Nan Goldin. Credit: Markus Jans

A lot of people seem to think that art or photography is about the way things look, or the surface of things. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s really about relationships and feelings. . . . It’s not about a style or a look or a setup. It’s about emotional obsession and empathy.
– Nan Goldin

A lifetime of documenting protracted angst, longing, loneliness, the expediency of moments that are primal and private, has left a treasure trove of remarkable images captured by American photographer Nan Goldin’s camera lens. Her most well-known collection of photos, which has traveled the world as a slide show accompanied by music, is called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the title taken from a song written by Kurt Weill for Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

On November 10, as part of the 2011 edition of CPH:DOX (the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival), a small audience was invited to a special exhibition of Sexual Dependency, this time the images accompanied by a live performance by artist, musician and singer, Genesis P-Orridge, who is currently appearing in Marie Losier’s luminous film called The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.(1) The show took place at Copenhagen’s beautiful national art gallery, the Statens Museum for Kunst.

In his 1986 essay, “Nan Goldin’s Grim Ballad”, critic Andy Grundberg describes The Ballad of Sexual Dependency within the context and perspective of storytelling in film:

In terms of style, she favors the candid and unplanned over the technically polished and precise – which is not to say that she is incapable of remarkable images. She approaches photography from the perspective of film, seeking to open the medium’s gates to narrative through sequencing and editing… Goldin’s slide show, with its screen and sound, closely replicates the experience of moviegoing.”(2)

To accompany its exceedingly robust and diverse program of films, CPH:DOX also stages plenty of live music shows, installation exhibitions and special programs that bring together the art gallery and the movie theatre in exciting, fresh (and very weird) ways. It is a cultural event known for taking chances, its artistic director Tine Fischer displaying explicit trust in her small team of curators to bring challenging film and video work to the Danish audience. As well, every year, Fischer and her team invite respected and revered artists – their “private heroes” – to curate personal and bespoke film programs.

This year, Nan Goldin curated a program of eight feature and twelve short films, works that cover several decades, from the mid-1960s to the present day. Goldin has been documenting her own life and those of her friends since the late 1970s, her photos greatly influencing the work of several generations of visual artists, including filmmakers. Directly through her deeply personal and intimate relationships with her subjects – exclusively her friends and lovers – she has consistently broken the persistent barriers that exist between the gazer and the object of the gaze. One could say it was one of the last century’s most aggressive acts of humanism in the arts, particularly since a lot of those so documented did not live to a ripe old age, not even close. Tine Fischer, in her eloquent intro to this year’s festival catalogue, says of Goldin’s oeuvre, “It favors a complex poetics of exchanges, correspondences, and displacements, and it represents – within a documentary context – a radical humanism devoid of any kind of victimization.”(3)

I’m not sure I altogether agree with the assessment of “devoid of any kind of victimization.” I think that is a significant and important part of Goldin’s work and why it continues to resonate so deeply, although the artist herself has protested against that stance on her work. But there really are not too many artists that possess this unfiltered gaze and have stubbornly kept it unfiltered, the emotional heft of capturing raw life moment by moment the only relevant imperative. And life served raw is pretty damned harsh. We like to look at these photos because the people in them are ravishingly beautiful and young, vibrant. Also sick, sad, strung-out, destitute – victimised. We, of course, understand that the victimisation does not stem from having their photo taken.

Goldin’s work is also intensely political, particularly in terms of gender roles and the power struggles inherent in relationships, especially those that habitually traipse across the stricter territories of gender. Goldin illustrates sexual addiction in ways in which any one of us can become addicted, not to the sex act itself, but to the object of one’s sexual obsession. The addiction ends up having very little to do with the actual “substance” of sex, and more to do with need – the need to merge with another human being, the need to be close, the need to never isolate yourself from what makes you feel alive, your own body, your own hands, your own genitalia, and those of your beloved – even if he / she is horrible to you.

The festival staff invited Goldin to “reinterpret” the title of an autobiographical film called I’ll Be Your Mirror (1996), which Goldin co-directed with Edmund Coulthard.(4) In the film, she tells us she grew up in a place where the gospel was, “Don’t let the neighbours know,” thus starting her off on a life-long quest of linking her own life and work inextricably to whom and what she is documenting, letting the neighbours – and anyone else who wants to look – see for themselves what’s going on next door, at least within the confines of the circumscribed worlds in which she dwells. She also tells us candidly, that photography for her was a matter of survival, and after leaving home at the age of 14, Goldin propped up her mirror / camera, set it close to her seeking eye, and documented those experiences and people who were intimates, day by day, night by night, for years and years. Goldin lived, worked and hung out with a virtual kaleidoscope of humanity, gathering around her an ever-shifting group of runaways, drug addicts, prostitutes, drag queens and sexual “deviants”, and taking loads of photos of them which came back in bags from the drugstore, snap-shot, white-bordered prints by the hundreds.

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the quick peek in the window of a digital camera’s display to assess what happened a nanosecond after “the shutter snapped”. Goldin never knew what her pictures would look like, feel like, convey, until they were developed. To this day, Goldin sees herself as a defender of the real, the raw, the unaltered. In an interview with Angelique Chrisafis in the 22 May 2008 edition of The Guardian, Goldin says, “…That’s the whole reason I started taking photos: to make a record against revisionism, against anyone revising my life or what I saw.”(5)

Variety. Courtesy of Bette Gordon / Kino Films.

Goldin has always explored why the need to couple is so strong in us all. Therefore, it wasn’t a big surprise that her program contained many films in which coupling is explored – the couplehood of a filmmaker and a subject/ character, the couplehood of two people in a film. But these narrative, documentary and hybrid works also dwell on isolation and the pain of seeking, but never finding, any intimacy at all, despite the obsessive search for it. In Bette Gordon’s Variety from 1983, written by Kathy Acker, we find ourselves in the wrecked downtown Manhattan of the early ‘80s, a mythic underworld ripe for exploration for the protagonist, Christine. The young woman takes a nighttime job as a ticket seller at a rundown porn theatre, and becomes more and more fixated on a male client.

In an interview in WhiteHot Magazine from August 2010, director Bette Gordon talks about meeting Nan Goldin and how the artist and the work she was producing became an integral influence on Gordon’s own film work. Goldin shot the stills during the making of Variety and these, in turn, became part of her own books and slide shows. Goldin, who was tending bar in Times Square at the infamous Tin Pan Alley, also took a small acting role as the best friend of the main character. But even before this, Gordon was in the process of shooting Empty Suitcases, which contains a scene of two women photographing one another and exchanging clothes. The other actress was Vivienne Dick, a filmmaker from Ireland and another close friend of Goldin’s.(6)

Liberty's Booty. Courtesy of Vivienne Dick / LUX.

In Copenhagen, Goldin chose to exhibit three short films of Vivienne Dick’s, She Had Her Gun All Ready and Beauty Becomes the Beast – both starring the screen-crusher Lydia Lunch, lead singer of Teenage Jesus & The Jerks – and Liberty’s Booty, Dick’s last film shot in New York. Liberty’s Booty draws a searing parallel between (white, middle-class) prostitution and the obsession with success in American culture. Goldin took many stills from Dick’s films, as well, and one film was shot in the loft where Goldin was living at the time. Just as all of her photography subjects were her favourite people to live with, hang out with, so do some of these films continue to resonate deeply as part of her private history.

Goldin also chose to exhibit Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1964), a film that explores the harsh reality of 1960s Black Harlem. Remarkably, the film has never been released. Distributed by Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films (Wiseman produced the film), Clarke helmed a powerful look at the horrors of ghetto life filled with drugs, violence, misery, despair. (Come to think of it, there was very little that was outright comedic in Goldin’s film choices.) In scripting a rigorous and truthful screenplay, Clarke was obviously still most interested in the visual and aural tropes that find her characters able to articulate their troubles and transformations in what turns out to be more of the direct cinema style one finds in documentary.

The Cool World. Courtesy of Shirley Clarke / Zipporah Films.

There is a very particular transformation, as well, that happens to the viewer when watching a moving image. When I think about how an individual exhibits a group of films chosen specifically to play together (or off of one another) in some fashion, I think about the ways in which this particular group of films reverberates with specific sets of sequences that stay in the memory. I don’t really focus so much on one-off images, but instead on the nonlinear ways in which an interior and exterior life is formed when we observe someone in film. Goldin: “I don’t believe in the decisive moment. I’m interested in the cumulative images, and how they affect each other, the relationships between them. There is so much more said than by a single image.”(7) This, a perfect testament to why film will forever be a relevant art form.

The most important thing about films, according to Goldin, is that unlike, say, a slide show, a film cannot really be “updated”. It can be remade in a different time and place and context – by a different maker – thus rendering it, of course, another film entirely, another story entirely. But the ineffable feelings one gets from watching the films in Goldin’s curation, are ones of familiarity, recognition, a sense that certain people’s existences transcend time and place altogether, even from the age of medieval race relations, or the sexual and criminal conduct perpetrated by a desperate white, middle-class suburban woman (in Barbara Loden’s narrative Wanda, 1970), or a brilliant, lonely musician dying of AIDS (in Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s documentary Benjamin Smoke, 2000), all articulating in vérité-inspired ways the intense meditative state an individual needs to occupy in order to improvise a renewed existence for him- or herself.

Raymond Depardon, the celebrated French Magnum photographer and direct cinema-inspired documentary filmmaker was featured in Goldin’s curation this year with San Clemente (1982). The film’s namesake was that of an Italian psychiatric hospital in the midst of shutting down when Depardon filmed there, documenting some of the inmates’ last days. Depardon exudes great affection for his subjects through the device of his camera lens, and lends deep compassion for the individual destinies he documents, destinies on the brink of the kind of exposure the likes of which they’ve never experienced.

San Clemente. Courtesy of Raymonde Depardon / Palmeraies et Désert.

The interior transformations exhibited in this particular group of films illustrate generous amounts of unarticulated desires, unarticulated desires being what the cinematic arts are most suited for. Coupled with soundtracks that capture the aimless drift and empty pockets of our psyches, these stories are really only relatable on a more visceral level – the level at which we take in things through our ears and eyes as voyeuristic observers of these particular lives that have wittingly exposed themselves.

It is the unwitting part, however, that strikes the most interesting chord of all and pulls to the forefront something with which I’ve been struggling in the context of Goldin’s work ever since discovering it. Throughout the years, ever since interviews have been requested of her, Goldin has reiterated how the use of the word “voyeur” in relation to her work discomfits her, how it rattles her when critics might describe her work as voyeuristic. There is not one film that I saw within her curation (nor rarely a photograph of hers) that does not make me feel my act of looking is voyeuristic. In the ways in which I encounter art, this is not considered a dirty word, nor does it connote any kind of derogatory meaning. In fact, I’m not quite sure I can reconcile looking at Goldin’s work, which I’ve looked at and admired for a very long time, as something that’s not distinctly voyeuristic.

Capturing a person, capturing an artist, capturing the person as artist and the artist as person, is to embark on a journey into how we all parse the ways and means of establishing our own identity, personality, point-of-view, and most importantly, how we manifest these things. In honing in on the sexual aspects of an individual, Goldin and the directors she admires, intrepidly ask all the otherwise unspoken questions, questions the protagonists in these films really only get to answer through the use of their physical selves. This is the raw material that they hand over to the people creating these various portraits. Whether the individual is real or fictional doesn’t matter.

And then we have the aspect of the clandestine voyeur, the documentarian with the hidden camera, who records orgies in S&M and swingers clubs in New York and Paris as Jean Christian Bourcart does in his five-minute piece, Encore une fois (2008). What’s so remarkable about this film is that the participants look so innocent, their faces filled with deeply private expressions of pleasure, like a happy bunch of playful children in their blurry black-and-white, from-the-pocket, we-have-no-idea-there-is-a-camera-in-the-room shots. Or maybe the camera is once again hidden in a coat pocket as the filmmaker goes to visit homespun fortune-tellers who invite him into their dingy dwellings to tell him about his life, his love and money issues. Is it only then that it’s okay to become witnesses – voyeurs – when we accompany this kind of portraitist through the four films that were a significant part of Goldin’s shorts program?

Of course, it is all extremely voyeuristic, and such great stuff to watch. It is how we get to know ourselves. As well, it is how we get to know the human being on the other side of the lens.

More information on Goldin’s program can be found on the festival’s website: I’ll Be Your Mirror, Curated by Nan Goldin, CPH:DOX 2011 Film Program http://www.cphdox.dk/d/ser.lasso?s=2011121&e=1

Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival
3-13 November 2011
website: http://www.cphdox.dk/d/f.lasso


  1. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye by Marie Losier, film’s official website, http://www.balladofgenesisandladyjaye.com/ballad/
  2. Andy Grundberg, “Nan Goldin: A Personal Favorite Who Still Sings Ballads Sweetly”, quoted from Coincidences, Discussions on the Art and Craft of Photography, and Other Digressions, 28 July 2004, http://coincidences.typepad.com/still_images_and_moving_o/2004/07/nan_goldin_a_pe.html
  3. Curated by Nan Goldin, Artist in Focus, CPH:DOX 2011 Film Program, “Welcome” by Tine Fischer, p. 10.
  4. I’ll Be Your Mirror, directed by Edmund Coulthard and Nan Goldin, 1996, RT 50 min, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0113372
  5. Angelique Chrisafis, “My Camera Has Saved My Life,” The Guardian, 22 May 2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2008/may/22/photography.art
  6. Kofi Forson, Whitehot Magazine, “August 2010, Interview with Bette Gordon,” http://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/2010-interview-with-bette-gordon/2119
  7. Stephen Westfall, “Nan Goldin”, BOMB Magazine, Issue #37 / Fall 1991, http://bombsite.com/issues/37/articles/1476