A passion for photography - Nan Goldin

The legendary photographer Nan Goldin in conversation with JH Engström.

Nan Goldin and JH Engström in Landskrona, August 2014 Photo: Nina Strand

Nan Goldin and JH Engström in Landskrona, August 2014 Photo: Nina Strand

Text: Nina Strand

During the photo festival in Landskrona last August, Nan Goldin was one of the four main exhibitors. She presented the version of her slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency that was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2007. The work, first published as a book in 1986, was revolutionary for its personal, intimate diaristic style. In Landskrona, she granted us an exclusive interview on the condition that her close friend, Swedish photographer JH Engström, could join us in the small, cosy restaurant in the basement of Hotel Öresund.

“My work is best either as a book or as a slide show. Photography has to be experienced physically, not online”, says Goldin. “Photography is the only art form that works in books”, she adds. She loves books, but originally wanted to make films. She says that the slideshow is the closest she comes to filmmaking. She has made one film installation, Sisters, Saints & Sibyls, a work about her sister’s suicide in 1965, shown at Rencontres d’Arles in 2009, but according to Goldin it’s not yet finished, and it’s uncertain whether it ever will be.

“Three hundred and fifty people fainted when they saw it”, she claims. “That’s the best accolade I could get. It made me feel good. I always want to make people laugh or cry. I could never dream of fainting!”

The two photographers hope that Rencontres’ new director Sam Stourdzé will be able to bring more magic to Arles.
“I still remember seeing Guy Bourdin there”, says Goldin. “He’s been a great influence.” “Really strange stuff”, Engström agrees.
“Really radical work. I saw his work when I started to look at photography.”

Goldin says she has always been fascinated by photography, but that it took her a while to realize that it could be viewed as art. She was overjoyed when, in an evening class, she was introduced to photographers like Diane Arbus and Larry Clark.

“Clark’s book Tulsa made a huge impression on me. I’ve never been interested in so-called ‘good’ photography, only 100% honesty.

Engström remembers the magic of taking his first photograph.
“My father had a box camera. I was four years old. We put the negative under a glass in the sun. It was absolutely magic. It’s magic now even. The Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi said this in her talk earlier today: that the most important process of photography is in the darkroom and that she longs for the darkroom-magic.”

Goldin agrees.

“I don’t like what the internet does to photography: you no longer see the images. The computer should only be used for sending mail and reading news”, she insists. “Computers and social media have ruined the world. And I feel I’ve lost my medium. I was recently at a party for Magnum, where I stated that photography is over – it’s dead, it’s just a video game. No one talked to me for the rest of the evening.”

Engström disagrees that Goldin has lost her medium.
“You spent two hours inside the book tents after your talk today. I don’t know anyone who’s so passionate when it comes to photography as you.”

They were destined to meet, she says of Engström. She has a strong relationship with Scandinavian photography.
“My favourite photographers are Swedish. I really believe in the heritage that came from Christer Strömholm, which his student Anders
Petersen continued on and what Petersen’s student JH Engström is working with now. All three of them have a special sensitivity that they’re not afraid to show. When I first met Strömholm, he was happy to have met someone as egotistical as himself.”

They also share a true passion for photography.

“We both take images to stay alive”, Goldin says. “This is my reality. I’ve made a record of my life. Photography has really saved my soul.” Later she says, “My advice to young artists is that they shouldn’t do it if they don’t absolutely have to. If you don’t have to make art to stay alive, then do something else. It’s art – it’s not a job – it should be what you do to survive. When I was teaching, I wasn’t interested in tearing my students apart; I wanted to look for the positive in them. I wanted them to believe in themselves, and from that point they could do anything. I grew up before there was an art market, where you were an artist in a more spiritual way. Today, my students only talk about what gallery they want to exhibit in. I’m not sure if this is the way to go. Art must come from deep inside yourself, and how you look at the world around you. I tell my students never to read texts on postmodern theory – they should take LSD instead.

Engström praises Goldin’s teaching and inspirational skills.
“I remember once in Skåne, when we’d worked on one of my books all day. I was tired and made a joke, and you looked really angrily at me and said if it wasn’t important for me then we should just quit. I’ve never forgotten it. It’s important to stay focused.”

Goldin says she suffers from a ’Pygmalion complex’.
“I can help people see themselves, show them how beautiful they are. I’m famous for getting people out of the closet, and some have fallen in love with themselves through my photos of them.”

So photography may not be completely dead for Goldin, but she no longer believes in a singular photograph.
Engström agrees.
“Many photographs make one photograph.”

“I work in series, just like you”, Goldin says. “When I saw one of your first books, Trying to Dance, I was so happy. And I love the title, it’s very Scandinavian. I was thrilled that one can make such tremendously powerful work without creating the ‘good image’. I was raised to believe that a book should look a certain way, be printed in a certain manner, but you’ve found a different way. You’ve achieved a freedom from the conservative idea of what’s right. I’ve previously said, when looking through your book La Recidence, that when looking at your work, you have to learn a new photographic language.”

Goldin says that it was when working on her latest exhibition Scopophilia, commissioned by the Louvre, Paris, that “I lost my faith in the single photograph and started working with grids.” In 2010, for a period of eight months, she was allowed to wander around the museum every Tuesday with her camera. The exhibition featured details from various paintings, put together with pictures from her own archive.
“I fell in love with several of the paintings. There were some faces who brought back memories of people I once knew. My dear friend Peter Hujar explained to me what the word ‘scopophilia’ really means: ‘fulfilment of your whole self by looking’. It was fantastic to work at the Louvre. I could walk into a room and fall totally in love with a painting.”

Lo in camouflage, NYC, 1994, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon 

Lo in camouflage, NYC, 1994, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon 

Goldin has just published her first book in eleven years, Eden & After. She explains that the reason it has taken so long was a strict publishing deal, which she doesn’t want to talk about. Eden & After, is a collection of images that the childless photographer has taken of her friends’ children over a period of 35 years.

“My philosophy is that children come from another planet; they know everything when they’re born. I once heard a friend’s child – she was maybe four or five at the time – asking a baby: ‘Do you remember God? Because I’m beginning to forget.’ Children come so wise, and in the course of taking pictures I began to understand that they understand everything, and then people devote their lives to making them forget. This work isn’t so different from what I’ve done before. I’ve photographed artists and children my whole life. I photograph the wild ones, the ones who can’t be tamed.”

The book also deals with the relationship between parents and children, as well as the issue of gender. In some images, Goldin portrays a child who wanted to be a boy between the ages of six and fourteen.

“There are no images of kids crying in the book”, Engström remarks. “That’s not what I was focusing on”, Goldin says. “It’s the knowledge they’re born with, and that they are taught to lose.”

Goldin works constantly – obviously not on a computer. The floor of her studio in Brooklyn, New York, is scattered with prints, ready for editing. “I have assistants with aspirations of becoming archivists who go through all my photos for me. There are many images I’ve forgotten; it’s like a treasure hunt. I heard a rumour that Weegee had big bags full of negatives in his garage when he died, something that’s comforting for me to know if I don’t get through my own.”

She photographs whatever her gaze is drawn to, believing that photography is all about memories. Whether the images show people or buildings is irrelevant.
“Right now, I’m very into architecture. Maybe I’ll look closer into this. My latest work consists of landscape imagery. I had a visit from a friend in my studio who took a look at them and said they were landscape photos taken by a person from another planet.”

Goldin, who divides her time between apartments in Paris, Berlin and New York, was not keen on leaving New York this time. She’s worried about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. During her artist talk, she also expressed her deep concern about the situation in Gaza and said that instead of listening to her, we should all be out on the streets demonstrating.

“It’s a massacre we’re witnessing. This situation is raising the anti-Semitism, and it’s very scary. I encourage all artists I know to make a cultural boycott of Israel. I’ve always been afraid of anti-Semitism, and always been pro-Palestine. I remember a book I saw when I was fifteen, with images of Palestinians in the camps. I’ll never forget it. Ever since, I’ve refused to have anything to do with Israel, despite repeated invitations. There are no grey tones in this conflict: the situation is completely black and white.”

“I came here because I love you”, she tells Engström. “All I do is about love. I never photograph anyone I don’t love. Or maybe The Ballad is made of both love and hate. Eden & After is more tender. I’m more tender.”

It is late. The restaurant has actually been closed for an hour but our waiter did not want to disturb us. Now he asks us kindly if we can possibly take our last drinks in the restaurant lobby. After Goldin has given him a huge tip, we go outside for some fresh air. Engström hands me his camera to photograph the two photographers. We’re all happy with the result. And in a way, we all took the image.

“It doesn’t matter who pushes the button”, Engström says.
And then Goldin is done. She has a new book she wants to read. “Every night I read for two or three hours. I’m from the not-googling generation. We can keep the book alive. I don’t need to explain myself further”, she concludes. “It’s all there in my photographs.” 

Ava twirling, 2007, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon

Ava twirling, 2007, from the book Eden & After, 2014 Nan Goldin, Phaidon

This interview is published in Objektiv #10.