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Nan Goldin: Intimate Snapshots

“Snapshots are the only form of photography that are completely inspired by love.”

Nan Goldin

At first glance the images of Nan Goldin give the impression that anyone could have taken them. It seems like they were taken from a family album, typical “snapshots”.

Especially the ones from bars and nightlife, in which people appear with drinks in their hands or hugging each other and smiling towards the camera as if to say: Look, we’re doing just fine having the time of our life!

Snapshots are the only form of photography that are completely inspired by love.

Nan Goldin

Previously neatly put into albums, such pictures today populate the walls of social network profiles. Like for example the photograph entitled “French Chris at Drive In”.

A group of friends in a convertible car at night in a parking lot drinking beer. A scene that can be seen in million places around the world every weekend. Nan Goldin herself admits that her work comes from the snapshot.

To achieve her objective, the spontaneous is the most appropriate way. Every shot is a piece of a mosaic that represents nothing more but her life and the lives of her friends. They are fragments that make sense as a whole. That’s when the random pictures begin to tell a story, not with words but visually. For Nan Goldin it’s her way of telling her own story and a way to record and preserve it beyond the fugitive moment.

At the same time she makes New York sub-culture during the 1970s and 1980s emerge in her very personal images. It’s in that environment where Nan Goldin and her circle of friends used to live. So Nan Goldin’s images also have a documentary value, in a sociocultural sense that display an era. The pictures open a window into an unknown world of society that many people would have never been able to take a glimpse at.

You might also like: “The 5 Best Photography Movies About Nan Goldin”

It is the world of drug addicts, sex, alcohol excess, people struggling to define their identity, their gender, sick people suffering from AIDS which at that time was a disease that one knew very little about. Seeing that part of society and sub-culture helps us to understand that there is not only the beautiful reality which is so often refered to in the mass media, magazines, soap operas, advertisement etc.

The idea of creating a record that will stand the test of time is even more important considering that many of Nan Goldin’s friends eventually became infected with HIV and have died from AIDS. But Nan Goldin’s photographs are still “alive”. If you want, they are a sign of love, Nan Goldin has created a visual monument for her dead friends through her images. The artist puts it that way:

“The instant photography is the most defined by love and to remember.”

Nan Goldin

On the other hand there is the shocking, outrageous side – that is reality in its purest form, without censorship. Images showing sexual acts, naked people, scenes that go beyond what you normally expect to see in art photography. They lack the glamour nude photography usually displays. Keeping in mind the time when they were taken and published, 1970s and 1980s it becomes even more remarkable. Today, this aspect may not be as noticeable, and the images do not generate such a big controversy as they did back then.

With her camera, Nan Goldin captures what is going on around her. She takes her camera anywhere, she never leaves without it, it’s her companion wherever she goes. The people she photographs are her friends. So there’s no acting in front of the camera, they don’t take on a role because there’s a stranger in the room with a camera taking pictures. They don’t feel disturbed or interrupted by the presence of the photographer because Nan Goldin herself is a part of that intimate circle of friends.

That seems essential when looking at Nan Goldin’s work and to understand the creative process from which her images have emerged. If there hadn’t been that kind of complicity, Nan Goldin would not have been able to take that kind of images that allow to enter a world without makeup and poses.

I’ve been criticized a lot as being narcissistic. But many artists have worked directly from their own lives. If I hadn’t constructed my work in such a personal manner, they’d be accusing me of voyeurism. I think that people are missing out on the fact that my work is about empathy and connection. And how deep you can go with another person.

Nan Goldin

The central issue in Nan Goldin’s pictures is the ambiguous relationship between genders, between man and woman, which according to Nan Goldin is characterized by intimacy and distance.

Nan Goldin has photographed everything and everyone around her throughout her life. With her camera she always tried to get as close as possible, to display the naked and very intimate. Her photographs reflect the great affection and love she felt for her subjects. No matter in what kind of rare or shocking situations they are – or if they are beautiful or ugly: Nan Goldin doesn’t judge with her camera. She accepts her models just the way they are.

Thus Goldin managed to get first hand photographs and to confront the spectator with a very harsh reality which most of them are not familiar with. She shows the people of that unfamiliar world as humans, with great sympathy, tenderness and affection. How shocking Nan Goldin’s pictures might be, they are always full of intimacy.

More about Nan Goldin

Selected publications: “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (2012), “The Devil’s Playground” (2003), “Nan Goldin (Monographs)” (2006), “Desire By Numbers” (1994), “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (1997), “The Other Side 1972-1992” (2000).

Featured reading: Interview with Nan Goldin “If I want to take a picture, I take it no matter what”, Interview with Nan Goldin (The Guardian, 22nd of May, 2008) “My camera saved my life”.

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