Paradise Lost: Exhibitionism and the work of Nan Goldin

Ben Burbridge

I’ve tried to maintain a naiveté all these years, so that I don’t become too conscious of the elements that work, so that I don’t lose the emotional connection. That’s a hard balance. How do you remain naïve and knowledgeable at the same time?  [1]

Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.[2]

When ‘Privacy’ opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt at the end of 2012 it suggested a radically new way of seeing the work of Nan Goldin.[3] The curator,  Martina Weinhart, drew together work by thirty-five artists dating from 1959 to the present, to demonstrate what the press release described as ‘strategies of self-presentation’:

Private—a word from the past, or so it would seem these days. A word of hardly any relevance in an era when everything—from one’s favorite recipe to one’s current relationship status—is posted on Facebook. Exhibitionism, self-revelation, the urge to tell stories, the pleasure of presenting and voyeurism are the social strategies of our day and age—a structural change of the public sphere has long since taken place.[4]

Weinhart’s catalogue essay offered some further thoughts on the place of Goldin’s work in the narrative: one of a number of art practices involving the public display of intimate worlds that, now, seem to rehearse the exhibitionism of contemporary culture. These are ‘paths [that] lead from the nucleus of privacy in the nineteenth century to today’s transparent postprivacy.’ [5]

While in many ways enlightening, the large exhibition and brief, schematic essay stopped far short of accounting for the complex ways in which the proposed dialogue impacted on the respective parties involved. To do this requires a sustained and reciprocal look at discussions of exhibitionism in Goldin’s photography and wider cultural transformations. The following essay addresses this task. My argument proposes a paradigm shift in understanding Goldin’s practice,  excavating and re-thinking neglected aspects of recent photography history based on possibilities suggested by the present. Firstly, it considers exhibitionism as a significant and under-researched aspect of the work, casting light on a topic that, for the writer Richard Woodward, ‘has not received the scrutiny it deserves from photography scholars and theorists.’[6] As recently as 2010, curators approached Goldin’s intimate snapshot-style pictures of friends in terms of voyeurism, surveillance and a personal compulsion to record. [7] By contrast, ‘Privacy’ emphasised her practice as a form of photographic disclosure: a private life placed on public display. Secondly, the essay compares the sharing of intimate photographs online and as art, to unpick the complex relationships that exist between them. In particular, my work demonstrates the extent to which the emergence of new photographic practices has destabilised assumptions that once underpinned aspects of photography’s artistic display, through the de-professionalised forms of exhibitionism they encourage. The analysis signals the ways in which radical changes to a wider photographic landscape demand existing art practices be reconsidered.


Intimate Records

The photography of Nan Goldin is well-known. Pictures showing the intimate lives of the artist and her friends came to prominence in the 1980s, entering the canon of contemporary art photography in the 1990s. The ‘family of Nan’ is made up of what are popularly interpreted as a cast of bohemian outsider figures, shown in a range of intimate situations: in bars, apartments, baths, lost in thought, having sex, shooting up.[8] Although Goldin’s subject matter has lightened in recent years, the naked body and scenes of a sexual nature remain among her defining motifs. The content of the photographs finds an aesthetic equivalence in their ‘snapshot’ style: evoking the domestic feel of the family album or the type of pictures once pinned to the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms. They often appear to be candidly produced, with the subject unaware—or unconcerned—that they are being photographed. In formal terms, the work is defined by its casual framing, cropping, the use of flash to create dramatic shadow, and the fact the prints often appear grainy. The pictures’ casual appearance is offset by a knowing aesthetic element, coupling a rich palette of colours with the play of light and shadow.

The photographs have been presented to the public in a variety of formats. Goldin’s most famous work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1984) was initially exhibited as a slideshow. Photographs were grouped together according to themes, accompanied by a soundtrack described by Goldin’s friend, Guido Costa,  as mixing ‘classical, pop and rock music that is intentionally both ironic and sentimental’.[9] The Ballad was published as a book in 1986, co-edited by Marvin Heiferman, Mark Holborn and Suzanne Fletcher.

Goldin has published a number of subsequent books, including Cookie Mueller (1991), documenting her relationship with the eponymous actress until her death from AIDS in 1989, and The Other Side (1992), comprising photographs of transvestites and transsexuals taken over a twenty-year period. Her work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, including retrospectives at the Whitney in New York in 1996 and the Whitechapel in London in 2002. In exhibitions, the work is often presented as framed prints grouped together in grids or ‘salon-style’ hangs.

The interpretation of Goldin’s work is striking in its consistency. Two versions of her practice were set out in the artist’s introduction to The Ballad from which few writers have deviated during her thirty-year career. The photographs are understood either as documents of a specific group of people and her relationships to them, or as a series of meditations on human relationships and emotions in a general sense. The photographs of ‘Bobby Masturbating, New York City, 1980’, ‘Getting High, New York City 1979’, or ‘Nan After Being Battered, 1984’, for example, are records of particular people at particular times doing particular things. Alternatively, they speak of Goldin’s belief that, ‘Even if relationships are destructive, people cling together. It’s a biochemical reaction, it stimulates that part of your brain that is only satisfied by love, heroin, or chocolate; love can be an addiction.’[10] In either case, emphasis is placed on what is recorded and represented in the images, not on the act of disclosure involved in display.

Similar emphasis is evident in the language used by writers to describe the work. In a 1999 issue of Parkett dedicated to Goldin’s photography, Arthur C. Danto states, ‘the artist is the recorder of a life she also lives’, [11] while Lisa Liebman sees her as ‘a mirror…to contemporary people and society she has portrayed with such relentless intimacy’. [12] The slippage between ‘recorder’ and ‘mirror’ is telling. While the former obscures the decision to exhibit what has been recorded altogether, the latter alludes more directly to the act of showing, but only in a passive sense: an act of reflection, not display. The notion of the work as a mirror also shapes understandings of its primary audience as the subjects depicted, rather than an undifferentiated museum-going public. The decision to make a private life widely visible appears an incidental consequence of Goldin’s art, not a defining feature. 


The Absence of Critique

What has prompted this consistency? In part, the interpretations respond to material characteristics of the work and its display. A concern with the personal is encouraged through the captioning of individual images with the subject’s first name, location and date. The universal is courted through the grouping of particular sets of pictures together to create thematic narratives; this is particularly true of The Ballad, where the soundtrack reinforced links through choice of song. The knowing aesthetic element, heightened when photographs are printed at a large scale and shown in frames, also provides them with a striking visual presence. Other factors have played their part. The diaristic character of Goldin’s work has provided her with an unusual control over interpretation. This has allowed a dense mist of self-mythology to hang over the photographs, through which it can sometimes prove difficult to see. The introduction to The Ballad explained her practice though a compulsion to record intimate life as a personal act of memorialisation. It was positioned as a response to the artist’s fading memory of her elder sister, following her suicide as a teenager: ‘I don’t ever want to lose my real memory of anyone again.’[13] The narrative has been developed across interviews during the course of thirty years, with the need to record increasingly linked to a desire to avoid the revision of personal history encountered in the American suburbs as a youth. The decision to make this personal project public is rarely discussed.

Mythology extends to the presumed audience for Goldin’s work. The Ballad was first presented to friends in the clubs of New York’s Lower East Side. Here, photographs performed distinct social functions for members of the same sub-culture they documented: serving up ‘raw slices of the collective experience’ and building a sense of shared identity.[14] The particular community present at the early screenings helped create an intimate space positioned somewhere between the public and the private. The subsequent re-contextualisation of the work within art’s institutional mainstream took place gradually, as Marvin Heiferman explains:

From clubs to screening rooms to film festivals, the slide show was booked with regularity. The first idiosyncratic and grungy colour prints that Nan made herself were included in a handful of gallery exhibitions and a few adventurous museum shows.[15]

The majority of writers have focused on the creation myth provided by the early screenings, not the art world phenomenon that followed.[16]

Intimate and confessional photography like Goldin’s contains what Charlotte Cotton has described as an ‘inbuilt protection…from serious and especially negative art criticism’:

By developing a body over time, the photographer links his or her life with the continued taking of photographs. A new book or exhibition is rarely judged an outright failure because that would suggest a moral criticism of the photographer’s life, as well as their motivations.[17]

The issue is exacerbated by the general collapse of art criticism into PR during the 1990s, evident in the predominance of monographic essays, artists’ interviews and reviews based on the whims of critics’ personal taste rather than definable criteria. The change can be partially attributed to the expanded market for contemporary art, which undermined the role once played by critical judgement.[18] The situation proved particularly true of contemporary photography, which was largely neglected by collectors until the 1990s.[19] In consequence, writing about Goldin’s work has generally swerved between celebratory ‘explanation’ and something closer to Sunday supplement “life-style” features. The texts that accompany the photographs in exhibition catalogues—a platform that discourages critique—pushed the tendency further. Autobiographical accounts written by subjects, song lyrics and poetry were drawn together in ways presumably intended to augment the ‘feel’ of the work, rather than hold it up to critical scrutiny.[20]

When the work was critiqued, this generally focused on a potential voyeurism: further reinforcing the importance of looking, and thus recording, over issues of showing and being seen. Here is Goldin, in another much-quoted passage from her introduction to The Ballad:

There is a popular notion that this photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one to be invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my friends.[21]

The defence was subject to notable counter-critique in an essay by Liz Kotz, written in 1998. This took issue with the way that Goldin’s insider status had been cynically used to set aside the Foulcaultian unpicking of documentary photography that dominated theory throughout the 1980s:[22]

Clearly, it is not just Goldin’s voyeurism, but our own, which is pervasively disavowed in such claims. Presented under the guise of an “intimate” relationship between artist and subject, these images re-legitimize the codes and conventions of social documentary, presumably by ridding them of their problematic enmeshment in histories of social surveillance and coercion.[23]

Even here, the work is framed in terms of viewers’ voyeurism: casting Kotz’s essay as a symptom of the same critical discourse it invokes. The desire to be seen and a compulsion to show remain secondary to discussion of the politics of documentary and surveillance.


The Personal and the Political

On the few occasions when the public display of Goldin’s work is considered, discussion has folded into arguments forged in the context of the late 1960s and 1970s. Here is Goldin in 1997:

Of course it has a political agenda. It always has. The agenda is about making what is considered private in a society, public. It is about discussing real histories of people’s life [sic] rather than media versions of histories and it’s about making it clear that all possibilities of gender and sexuality are legitimate in life, and that all possibilities of gender are as valid as any other.[24]

The notion of the personal as political developed in the context of the 1960s as a means to contest the marginalisation of women’s issues within areas of New Left politics.[25] Here Goldin links it to efforts to contest mainstream media representation and the exclusions it involves. The point gains particular force in relation to her photographs of friends affected by HIV/AIDS, produced during a period when large areas of the media remained badly misinformed about the illness and negative reporting contributed to its stigmatisation.

The issue takes on a different character, considered in relation to an interview from 1996:

I came from a family and a culture that was based on ‘Don’t let the neighbours know’. That was the gospel. And I wanted to let the neighbours know what was going on in my house and find out what was going on in their house.[26]

In which case, the political potential of the personal is linked to a more general rejection of repressive suburban conformism. Drawing on the work of Ellen Taylor-May, Weinhart sees the lives documented by Goldin’s photographs as harking back to the late 1960s rejection of normative domestic life: abandoning ‘family, home-centred consumerism, marriage-centered sex, polarized gender roles, and the quest for meaning through children’.[27]  Something similar can be said of the photographs’ public display. A wilful exhibitionism functions to verify the artist’s bohemian identity: defiantly sharing images of all that the “square” suburban mainstream would sooner keep hidden. The act of display is shaped as an Arbusian effort to break ‘through the façade of bourgeois life’.[28]

A focus on the counter-cultural character of Goldin’s practice may have obscured its conformist dimensions, which link it more closely to the period in the 1990s when it came to art world prominence. In his book Freakshow, Jon Dovey has explored the proliferation of subjective, autobiographical and confessional modes of expression across literature, factual TV programming and digital media during the 1990s. He roots the tendency in a general post-modern anxiety regarding the authority of grand narratives, which left us with only ‘the politics of the self to keep us ideologically warm’.[29] For Susan Murray and Laurie Ouelette, the diaristic media of the 1990s paved the way for the reality television that came to dominate broadcasting at the turn of the millennium (a time when diaristic art photography found particular success in the UK). This was ‘an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real.’[30]  Motives for appearing in confessional media are said to vary, but the promise of public visibility and a subsequent ‘continuation of the observed life’ through minor celebrity is key.[31] The discussions border onto wider ideas about the spectacular character of subjectivity under late-capitalism: no longer measured ‘by an individual’s achievements in the public interest’, but ‘according to the degree of acquired visibility and public exposure’.[32]

In her 2012 book, Artificial Hells, Clare Bishop situates the recent vogue for participatory art as a ‘constantly moving target’. As a mode of artistic practice, participation is said to lack intrinsic value, its meaning defined through the term’s broader cultural connotations and its implementation in cultural policy. In this sense, the inter-activity of reality television and commercialised social networking has implications for participation as art.[33] When exhibitionism is addressed in these terms, a similar dynamic is clear. The politics of public visibility in Goldin’s work seek legitimacy in the culture of 1960s America, gaining further credence in the context of Reaganite neo-conservatism. The political potential of exhibitionism has rapidly transformed, however: co-opted as a form of mainstream media spectacle during the 1990s and—as we shall see—as mass photographic practice in the past ten years. Despite the changes, interpretation of Goldin’s work has remained relatively constant.

The fact that Goldin’s exhibitionism has, until recently, been taken as a bohemian affront to suburban conformism can be explained in relation to three factors. Firstly, Goldin has made frequent reference to herself as an ‘old hippy’ raised in a school modelled on Summerhill in England.[34] The subsequent focus on her formative experiences, rather than the wider culture in which her work was promoted and consumed, is indicative of the general control she has exerted over interpretation. Secondly, it may be symptomatic of a tendency to regard artistic practice as a world apart from the perceived banalities of mass culture. In which case, the issue of interpretation relates more to the institutional framing of Goldin’s work than the particular historical context in which it is inserted. Thirdly, the failure to think about her work in terms of a changing culture may be rooted in the distinctly photographic character of the brand of exhibitionism at play.

In Pierre Bourdieu’s 1965 sociological study, photography was analysed as a social practice circumscribed by class-based distinctions. These dictated the occasions it is appropriate to photograph, and the ways in which photography should be displayed and consumed. In the case of domestic images, photography remained an essentially private artefact. This has implications for its public display:

…the ordinary photograph, a private produce for private use, has no meaning, value or charm except for a finite group of subjects, mainly those who took it, and those who are its objects. If certain public exhibitions of photographs are felt to be improper, this is because they are claiming for private objects the privilege of the art object, the right to universal attachment.[35]

While we must be cautious grafting arguments forged in the context of 1960s France onto the culture of the late 1980s and 1990s, the condition of domestic photography’s public sharing has—until fairly recently—remained strikingly stable since Bourdieu’s time. While a wider media culture took on an increasingly confessional character, and unsettled traditional distinctions between public and private, family photographs continued to be consumed by small groups of friends and relatives in family albums. Where images of the family ‘went public’, it was normally the closely controlled format of the portrait, not the intimate domestic snapshot, that provided an outward-looking face for the private world.[36] Writing about Goldin’s subject matter in 1997, Nicolas Jennings suggested that, ‘Good taste is not the issue. Or, rather, avoiding the banalities of good taste is the issue’.[37] The same can be said for her photographs’ public display. The act of disclosure flaunted convention and set Goldin apart from a wider photographic culture. During the past ten years much has changed.


Broadcast Yourself

The social networking site Facebook launched in 2004, including a facility that allowed photographs to be shared online with a mass audience. An estimate from January 2012 put the total number of photographs on Facebook at 100 billion: a figure that is by now significantly larger.[38] Other popular sites for photo sharing have emerged in recent years, including Flick’r, Tumblr and Instagram. The latter, purchased by Facebook in 2012, encourages users to upload their photographs in ‘real time’. While these sites are by no means centred entirely on the sharing of photographs of people’s intimate lives, such images dominate those posted on Facebook and Instagram, which have become platforms for pictures of parties, loved ones, holidays, and other incidental details of ‘life as it is lived’. Although viewers of photographs are sometimes controlled using privacy settings, there is no question that audiences have expanded since analogue days.[39] The new image practices relate to the broadcast of people’s private lives using web cams, described by Theresa Senft both in terms of the construction of online communities and the pursuit of ‘micro celebrity’.[40] The participatory culture of intimate display finds an extreme example in sites dedicated to online amateur pornography, where people post images and videos of themselves having sex.[41] The practices have contributed to a general anxiety, expressed in some vocal corners of the media, that our current society runs a dangerous risk of ‘over sharing’.

What are the implications for Goldin’s work? For Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis, transformations to snapshot photography are key to understanding wider changes to how photography is perceived. In particular, the mass audiences with which Web 2.0 provides the once-private snapshot highlights its previous, paradoxical condition as a practice ‘both ubiquitous and hidden’.[42] Taken more broadly, online photo-sharing has contributed to a re-conceptualisation of photography, with issues of documentation and indexicality increasingly joined by a renewed concern with issues of mutability, shifting context, transmission and display.[43] Recent essays by Weinhart and Woodward illustrate the point: explicitly linking their efforts to excavate photography’s neglected exhibitionist histories to models suggested by digital practice. My proposed shift in understandings of what, exactly, is seen to characterise Goldin’s work represents a further consequence of the current situation. A changing photographic landscape has made the artist’s own exhibitionism clear.

The moving terrain of mass practice also raises questions about the nature of the exhibitionism  it helps to highlight. For Goldin, the politics of publicly displaying an intimate world exist in refuting prescriptive models peddled by the media: shaping her practice in opposition to a commercial image world. Her photographs spoke on behalf of the unrepresented, who could not recognise their lives in those presented by broadcasters. The suggestions now seems peculiarly prescient of the utopian discourse invoked to champion the world of Web 2.0, according to which it represents a democratic arena capable of challenging media monopolies on representation. The means of media production have been handed to the masses, allowing ‘everyone to gain greater participation in, and control over, the mediated version of reality in which they are immersed.’[44]

If the claims made for social media are to believed, then Goldin’s efforts to speak on behalf of marginalised groups lose something of their urgency, and may even be seen to stifle the voices of those represented. The accusation has dogged documentary practice since at least the late-1970s, but has grown more acute now that it has become easy for people to publicly present an intimate life, should they choose.[45] The online representation of intimate worlds is potentially collaborative, perhaps even dialectical. For Theresa Senft:

…we present images, gestures and words for consumption by various audiences. In response, those audiences produce portraits, stories, counter-points, and even satires of their own. We are then faced with a choice: either we respond to their responses, or we do not. When we do (hoping to correct, alter, or extend their interpretations of us), the status of our self-representation shifts.[46]

Goldin’s exhibitionism is, by contrast, addressed to an undifferentiated audience and remains unconcerned with their response. Any influence is one-directional: replicating significant structural characteristics of the media system it sets out to challenge. While Goldin’s work may present alternative templates for intimacy and family that more accurately reflect her experiences, these are templates nonetheless.


Exhibitionism and Spectacle

The notion of a participatory digital culture as democratic and utopian should be treated with caution. Writing in 1994, Carmen Hermosillo anticipated the increasing corporatization of cyberspace. This was not some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality’ but a space where ‘businesses…commodify human interaction and emotion…we are getting lost in the spectacle’.[47] The statement casts light on the present discussion in two ways. Firstly, Hermosillo’s materialist perspective links exhibitionism to the pursuit of profit. Viewed in these terms, Goldin sells photographs of her intimate life as rarefied commodities on the art market. She reaps direct financial benefits from her exhibitionism and retains a significant control over who gets to buy her work.[48]  In contrast, the majority of commercially owned social networking sites make money by gathering data relating to users’ behaviour and selling it to advertisers. As Mark Adrejevic has explained, the ‘incoherent promise of universal access to the apparatus of self-promotion’ doubles ‘as an invitation to comprehensive self-disclosure’ in terms of the personal world displayed in photographs and the portrait of intimate life resulting from the close monitoring of online activity.[49] Exhibitionism has become democratic, but it has also been de-professionalised. In the process, people have relinquished ownership and control over the intimate pictures they share, creating a commodified version of the personal from which they rarely profit directly.

Hermosillo’s discussion of spectacle suggests a second possibility. Written in 1967, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was forged against the backdrop of expanding broadcast media; to television, in particular. This had created social relations mediated by images and a society of passive consumers, sharing only in their alienation. Spectacle was ‘a concrete inversion of life, the autonomous movement of the non-living’.[50]  For Julian Stallabrass, the culture of Web 2.0 has the capacity to complicate the description.[51]  Whereas Debord saw spectacle as ‘the opposite of dialogue’, an ability to upload content unsettles a one-directional broadcast dynamic in ways that can allow for agency.[52] The dialectical possibilities described by Senft further underline the communicative and dialogical potential of an online image world. The links this creates between intimate life and its broadcast may also be reciprocal, however, transforming the experience of intimacy and linking it to an anticipated public display. The uniform posing of a stage-managed private life circulating on social networks offers a clear indication of the risks involved. For Debord, ‘representation and appearance come to replace a life once lived directly’.[53] Applied to aspects of an online image culture, the words may never have rung so true.

When viewed in such terms, the need felt by some to disavow the exhibitionism in Goldin’s practice takes on new importance. The artist has done what she can to assuage the suspicion of a choreographed or self-conscious private life. She has insisted that she does not ‘think about the wider audience, the people I don’t know,’[54] just as her close friend, David Armstrong, does not let the prospect of being seen ‘penetrate [his] thoughts’.[55] The fact that Goldin started out by showing her photographs to audiences of friends lends weight to the suggestion. But, after exhibiting in the Whitney in 1984, publishing The Ballad in 1986, and going on to make a career from the public display of her intimate life, could this stated innocence have been preserved?[56] At what point does life lived out in front of the camera come to acknowledge its presence, anticipate an expectant art world audience, and—in the process—mutate into something resembling the photographs already on public display? Is an image world internalised and reproduced in ways akin to teenagers pouting like porn stars for the camera, or do the higher purposes of art photography somehow set it apart? For at least one of Goldin’s subjects ‘there’s something of an exhibitionist aspect to it…because you know that it’s Nan.’[57] The template provided by her work has the potential to operate in both directions: out towards the “heroin chic” and emerging hipsterdom of the 1990s, but also in towards the lives of the people she represents, not least her own.[58]



For Bourdieu, the admission of photography into art’s institutions relied on it maintaining a distance from ‘middle brow’ photo practice. In the case of Nan Goldin, such distinction once lay in a willingness to record and to share her intimate moments, when others appeared reluctant—or, at least, lacked the opportunity—to do the same. Her work has changed during the past fifteen years, with the increased appearance of exteriors and landscapes generally attributed to changes to her life resulting from her “going clean”. In a 2008 interview, Goldin explained:

People used to say, about my work, that we all have pictures like that, personal, sexual pictures, but we just never show them to anyone. But for me it was the landscape photographs I took that I kept hidden.[59]

Might the reverse now also be true? At the very least, the statement indicates an awareness both of structural tensions that define photography’s status as art, and the significance of showing intimate moments in setting her work apart. In the same interview, Goldin voiced contempt for the mass disclosure promoted by contemporary media:

I feel the world around me has changed in a way that I would never have guessed as a young hippie. It’s not what I expected at all. It is not my world. Basically, I think that the world has been completely destroyed by computers, the sensationalism of emotion in talk shows.[60]

Would it be more painful, still, to recognise her work as implicated in the change? Goldin speaks eloquently of a failed counter-cultural vision and, perhaps, of its assimilation into the capitalist mainstream. At the same time, she hints at a disdain for the uniformity of mass culture as it encroaches on the territory which once set her work apart.

When placed against the wider culture that Goldin herself invokes, the dependency of her own brand of exhibitionism on its institutional framing to guarantee a sense of difference has become too clear. To put the point another way: imagine for a moment certain photographs by Nan Goldin circulating on Facebook, or even on amateur porn sites - it isn’t difficult to do.[61] Her contempt for aspects of contemporary culture also betrays a reductive view of digital, denying radical possibilities or political potential in favour of sentimental nostalgia for a golden age of free love and bohemian experimentation. There are problems with this position. For Benjamin, nostalgia could prove a powerful tool, but one that must be deployed, dialectically, as a mobilising force: shaping, and shaped by, experiences of the present in ways capable of correcting the future.[62] The most important projects facing us today lie not in the wholesale rejection of new technology in favour of fixed and fetishised versions of the past, but in efforts to recognise how current situations demand positions taken in the context of previous struggles be contested, revived or revised.

While the effects of a shifting culture appear largely absent from writing about Goldin’s work, they can still be felt elsewhere. After major retrospectives in 1996 and 2002, her art world profile has notably diminished as her practice drifts further away from a perceived cutting edge.[63] Where subsequent artists have taken intimacy as their subject, the sincerity that proved the hallmark of Goldin’s work has been displaced by a knowing or ironic dimension. Ryan McGinley’s work started out as a self-conscious creation of Goldin-style images using a cast of New York hipster friends. It rapidly became something more fantastical: the artist and his gang going on road trips funded by art buyers, getting naked and taking drugs all in order to be photographed. Terry Richardson has made a career from photographing himself, or having himself photographed, while he has sex with models.The pictures generally include a camera somewhere in the frame, indicating this as a critical parody of a wider culture. The shortcomings of irony as critique are obvious: Richardson’s photographs are a flicker of misunderstanding away from what Martha Rosler memorably described as ‘a slicked-up version of the original’.[64] In Evan Baden’s staged tableaux of teenagers posing semi-naked for webcams or Joachim Schmid’s quasi-ethnographic archiving of ‘Other People’s Photographs’, online image cultures are viewed by artists and their audience at a sardonic remove, occasionally lightened by whimsical ironic humour.

As digital images pervade our lives, and more people feel the compulsion to share photographs of their once intimate moments with wider audiences, a practice such as Goldin’s no longer appears so different to what everyone else is doing. Looking back at the 1980s and 1990s, it is easy to feel nostalgia for an earlier, more innocent world of intimate photo sharing, just as Goldin’s photographs betray nostalgia for the counter-culture of the late 1960s. The gallery may no longer function as the primary site through which personal photographs become public. But perhaps it can provide a critical and contemplative space in which to make sense of, to subvert, potentially even to resist, the digital spectacle that confronts us. Current artists’ strategies directed at this task prove as offensive as they are ineffective: creating yet another spectacle of the masses and their peculiar photographic habits for consumption by art world elites. They present further obstacles to the dialogue necessary to build cultures united not in alienation, but in the common understandings that allow us to confront spectacle with meaningful collective replies.


  1. Nan Goldin and David Armstrong, ‘On Acceptance: A Conversation’ in Nan Goldin, David Armstrong & Hans Werner Holzwarth (eds), I’ll Be Your Mirror, Whitney Museum of American Art & Scalo, New York, 1996, p. 453. back
  2. ‘Few people can guess how despondent one has to be in order to resuscitate Carthage’. Flaubert cited Walter Benjamin, ‘These on the Philosophy of History’ (1940) in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, Pimlico, London, 1999, p. 248. back
  3. I would like to thank Catherine Grant, Francesco Ventrella, Michelle O’Malley and Alice Compton who offered comments on a draft of this article from which I have benefitted greatly. I have presented parts of the material used as papers at the University of Wales, Newport, the University of Sussex and to Ph: The Photography Research Network, where further, useful feedback was provided. back
  4. ‘Privacy’, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Press Release, 31 October 2012, n.p. back
  5. Martina Weinhart, ‘Truth or Dare—Intimate Images on the Path to Postprivacy’ in Martina Weinhart & Max Hollein (eds), Privacy, exhibition catalogue: Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012,  p. 52. back
  6. Richard B. Woodward, ‘Dare to Be Famous: Self-Exploitation and the Camera’, in Sandra S. Phillips (ed.), Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, Tate Publishing, London, 2010. back
  7.  p. 229.

  8. See, for example, Phillips (ed.), Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera. back
  9. Notions of intimacy and privacy have been the subject of rich bodies of literature in recent years focused, in particular, on what renders the two distinct. See, for example, Lauren Berlant (ed.), ‘Intimacy: A Special Issue’, Critical Inquiry 24:2 (Winter 1998) and Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics, Zone Books, New York, 2005. These complex discussions sit beyond the scope of this essay, which uses the terms interchangeably to designate subjects, experiences and photographic practices defined by the small number of people involved, the existing familiarity of these people with each other, and through an opposition to the mass audiences of undifferentiated spectators that make up the public sphere. back
  10. Guido Costa, Nan Goldin, Phaidon Press, London, 2001, p. 10. back
  11. Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Aperture, New York, 1986, p. 7. back
  12. Arthur C. Danto, ‘Between Worlds: Nan Goldin’s Recent Photographs’, Parkett 57 (1999), p. 78. back
  13. Lisa Liebermann, ‘Christine Floating in the Sea, 1999’, Parkett 57 (1999),  p. 85. back
  14. Goldin, Ballad, p. 9. back
  15. Luc Santé, ‘All Yesterday’s Parties’ in Goldin, I’ll Be Your Mirror, p. 101. back
  16. Marvin Heiferman, ‘Pictures of Life and loss’ in Goldin, I’ll Be Your Mirror, p. 280. back
  17. A 1998 essay by Liz Kotz is the exception that proves the rule. Liz Kotz, ‘Aesthetics of “Intimacy”’, in Deborah Bright (ed.), The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, Routledge, London, 1998, pp. 207-8. back
  18. Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson, London & New York, 2004, p. 141. back
  19. Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: British Art in the 1990s, Verso, London & New York, 1999, p. 265. back
  20. Charlotte Cotton, ‘Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles’, Aperture 210 (Spring 2013), p. 35. back
  21. The publication produced to accompany Goldin’s 2003 Whitechapel Gallery retrospective provides a clear example. See Nan Goldin, The Devil’s Playground, Phaidon Press, London, 2003. back
  22. Goldin, Ballad, p. 6. back
  23. See, for example, Allan Sekula, ‘The Traffic of Photographs’, Art Journal 41 (Spring 1981); John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, MacMillan, London, 1988; Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘Who is Speaking Thus? Some Questions About Documentary Photography’ in Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1994; and David Green, ‘Classified Subjects – Photography and Anthropology: The Technology of Power’, Ten8 14 (1984). back
  24. Kotz, pp. 207-8. back
  25. Nan Goldin, ‘Nobody Symbolises Anything’, Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review 4:3 (Summer 1997), p. 16 cited Elizabeth Lebovici, ‘On the Edges of the Image’, Parkett 57 (1999), p. 72. back
  26. See Carol Hanisch, ‘The Personal is Political’ (2006): (last accessed 3 January 2013). back
  27. [26] Nan Goldin: In My Life, Dir. Paul Tschinkel, 1997: (last accessed 10 February 2013).

  28. Elaine Tyler May, ‘Myths and Realities of the American Family’ in Antoine Prost & Gerard Vincent (eds), A History of Private Life Vol. V., Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991, p. 583, cited Weinhart, p. 55. back
  29. Elisabeth Sussman, ‘In/Of Her Time: Nan Goldin’s Photographs’ in Goldin, I’ll Be Your Mirror, p. 30. back
  30. Jon Dovey, Freakshow: First Person Media and Factual Entertainment, Pluto Press, London, 2000, p. 26. back
  31. Susan Murray & Laurie Ouellette (eds), Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture, New York University Press, New York & London, 2004, p. 3 back
  32. Murray and Oullette, p. 11. back
  33. Benjamin H. Buchloh, ‘Residual Resemblance: Three Notes on the Ends of Portraiture’, in Melissa E. Feldman (ed.), Face Off: The Portrait in Recent Art, exhibition catalogue: Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, 1994, p. 61. back
  34. Clare Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, London and New York, 2012, p. 30. back
  35. See, for example, Heather Snider, ‘Nan Goldin’, Eyemazing 1 (2008), p. 145 and ‘Contacts: Portraits of Contemporary Photographers’ Vol II, 2000: (last accessed January 2013). back
  36. Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, 1965, trans. Shaun Whiteside, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990, p. 87 back
  37. Gillian Rose has made some interesting observations on this topic. See Gillian Rose, Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, the Public and the Politics of Sentiment, Ashgate, Farnham, 2010. back
  38. Nicholas Jennings, ‘The Averageness of Freaks’, Times Literary Supplement (11 July 1997), p. 8. back
  39. (last accessed 10 February 2013). back
  40. The sharing of photographs within specific communities of people is in some senses similar to Goldin’s initial presentation of The Ballad to her own social circle. back
  41. Theresa M. Senft, Camgirls: Celebrity & Community in the Age of Social Networks, Peter Lang, New York, 2008. back
  42. On this topic see Feona Atwood (ed.),, Peter Lang, New York, 2010. back
  43. Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis, ‘A Life More Photographic’, Photographies 1:1 (2008), pp. 9-28. back
  44. This interest is clear in many of the contributions to Either/And. back
  45. Mark Adrejevic, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, Rowman & Littlefield, New York, 2004. On the promotion of Web 2.0 see Mark Adrejevic, ‘Estrangement 2.0’, World Picture 6 (Winter 2011): (last accessed 2 January 2012). back
  46. Here, my comparison of Goldin’s work with a world of intimate photo sharing mirrors discussions about the displacement of professional reporting by ‘citizen’ journalism. See Stuart Allan and Einar Thorsen (eds), Citizen Journalism: Global Perspectives, Peter Lang, New York, 2009 back
  47. Senft, pp. 4-5. back
  48. Carmen Hermosillo (1994) quoted As Machines Watch Over Us With Love and Grace, Episode One, ‘Love and Power’, Dir. Adam Curtis, BBC Productions, 2011. back
  49. A 2008 question and answer session at Tate Modern contained the faintly comic moment when Goldin discussed the particular sensitivity of one collector, to whom she was willing to sell a complete version of The Ballad. She contrasted this with her anger that a dealer had sold her work without permission, and a refusal to allow ‘two Republican gays’ to buy her photographs due to their social and political views.[1] ‘Nan Goldin’, Tate Modern, 18 January 2007: (last accessed 3 May 2013). back
  50. Adrenjevic, Work of Being Watched, p. 6. back
  51. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967, trans. Kenn Knabb, Rebel Press, London, 2006, p. 7 back
  52. Julian Stallabrass, ‘Spectacle and Terror', New Left Review 37 (January-February 2006), pp. 103-6. back
  53. Debord, p. 11. back
  54. Debord, p. 12. back
  55. Snider, p. 145. back
  56. ‘On Acceptance: A Conversation’, p. 451. back
  57. For more on the original slideshows and their embrace by the art world see Heiferman, p. 278-80. back
  58. Jean-Christian Bourcart quoted Phyllis Thompson Reid, ‘Nan Goldin – Dark Diary’, Aperture 176 (2004), p. 68. back
  59. On ‘Hipsters’ see Marco Bohr, ‘What is Hipster Photography?’, Visual Culture Blog: (accessed 14 October 2013) back
  60. Snider, p. 145. back
  61. Snider, p. 144. back
  62. Such a possibility has been playfully realised through the creation of a Facebook page for Goldin: back
  63. Benjamin, pp. 245-58. back
  64. The fact that Goldin received the Hassleblad Award in 2007 cements the view: the equivalent to the Life Time Achievement Awards handed out to long-serving musicals like the Rolling Stones, rather than the innovators seen to lead the field. back
  65. Martha Rosler, ‘Notes on Quotes’ (1981) in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1875-2001, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2004, p. 142. Research by a recent undergraduate student identified websites on which the photographs are apparently presented and used as pornography. See Rachel Lawrence, Art photographer or pornographer, genius or misogynistic pervert? Terry Richardson and the question of objectification or liberation of women in the Terryworld series, unpublished BA dissertation, University of Sussex, 2013. back

Image references

  1. ‘Privacy’, Installation View, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012. © Schirn Kunsthalle back
  2. ‘Privacy’, Installation View, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012. © Schirn Kunsthalle back
  3. Nan Goldin, The Ballad of sexual Dependency, Aperture, New York, 1986 back
  4. Nan Goldin, ‘Thanksgiving’, Installation view, Saatchi Gallery, London, 1999 © Saatchi Gallery back