Talking children, movies and Instagram with the godmother of the snapshot
Above: Self-portrait, 1989
During a cool spring gloaming, on the banks of the Regent’s Canal, Nan Goldin is pottering about in her publisher’s office, muttering to herself and sometimes to me. She wanders from room to room with a Sharpie, signing copies of her new book Eden and After, nipping out to smoke, nipping back in past me in the waiting area, throwing out sort-of-helpful suggestions about what I should ask her. “Nobody’s asked me what my favourite colour is,” she says, her eyes glinting, “or which writers I like, what countries I’ve been to. Nobody’s asked me what’s my favourite animal…” She’s at the tail end of a busy day of book promotion and it kinda shows.
At 60, Goldin is still incorrigibly herself: direct, a bit difficult, a bit mischievous, dead smart, dead self-possessed and terribly beautiful. She has those thick golden Goldin curls and wears a crisp dark-blue suit. She has a husky New York-tinged drawl, and regularly uses ‘honey’ as a form of address. She’s back in the room, and she wants to know how old I am. I am 32. She is glad! She makes one of her exasperated proclamations: “I am never talking to another person under 30 again as long as I live.” Phew.
If Eden and After is anything to go by, this last is a completely disingenuous statement. This notorious grown-up’s new book is the first she’s ever done that’s entirely made up of pictures of children. It’s a hefty, heartwarming, tearjerking and LOL-inducing love song to the kids she has been around (she’s never had any of her own but she’s got more than a football team’s-worth of godchildren) over the last 30 years. It’s such a love-loaded book, I suggest, that it’s hard not to see it as a glowing endorsement for procreation. “Really?” she says. “I never wanted to have children until I was about 40, and then I wanted a child. But I’d like to be the father. When you see somebody being parented well, it’s amazing. But there’s very few good parents.” She doesn’t want the book to be an advert for baby-making. “I think some people should have children. But I wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world. I decided that years ago.”
Since her first book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was published in 1986, Goldin has been at the forefront of the art photography world. Her fabulous, squalorous influence has flowed down widely and indelibly across pop culture. A wayward youth who sold weed in the playground at 13, she ran away from the Boston suburb she grew up in and found herself in the buzzing New York club scene of the 1970s. There she began her life’s work, depicting those in close proximity to her: the people she has loved, the people she has lost. Sex has been a big subject, as have gay life, transsexuals, Aids, domestic abuse, drugs and death. Theme-wise, it’s not a very child-friendly oeuvre, but children have always cropped up. Eden and After lumps all these kids in together, from newborns to moody teens, and shows them to be perfectly Goldinian subjects: free of the constraints of conventional society, happy to blur the boundaries between genders and hopped up on sugar, on youth, on life and on their beloved Nan being there and taking their picture again.
While her aesthetic has bled into mainstream culture in endless ways, she views much of mainstream culture with withering disapproval: “It’s just not popular culture that interests me,” she shrugs. “I mean, I had a chance to cross over at one point: be on TV and become part of popular culture. But it’s of no interest to me. I don’t like celebrity.” She’s equally unfazed by her army of imitators, wafting them off with a terse: “They don’t get it at all.” More important to her is the way that her pictures have had an influence on human lives: “A lot of people tell me they came out as gay after seeing my work” she says, stoked. “People tell me they ran away to New York, because of seeing it.” You can tell it’s a happy thought for her. “I’m very proud if I can help people in my life. Help people find themselves, help people feel less alone in the world.”
Goldin is a compulsive sharer, and over our afternoon together she constantly wants to show me things and get my measure of them. She gets a big kick out of talking about books and writers (she rates Walter Mosley, Denis Johnson, Jean Rhys and a long list of others). She asks, “Which poets do you like?” and, “Who are your favourite novelists?” She gets quite enthusiastic. “I started reading when I was three, under the covers, with a flashlight,” she says, “and I’m still up all night reading, every night. I can’t help it.” She’s not exactly shit-hot at working it, but Goldin eagerly produces her iPhone to show me photos: her new apartment in Brooklyn, her nephew’s three-week-old baby, her recent show in Rome. It takes her ages to find the exact one she wants, and as she’s looking for it she sighs: “Oh… It would give me so much pleasure for you to see this.” You can tell she really means it.
“I don’t take responsibility for these monstrous things that happen in life. Instagram does not ‘come out of my work'. It’s so superficial” – Nan Goldin
Her iPhone’s camera roll becomes a slideshow and so we get to talking about slideshows. It’s the medium Goldin considers truly her own. “The slideshow of the Ballad,” she says, “that was my real work.” Before its life as a book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was a looped series of photos beamed onto the walls of friends’ club nights. It continues to evolve as a slideshow now, edited and re-edited by Goldin over the years, and was last seen in London in 2010 as part of Tate Modern’s Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera exhibition. “Very few people still do it,” she says of the form. “It’s films made out of stills: that’s my medium. I want to make films, by the way: that’s been my dream since I was a kid.”
Hang on, Goldin’s been a hugely successful photographer for decades. so what exactly has stopped her from realising her ambition to make a film? “Well, I’m going to, hopefully this summer,” she announces. “I have some producers now. There’s a lot of things I want to do, but first I want to start with a piece of narrative fiction.” The pitch gets a bit hazy after that, but Goldin’s film project sounds like it might resemble an adaptation of a work by one of her beloved novelists. For fans of her work, the prospect of a real Nan Goldin movie is pant-wettingly exciting. Sure, it’s taking a while to actually get made, but there’s Goldin’s consuming and ongoing passion for her first love to take into account here: “The problem is,” she eventually admits, “I like photography better than I used to.”
The world is in agreement with her on that one: in our socially networked, hyper-photographed age, everyone likes photography better than they used to. Fifty-five million new photos go up on Instagram every day. Good old fiercely analogue, can-hardly-work-her-iPhone Goldin is not all that chuffed about this. “I’ve always thought there were too many pictures in the world, and now there’s way too many pictures in the world,” she decrees. “I hate all that, whatever it’s called. I don’t even know what it’s called, but I hate all that.” She's definitely not down to hang online:. “I would die before I’d be on Facebook. I’m completely against it. I mean, if you don’t have friends, go out and make some. Don’t go on the internet.”
The suggestion that her intimate and confessional work is somehow aligned with the photographic conventions of Instagram gets Goldin pretty riled up. “It’s not me!” she says severely, with emphatic hand movements. “Just because some journalists have said; ‘Oh isn’t that related to your work?’ That’s like saying Oprah Winfrey is related to my work, because it’s confessional. I mean: I don’t take responsibility for these monstrous things that happen in life. Instagram does not ‘come out of my work’.” She has nothing but ill will for the whole devilishly popular phenomenon: “It’s so superficial. People don’t know how to look and spend time looking. Everything’s so instant, and not even real. It’s all a screen.”
In a contemporary culture obsessed with the screen, with the instant, with a notion of “reality” that’s going increasingly wonky, the work of Nan Goldin is as powerful and vital as it’s ever been. She remains the absolute shit and she absolutely knows it. After our slightly shaky start, it turns out in the end that she doesn’t want to stop talking: we go on so long that her dinner plans get delayed and delayed again. A taxi comes then gets sent away; a stressed-out publicist is told: “My friends know me: they know I live completely in the moment. They can wait.” So they wait, and we talk. She wants me to read Close to the Knives, a memoir by her late friend and collaborator David Wojnarowicz. I will! She wants me to come to dinner. I can’t! Right around the point where even I am starting to think she should really get going, she’s finally coaxed out of the building and towards a car.
On the pavement, she takes my notebook and starts writing in it. She’d rather die than be on Facebook, but Goldin wants to stay connected; to share the things that she likes. “This is my Berlin number,” she says, “and this is my New York number. Call me any time.” With that, she finally gets into the car. I’m going to level with you here, reader: I worship Nan Goldin like the goddess she is and I have done since I was 18. But I know that I am never going to call her.
Eden and After is out now, published by Phaidon