Nan Goldin; The Ballad of Sexual Dependency;
Nan Goldin, text; Aperture, New York; re-issued 1996; original edition 1986;
148 pages; 130 colour photographs; ISBN 0-89381-339-7.
It has been ten years since New York based Nan Goldin's tape-and-slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency first saw print as a book, and during that time it has slipped into the photography world's collective consciousness as a classic book of the 80s decade. That status places it up there with other photography monographs symbolising a time and a place like Robert Frank's The Americans of 1958, William Klein's New York of 1956, and the Depression Era's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans.
Goldin created her seven hundred image slide show from photographs made between 1971 and 1985, but what marks her masterwork out as radically different from Evans', Klein's and Frank's is that Ballad is drawn entirely from private life. That an essentially personal book has become so much the documentation of its time is some vindication of Tom Wolfe's characterisation of the 70s on as the Me Decade, and that Ballad has gone on to influence such young fashion photographers of the 90s as Juergen Teller, and David Sims, suggests this one might earn itself the tag of the Moi Decade.
Less flippantly, this concentration on the self may be sign of a new kind of spiritual seeking coupled with the rejection of organised religion, a personal evolution rejecting paternalistic dictates as to how we must think and behave, to feel out however blindly an ethical way of being that damages no-one else. "The kingdom of heaven lies within you," as Christ once famously said. Today's youth appears to take that advice more seriously than its elders.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the record of the tangled lives of a group of friends and lovers Goldin chose instead of her dysfunctional natural family, whom she compares in one double-page double-take to the decaying waxworks figures of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The upside is that those years of mutual support led to a closeness twenty plus years can never erase, but the downside was Goldin's descent into a drug-ridden hell encouraged by her group's blind subscription to the myths of romantic self-destruction via the needle and the fast lane.
In the introduction Goldin admits that her main concern was the problem of bridging the gender divide and actually coupling with success, when both sexes seem incapable of true communication or selfless love. Much of Ballad revolves around her long-term relationship with Brian, a man whose "concept of relationships was," says Goldin, "rooted in the romantic idealism of James Dean and Roy Orbison."
"We were well suited emotionally," she elaborates, "and the relationship became very interdependent. Jealousy was used to inspire passion. We were addicted." Despite Goldin's insights into Brian, her portraits of him show a character straight out of central casting, the perfect shuffle-footed prison drama junkie punk. Like too many women now and then, Goldin's low self esteem had her choose the man who would eventually beat her so severely that she did in the end leave him.
As for the photographs themselves, place them into the context of the imagery they've spun off lately by casting an eye over the latest photographs by Ellen von Unwerth for Guess? Jeans or Steven Meisel's recent work for the CK clothing and fragrance brands. The colour snapshot aesthetic, with its apparently uncontrived frontal flash lighting, rough content and rougher framing, of which Goldin is still the doyenne and unchallenged art world master, has been diluted and formularised in the way commerce always manages.
That fact does not affect the power with which her photographs speak to us, nor their originality. If your inclination is to embellish your bookshelf with the classics of contemporary photography, then The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is essential.
Also by Nan Goldin:
A Double Life
The Other Side
Written 1996. © Copyright Karl-Peter Gottschalk 1997.