact by Goldin’s otherwise punky looking group of friends is obvious. In the first photograph, one girl wears her hair in a bouffant; she gleefully twists with a boy with rolled up greaser-style sleeves, a postcard of John and Jackie Kennedy pinned to the wall across from them and a couple of decapitated plastic Kewpie doll heads resting on shoeboxes in the window frame below. In the next photo, where a group gathers pensively around a Monopoly board, a large 1950s Pepsi ad poster, featuring a beautiful woman, is visible in the corner behind the couch. In Brian with the Flintstones, New York City 1981, Burchill lays on the bed next to a black and white television set with the 1960s cartoon star Fred Flintstone, a paradigm of male oafishness, playing on it.

These seemingly coincidental details exemplify the influence of childhood media on adult lives, just as Goldin’s photographs of kids display the already unmistakable grid of gender roles on those of children’s. Except in one truly ghostly photo, Skinhead with child, London 1978, where the low light makes it look as if a little girl is emerging from the flowery wallpaper while a young man nods off beside her, the children who haunt images in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are less individuals than types: young female princesses in a pageant in Mexico, or a little boy costumed as a Lucha Libre wrestler.Little Max with a gun, New York City 1977 (Max is the son of the actress, writer and Goldin muse, Cookie Mueller) echoes the previous photo of Burchill, gun in hand, at the shooting gallery.


The numerous traces of gender cliché and popular representation in Goldin’s work recall a contemporary of hers, the artist Cindy Sherman. But while Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-80) are powerful creations of fictional female specimens, vaguely familiar to the viewer but devoid of precise counterpart, Goldin’s photographs, created in the moment, without the remove of Sherman’s set-ups, evidence how these fictions are enacted in reality and how they infuse culture — how both men and women are steeped in them — and thus offer a contrast to Sherman’s more alchemical approach.

Both artists work off the suggestive power of narrative. The cinematic quality of theBallad of Sexual Dependency is reinforced by its enumerated times and places, but, like Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, most of the plot is implied, relying as much on what is left out as on what’s included. The book becomes an elliptical, collective biography, one in which every viewer will connect the images in a different way.

Some photographs in Ballad are taken on film sets, such as “Variety” booth, New York City 1983, which Goldin made while shooting stills for Bette Gordon’s great movie. “Variety”tells the story of a girl working in the box office of a Times Square porno theater, with a script by Kathy Acker and appearance by Goldin, playing herself. She worked on films through the 1990s, when she was a set photographer on such movies as Single White Female and I Shot Andy Warhol. In the 1980s, in addition to Gordon, Goldin also worked with “No Wave” female filmmakers such as Vivian Dick — whose portrait appears in the BalladVivienne in the green dress, New York City 1980 — and Sara Driver — who featured Suzanne Fletcher, one of Goldin’s main “superstars” in both of her films. Goldin initially set out to make movies herself (and since has made a few in the style of her photographs), resolutely influenced by the work of Warhol, particularly his Chelsea Girls, which Goldin has said, as an 18-year-old, she tried to imitate by shooting Super 8 of her friend “naked under bright lights and I would zoom in and out on her.”

One sees historical detail in Goldin’s photographs the way one does in a film, as a byproduct, not focus, of narrative. It’s significant that the artists who are shown in the book (such as Mark Morrisroe and Greer Lankton), are never presented in their studio or making work, and even the rich nightlife of which Goldin was definitely a denizen, if not, from some accounts, a nucleus, is never really historicized or fully documented; it only enters obliquely, in corners of clubs and bars. Instead, hers is mainly a world of domestic interiors. It would seem that her interest in the bed and the bedroom, the most repeated locales of the book, are not just about sex, but ultimately about privacy.

Which leads me back to her complaint about photography and Truth. When The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was released in 1986, the access it gave to a vision of its subjects’ private lives, not to mention Goldin’s own revealing of herself, was exceptional. Her artistic aims and aesthetic have since been so fully embraced that it is hard to conceive of their initial impact. Today, much of what is documented through photography can be called truth, but a very banal version at that. People snap and send each other photographs instead of speaking; photographs have now become almost as constant and dependable a form of communication as words.

What is missing a lot of the time, though, is intention (and — as I can attest as someone who was very inspired by Goldin’s book as a teenager and tried to imitate it by shooting pictures of my own friends — talent.) The kind of bare testimony Goldin was after with her early work, and still attempts to produce, is of a different order than the many other versions afloat, no matter how much they resemble it. As John Szarkowski, writes in Guide:

[I]t should not be surprising if the best photography of today is related in iconography and technique to the contemporary standard of vernacular camera work, which is in fact often rich and surprising. The difference between the two is a matter of intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence.

This is why The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is not just a truthful book, but also a work of art; and why, the need for more collections like it, 25 years later, is still not extinguished.

By Kate Wolf


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Art Documentaries La Review Of Books Nan Goldin Photography The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency