Nan Goldin’s tender, frank images of her friends and family have made her one of the world’s most recognized art photographers. She is best known for her self-portraits that honestly depict domestic violence and the effects of drug use. She has shown her work in major institutions internationally, and her many books are a testament to an enduring influence. Vince Aletti was the photography critic for The Village Voice for many years, and currently writes about photography and photographers for The New Yorker, Aperture, Artforum, and other publications. He has curated shows for the International Center for Photography and other major institutions.
Vince Aletti—We wanted to talk about your self-portraits, especially the new ones in your show at Fraenkel Gallery. I know Jeffrey [Fraenkel] sent you one or two of Peter Hujar’s pictures that were going to be included in a side-by-side show. What particularly did you respond to?
Nan Goldin—He sent me Peter’s self-portrait in a jock strap. I felt that the only thing to do was to respond to Peter by showing myself in the same way. I was standing in the same stance that he is. It was taken by my nephew, who’s an artist but who never touches a camera. I set pictures up and people snap them, but without any style imposed on them, so they’re mine. But my face was hard and pinched and anxious-looking, so that one didn’t work. I asked another very close friend of mine who is a photographer to take the picture that’s now being used in the show. It’s difficult sometimes to handle the complex idea of who owns the photo… I mean, is that her photo, or is that my photo, because it’s not the way I photograph.
Vince—In what way is it different?
Nan—It’s in real focus. It’s a bigger camera.
Vince—Have you never had someone else take a picture of you that became your picture, in the past?
Nan—Yeah. I figured that if it was on my camera, it was mine.
Vince—That’s fair. [Laughs.]
Nan—Every book has one or two pictures I didn’t take. You’ll have to guess them. I don’t know what photography really is—what is its integral nature? Is it a lapse of integrity to claim you took a picture when somebody else snapped the shutter?
Vince—I would say no. There are so many cases when someone else becomes part of the process of the picture, but the artist creates it: sets it up and brings it into being.
Nan—There’s a question of ownership regarding self-portraits.
Vince—Have you ever confronted that before?
Nan—No. Not really. Sometimes people claimed that they set up a picture and it’s theirs. I don’t make a distinction between what’s mine and what’s theirs: it’s a collaboration. Even if it’s their environment, it’s my eye and empathic connection that is most important to me. Kenny (you would have loved him) was Ivy in his life, and then he stopped doing drag and was Kenny. He used to insist the pictures were his—the early black and whites. I was living with him and Bea, the two queens who were the major characters of the seventies. Kenny never wanted to be a woman; he just loved fashion. I’m sure it happened other times—mostly with queens, because they needed control of their femininity. I’ve always thought of them as who they are, who they live as. When people say to me, “that’s a man,” I say, “they are queens.” It has always been a third gender to me.
Vince—In a sense this becomes part of a larger work and it clearly has your stamp on it, no matter who snapped the shutter. There are all those pictures in Ballad [The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency, ’86] that you’re in, that I assume you set up in some way, automatically, and we never questioned that you were the author of those pictures.
Nan—The cover for Ballad came about because there was a woman I moved to New York with, who allowed all those sexual pictures to be taken. I was photographing her extensively, and her boyfriend. Then she got married and her husband wanted the books destroyed. She was with a man who hated the photos and insisted that I take them out. Then when they broke up I was able to put them back in. At the end of our history in the nineties she had come up with a claim that I had drugged her to make the pictures. There’s been an enormous amount of revisionism on her part. She asked me to pull her pictures out of the slideshow, except for one “Couple in Bed, Chicago, ’77”. When the photos were pulled from the end of the slideshow, it felt empty. When the book was reprinted, she went to Aperture to try to get the photos removed. By ’83 I decided I couldn’t show anyone doing anything I wouldn’t show myself doing, which is what inspired the pictures of me and Brian. Those were taken with a cable release. How did Peter do it?
Vince—I don’t know. I assume he set up a cable release, or an automatic release. Especially the pictures that he did in his studio where he’s dancing around—I suspect he set the camera on automatic, put it on a tripod and worked with it. Other than that I never asked him. A lot of those pictures I’d never seen before.
Nan—Peter was the one who said to me, “Blow it up, and they’ll call it art.” [Laughs.] Which is so perfect, because that’s exactly what happened to photography.
Vince—It’s funny that he anticipated that. What would he have said about Andreas Gursky, and all that happened afterwards? Let’s go back to self-portraiture, to the pictures in the show at Fraenkel: were they taken in Berlin?
Nan—They were taken in Stockholm, Venice, on the train from Berlin to Paris [shows photographs to Vince]… This one “The light in my bedroom, 13th Street, NYC, ’96” was from when I lived in a beautiful apartment on 13th Street and the light is hitting my face—it’s a little much for me, it’s a little too spiritual. This I had no memory of [Untitled, Boston, 1990], but obviously I took that picture.
The first time I got out of rehab, in ’89, some people that I had worked with were disappointed that I had gotten clean—assuming I’d be boring without drugs. For the first year you’re clean, you’re just shaking in your bootstraps. But I was working with Peter MacGill then and he did something wonderful for me (which is why it took me two years to decide to leave him when Matthew [Marks] came and wanted to work with me). He had a family member who’d been through it, so he understood. So many people who have used drugs all of their creative life are lost without their drugs after getting sober. One assumes the drugs are the key to their creativity and the hardest thing is to start creating again.
“When I started taking pictures with a flash and a wide-angle lens the queens hated them. They hated Arbus. I never asked them to do anything that they weren’t already doing.”
Vince—And he pushed you?
Nan—He gave me an assignment: to send him, by Christmas, four trays of new slides. And that was so scary… and so incredible. So I took a vast, vast number of self-portraits in the halfway house, in order to learn what I looked like—to get back into my face. It was so strange to be clean after all those years that I had no idea who I was.
Vince—Was self-portraiture a way to get back to that, to knowing who you were?
Nan—Yeah—back into myself. It was a huge part of discovering a way to function without drugs. Photography was the best thing to help that process. It brought me back to myself.
I had just discovered light. I had lived on the Bowery from ’78 to ’89 and there was no light there. It was completely dark except for about 20 minutes a day. This sounds faux-naïve, but it’s true; I had no idea that light affected color, I didn’t know that the day had changes of light. I thought, ‘There’s day, and they turn the lights off, and it’s night.’ That’s when I started to stop using a flash. Not with the kind of snobbery some of the photo-purist, equipment-obsessed photographers I’d known had. I just wanted to find out about light. So I took the four trays of slides and sent them to Peter.
Vince—Where were you living then?
Nan—The halfway house was in Boston. When I moved in, there was a huge painting of a sunrise—incredibly badly painted. I used it for a while as a kind of a backdrop. I did some empty rooms, which I’ve always done, but otherwise I just photographed myself. David [Armstrong] was in Boston already, and he had been clean for three years but hadn’t been able to pick up a camera. That’s what happens to a lot of people. Every weekend I’d get to leave the halfway house and I’d stay at his apartment in Cambridge. I found some rolls of film in a drawer and secretly took them to a lab to get them processed. And he loved them! That got him started again. That’s what you need sometimes… outside intervention.
Vince—To remember what you do, what you’re capable of.
Nan—Yeah, exactly. To give yourself the confidence to take that step back into your work. I was in a hospital for two months and I wasn’t allowed have a camera or see the Ballad, because they said it would cause sex and drug urges in the other patients. If anyone looks through the Ballad and gets a sex urge, I’m really sorry for them. [Laughs.]
Vince—What artists or photographers inspire your work?
Nan—When I started photography, I literally didn’t know that art photography existed. I only knew Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, in the seventies.
Vince—And you knew them from looking through magazines.
Nan—Yeah, through the Italian and French Vogue magazines that I stole every month. My early work was influenced by Helmut Newton, but I just wasn’t a good photographer, so it was blurry and out of focus. Eventually I went to night school and met a great teacher, Henry Horenstein. The first thing he said when he saw my work was, “Do you know Larry Clark?” I had never heard of anyone, this was around ’72, ’73 while I was living with the queens [in Boston]. I wanted to put them on the cover of Vogue; they were more beautiful than any other women.
Henry introduced me to Diane Arbus, August Sander, Larry Clark, Weegee—that was the pantheon.
When I started taking pictures with a flash and a wide-angle lens the queens hated them. They hated Arbus. I never asked them to do anything that they weren’t already doing. I never pushed them. Never. They were the ones who modeled. I would get piles of drugstore prints made, and bring them back for the queens to go through. They would decide which ones I could use and which I couldn’t, depending on how they looked. They would make piles to see who had the most pictures. That’s what photography was for me.
Vince—Those pictures felt like a dialogue. You were very much a part of that moment.
Nan—What they hated about Arbus is that she undressed the queens, and showed that, biologically, some were men who were tucked. And to them it was horrific. They didn’t talk about it in an analytical way, but they thought she made people look ugly. I worshiped those queens, so I didn’t go any further into Arbus’ work at that time.
Henry opened a door to the fact that there was art photography in the world, but I don’t think I can name a particular influence. My biggest influences have been my friends, and film. Film is the major art form that I most respect. Do you believe in the decisive moment?
Vince—When the photographer wants to make it, yes, but that doesn’t define photography for me. How about you?
Nan—For me, it’s the indecisive moment. It’s the moment between the moments that interests me. That’s why I don’t know where I stand when somebody else takes the picture of me and I call it a self-portrait.
In the case of my nephew taking this picture, he knows me and I love him deeply. In The Devil’s Playground there are pictures of him having sex with his first girlfriend—now he just had a child with a wonderful woman. I feel like a grandmother. He was just using the camera the way I asked him to. He has no relationship to photography whatsoever.
Vince—So he’s an extension of you in that way, which I think is legitimate.
Nan—I only worry about pictures where the fingerprint of the other photographer is as strong as my presence is in the picture. I don’t think I’m going to let other people snap shutters anymore—I’m going back to the cable release. I take a lot of pictures in mirrors and I sometimes can manage to use the camera in such a way that it doesn’t show up. I have this old philosophy that cameras shouldn’t show up in photographs.
Vince—People talk about portraiture as an extension of themselves—how portraiture becomes self-portraiture because of the investment of the artist. I discuss this in the catalog for the Peter Hujar show at Fraenkel Gallery, because the pictures Peter took of Manny were so revealing of both of them. I really felt Peter’s presence there.
Nan—What do you think those photos of Manny revealed about Peter as a photographer?
Vince—That the kind of connection he yearned to make with people—he didn’t always make it because it wasn’t always possible—but when it happened, it was something really powerful, incandescent. I didn’t really think about that until I sat down to write that piece. He made four pictures from that one session, which didn’t always happen with him. Often there was only one picture he was happy with. I wasn’t sure if they would even be able to connect. The fact that they did, I thought, said something interesting to me about both of them, because Manny was a really damaged kid at that point. I never asked Peter about what happened. I could just see the results; there was a connection that was surprising and pleasing to me.
Nan—Do you think at this point in time that you would ask a photographer to photograph your lover?
Nan—I love that you asked Peter to do that for you.
Vince—What other photographic self-portraits do you think are powerful?
Nan—Claude Cahun’s work is very powerful. Peter Hujar took incredible self-portraits. Gorgeous. He’s one of the only photographers I ever tried to emulate. I wanted to take pictures like Peter’s pictures and according to Gary Schneider, at a certain point he wanted to take mine! But both of us failed, I think. I was very influenced by Larry Clark: he made a book about his own life and the lives of his friends that preceded the Ballad by 15 years. This was the first thing I learned from Henry Horenstein—that the subjects of my own work were as valid as any other. I got a lot of shit through the years, especially from men.
Vince—Especially from men?
Nan—People said that I didn’t take real photographs. There was a lot of hostility, especially at those photo fests I would go to once in a while, that I had any success with pictures like mine. Even when I was at school with Philip-Lorca diCorcia, he said something to me like “Well people like your work just because you have strange characters in your pictures.” [Laughs.] And the first person he published a photograph of was Bruce, who I had been photographing! I have a great respect for PL and his work, so I’m not saying that his first work was copying me, I’m just saying that even he tried to diminish my talent. That was in the seventies, and throughout the eighties, when I’d been given so much shit about the “freaky” subjects I was interested in.
Vince—You have frequently been cited as a main influence for young photographers. And I think that in some ways that’s dangerous, because people thought they could get away with anything. It made me realize how distinct your work was. It wasn’t just the subject, or the setting; it was the light—there were so many things that you did instinctively, which it seemed that no one else could do.
Nan—That was my own way of seeing.
Vince—Yeah, that were yours and that were unable to be copied. There was a level of beauty that you achieved in picture after picture that wasn’t the first thing you thought about, but it was the thing that made them distinctive.
Nan—That was the first thing I thought about: the person’s beauty.
Vince—I mean, the whole frame. The beauty of the picture itself.
Nan—No, I didn’t think of that.
Vince—The lighting, the composition, everything that felt completely right, but they were…
Nan—Instinctive. They certainly weren’t thought about. I had such a strong sense of the integrity of my photographs, that nothing could be moved.
Vince—Within the frame?
Nan—That’s what I mean. I felt guilty when I moved something out of the way. I felt so guilty…as if I was betraying myself. I decided I would never move even a beer bottle out of the way. It was always exactly what was in front of me.
Vince—Did you get over that?
Nan—Yeah, I have. The Ballad had a huge influence on people. They tell me that they came to New York because of it, or left home because of it, or became gay because of it—that was more about [another of my books,] The Other Side, that people came out because of it. The Ballad changed peoples’ lives in a more drastic way, maybe.
Vince—Why do you think that is?
Nan—There was a German man who wanted to leave me all his money, but I was too scared to call him. I have a feeling that he had been a repressed homosexual all his life and the book gave him permission to come out.
Nan—I wouldn’t be scared now! If you’re out there, please call me.
Vince—I know you’ve moved around a lot in the past few years.
Nan—I have real estate in Europe, but I’m completely broke.
Vince—I was curious about your relationship to Europe and the US at this point. It seems like you’ve been living in Europe for a long time, but traveling back and forth?
Nan—When people ask me where I’m from, I say “the airport,” because I literally have gotten lost in airports and spent a couple of days in them. I’m not very functional in airports. But I left when Bush stole the election.
Vince—You left the US, you mean?
Nan—I said, “If Bush steals the election, I’m leaving,” and I did. It had absolutely no effect on anything, but I left. I was just tired of saying, “If this happens, I’ll do this,” and listening to other people say it. I felt like things were kind of falling apart for me here, so with the help of my French dealer and Matthew Marks, I bought an apartment in Paris and had some good years there. Then I basically went into complete isolation.
Vince—Isolation? Why? Were you not working?
Nan—Working, somewhat. Just not having much contact with other people.
Vince—What kind of pictures did you take?
Nan—A lot of empty pictures.
Vince—But were there some self-portraits during that period too?
Nan—I don’t remember that much. Here, it’s this kind of work. [Shows a photograph from her ’07 book The Beautiful Smile.] It’s these sort of dark suicide notes.
Vince—What’s your feeling about America now?
Nan—When I would visit in the years I was living full-time in Europe, I found it unbelievably stupid.
Vince—Do you feel differently now? Do you think that Obama has made a difference?
Nan—I think more personally than that. I think what’s happened to New York is horrible. New York used to be a way to get away from America; now New York is America. New York was made of people who escaped America. As Berlin was comprised of people who escaped Germany, and now it’s Germany. It’s a real tragedy, what’s happened to New York. Having come here in ’78 in the golden period, I find the current real estate boom horrendous. But I’m beginning to reconnect with some of my really close friends.
Vince—Do you still have a place in Paris?
Nan—Yeah, that’s where my collection is. That’s why it would be as hard as you, Vince, to move! Well, not quite as hard. My collection is more taxidermy. I was very involved in my collection during the years I cut myself off from people.
Vince—In building it?
Nan—In moving it around all night long. You don’t do that?
Vince—Of course! I smoke a joint and I change all the pictures.
Nan—That’s the main thing I was doing, and then the woman from downstairs, very sweetly, said, “I have a baby who’s waking up because you’re walking around all night. Do you think you could redecorate earlier than 2am?” …So I did.
This conversation was published in Document No. 4.