In the 1980s, to this alienated kid from Kansas, New York City promised a glamorous escape. Media representations of the city were thrilling, almost otherworldly: I loved the magazine spreads of celebrities
crowding Studio 54; the MTV videos where musicians danced in the streets; the episodes of Geraldo
and Phil Donahue
that introduced club kids to an unsuspecting America. Even New Yorks visual art was spectacular in the 80s, in the kinetic Technicolor worlds of painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf.
It was precisely these fanciful representations of the city that made Nan Goldins work so astonishing, even frightening, in its realism and candor. The photographs in Goldins first book -- 1986s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,
which my university library kept shelved in its adult section -- proved that New York City was much more than just celebrity and glamour. In low-lit East Village bedrooms and kitchens, Goldin documented her subjects as they chatted, cried, had sex, shot heroin, dressed in drag, bathed, displayed their bruises and scars. The pictures were different because of their intimacy -- her subjects were friends, lovers, or, often, herself. The love she felt for them was palpable in every frame.
Throughout the next two decades, Goldins aesthetic -- her diary of my life, as she termed it -- proved as influential as that of any other recent American photographer.Sadly, however, many of the junkies, queens, and lovers from her initial groundbreaking work are now dead. Her early images, as personal as they are, now exist as powerful documents of AIDS in downtown New York (for example, the haunting ongoing shots of her late friend, the writer and star of John Waterss films, Cookie Mueller).Although her subjects may be gone, the work endures. Photography, Goldin once wrote, is about trying to hold onto people, making sure they didnt disappear without a trace.
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