Posted: 19th February 2021
American photographer Nan Goldin (b.1953) has used the camera to record details of her life since the 1970s. Her powerful photographs act as a diary and usually feature those she has close relationships with, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community.
Strongly autobiographical, it is hard to separate her work from her life story, which includes the early suicide of Goldin’s sister, foster families, alternative lifestyles, addiction and abusive relationships. Against this volatile background it is suggested that the camera provided a means to take control of her life and personal history.
Recurring themes in Goldin’s work are; sexuality, self-reflection, eroticism and the subtle shades of gender. Her photographs resemble snap-shots and are valued for their immediacy and raw intensity.
My Parents Kissing on their Bed, Salem, Massachusetts, 2004, is reflective of Goldin’s autobiographical style, and shows a humble moment of intimacy between her parents. In this blog I will explore this Ferens collection work alongside the broader themes in Goldin’s practice, including: gender politics and taboos surrounding sexuality.
In her earlier work Goldin documented America’s LGBTQ+ communities, focusing particularly on drag queens, whom she had a great level of admiration for. From the 1970s Goldin lived with and became embedded in the drag community, falling in love with them, as well as their freedom of expression. Goldin’s photographs of this time celebrate the glamour of drag queens whilst honestly capturing the highs and lows of their everyday lives. By giving visibility to a diverse spectrum of experience and emotion, Goldin refused to reduce drag queens to stereotypes or romanticised representations, instead creating dignified and diverse images of the LGBTQ+ community during the time of the AIDs crisis.
As a female working in the male-dominated industry of documentary photography, Goldin also disrupted the gendered expectation that women are to be the subject of the voyeuristic gaze. Instead of conforming or shying away from such gender politics, Goldin reclaimed the power of the photographic gaze – not only for herself as a female artist, but for the communities which she represents through her work. By capturing the people she loved and the communities she herself was a part of, Goldin seeks to avoid exploiting and misrepresenting communities as “others”. Goldin instead uses photography as a tool to respectfully capture authentic moments of lived reality. Her photographs break down the hierarchy between subject and photographer – capturing herself as openly and intimately as she does those around her. The resulting images are powerful and almost confrontational in their honesty.
This removal of hierarchy can be felt in My Parents Kissing on their Bed…, which shows her parents embracing in a private moment of intimacy. There is no attempt at intervention or censoring from Goldin – either as photographer or as daughter. Instead, the image directly touches on two potentially taboo subjects: the sexuality of one’s parents and of older people – themes that remain rarely explored.
Family is an enduring theme in Goldin’s work and yet, despite what this tender image might suggest, her relationship with her family is complex. Much of the artist’s photography is of her close friends, whom she lovingly refers to as her chosen family. For Goldin photography is a means of capturing her most cherished relationships; immortalising moments and memories through imagery – as can be seen in My Parents Kissing on their Bed, Salem, Massachusetts, 2004.
Written by Elizabeth Lindley Exhibitions Assistant at Ferens Art Gallery.
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