Monday, November 3, 2014

The Reason I Didn't Meet Nan Goldin

To write the words "Nan Goldin is a photographer" feels like such a lie. Not because she is not that, but because saying that's all she is feels lacking in depth, at least to me. There are some people who can capture an image, of a party, let's say. You see balloons, people dancing, and the swish of a skirt just fine. But there are some people who immerse you in their viewpoint, and looking at their images you hear music playing in the background, you feel the carpet under your feet, your tongue is sticky with the weight of one too many drinks, your nose stings with the scent of sweat and one too many cigarettes. Suddenly it's no longer a party, it's a moment immortalized, and you almost feel like you know everyone there. That's what Nan Goldin's work is to me.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Nan Goldin speak at a photography conference held by the Lucie Foundation, whose mission is to honor master photographers as well as promote new artists.  I trekked through the rain and wind to arrive at 75 Varick Street's Splashlight Studios, arriving a half hour early so I could guarantee myself a seat. There was no way I would allow myself to miss it. 

James King backstage at the Karl Lagerfeld show, Paris, 1995
by Nan Goldin
I remember the first time I saw her work was in The New York Times, in a grouping of six photographs. The one that struck my eye was a photograph of the model James King, who was 16 at the time the picture was taken in 1995 and touring the world during the global Fashion Week seasons. It was originally part of the 1995 story "James is a Girl" by Jennifer Egan published in The New York Times Magazine that year. I think maybe I was in high school at the time I saw the reprint, seeing this 16-year-old girl painted up with her blonde hair in a big bun on top of her head, purple eyeshadow and dark red lips, a cigarette dangling from her hand. It was so much more than the photograph of a model. It was a portrait of youth abandoned for adulthood much too early. It was both beautiful and terrifying. I have never forgotten it.

When I got to college, I began studying photography. Any visual education exposes you to a variety of work, for both history and inspiration. When I saw Nan Goldin's work, I was done. If I could have stood up in my photographic history class and pointed at the screen and said "YES. THAT. HER. WHAT SHE'S DOING. THAT'S WHAT I WANT TO DO," then I would have done it. I remembered Goldin's name from that first image of James King I saw and I realized how much it stuck with me, too. There would be other photographers whose work I'd be interested in, of course, but I never felt as strongly about any of them as I did about her. Her book "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" still has some of the most haunting, challenging, and provocative images I've ever seen, if not for the rawness and honesty of the actual content then also the angles and natural light she uses throughout. She photographed her friends and loved ones and the lives they lived together. The images weren't pretentious or celebratory or demeaning, they were just a record of life, stories told in another way. I resolved to do my best to tell my own stories through images the way Goldin did, and I still do today.

Goldin at the Lucie Foundation Lecture
Which brings us back to the lecture. In conversation with renowned culture writer Glenn O'Brien, Goldin, her hair still reddish and curly as it was in her earlier photographs, shared in her soft but forthright voice what brought her into photography, and then into the art world; her disdain for social media; and what her "process" is like. I remember her talking about the last item, confused by the man asking her the question, not to the point of not understanding him but rather thinking his question was pretentious. She didn't seek to photograph anything in particular; there wasn't really a "process." She just wanted to capture moments and take pictures of her friends. O'Brien called for more questions from the audience and my brain froze. I had admired this woman for so long and I couldn't think of a single question. I just wanted to sit there and listen to her talk, to absorb what she had to say. It felt like she had done this so many times before, given so many lectures and had maybe become bored with the process. And that's fair. Sometimes you can only talk so much about your own work before you start to feel like a blowhard.

At the end of the lecture, I of course wanted to meet her. But so did everybody else. This time, pushing through a crowd was not the problem. In fact, there were multiple times where she stood right in front of me, facing me, talking to someone at my side--at coat check, in the bathroom, in a gallery hallway. But I couldn't open my mouth (which, at this stage in my life, is for better or worse not usually a problem for me). I saw all these people going up to her--moms in their 60s wearing mom-ish mom clothes, photographers from small presses Nan had never heard of, people dropping names of others she vaguely knew--and they all looked so pathetic. She smiled and nodded cordially yet blankly and shook hands, like I'm sure she's done so many times before, all the while continuing to move forward toward a VIP area waiting for her. I couldn't open my mouth because I didn't want to be one of them, where nothing I would say would possibly affect her, nor would she ever remember me, because she'd heard it all and seen it all before. I couldn't bear to be meaningless to someone who had so deeply impacted me. I sort of just aimlessly wandered around the studio trying to get up the courage to say something but it didn't come until it was too late. I saw Nan walking down the hallway with a friend and this tiny little voice came out of me-- "Excuse me. Excuse me, I--" Nan didn't see me but her friend did, making eye contact with me. "I'd like to speak to--" motioning to Nan. But the friend, realizing what I wanted, then pretended not to see me and turned away, ushering her toward the closed doors of the VIP area.

I felt like nothing. My eyes watered and I quickly walked toward the elevator, praying it would come quickly before the tears fell out of my eyes in front of all these people. Outside, cold wind chilled my ears and my nose and I cried. I had met people whose work I loved before with no problem, but I couldn't do it this time. None of them were a part of my day to day experience of thinking about photography, none of them were the first name I cited when people asked me about my influences, none of their pictures gripped me over and over like Goldin's did. I was beyond starstruck, I was overwhelmed and overcome by just being in her presence. She was everything, the reason I had any vision at all of what I wanted my work to be or the direction I wanted it to go in, the ultimate inspiration. And how do you say that to someone? Especially without sounding like a total creepshow?

I don't know what Goldin would think of my photography. I don't know if she would love it or hate it. And I don't know even now if I could say anything to her worthwhile that she hasn't heard before. All I could probably do is say thank you, even though there's no way that even begins to cover it.