Nan Goldin ‘gives life’ through her photography

Photographer Nan Goldin is a star – in her very own way. The day of our scheduled rendezvous at the Rebecca Camhi Gallery, she had no desire to leave her hotel room. After a two-hour wait in the hotel lobby, I finally managed to meet her in person. Clad in jeans, men’s socks, high-heels, black pearls and a Cartier watch, she smoked incessantly, ashes falling onto her clothes and the suite’s carpet. She spoke slowly, as if making a deep, personal confession about the wild 1970s and 1980s. Back then, she took photos of people living on the edge, drug users and transsexuals, among others, and established a so-called «school» of her own. Over time, her work softened. A series of photographs of children in playful and tender moments, images that leave visitors with a very different aftertaste compared to her earlier work, is currently on display at the Rebecca Camhi Gallery in Athens. As the true star that she is, Goldin has a loyal audience. This was evident during a lecture she gave at the Hellenic American Union recently as people filled up the auditorium all the way to the first-floor staircase. She turned up well groomed, flirted with the audience, flashing her half-smile and penetrating gaze, and took questions on photography, gay-straight relations and her own vision of the world. «I have never taken photos of people doing things I haven’t done myself,» she said with the compassion and wisdom of someone who knows the human soul pretty well. Our own discussion kicked off with New York at the time that punk was dying and new wave was being born – «So f***ing long ago,» as she put it. «The city I got to know has nothing to do with that of today. Back then at the Bowery you could rent a place for 70 dollars a month. Now everything has turned into hotels costing hundreds of dollars per night. So when I hear that the New Museum has a new bright home, it makes me sick. Suddenly it becomes a point of reference in a neighborhood that has lost its old identity, its bohemian spirit and has now entered the formaldehyde of wealth. Homeless shelters have disappeared and now you bump into Eurotrash tourists. What I miss most about the 1970s is the community feeling. I don’t know what glue brought us together in the first place. We were a group of wonderfully disparate gay and straight people – artists, musicians, writers, Europeans and Americans. We were all creative and free, like wild animals. And then this spirit of coexistence got lost forever. A small community of these kind of people came together again at the end of the 1980s up until 1993, but it was just a chronicle of a death foretold. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I moved to Berlin for a couple of years. New York is repulsive right now. It has been ripped into small pieces, every single street belongs somewhere: You’re in Noho, Soho, Boho and everyone judges you by where your flat is,» said Goldin. «The gist of lifestyle is that some people believe that everything can be categorized,» added the 58-year-old photographer. «They tried to do the same with my work. When I was taking photos of this amazing human race which coexisted gregariously, sucking life’s marrow and flirting with all kinds of boundaries… We were not marginal, as they called us, but the center of the world and of ourselves. It was the rest of them, the ones with the regular work hours, the boring daily lives, the straight people, the career-obsessed, who were on the outside. I took photos in New York and in Europe. It wasn’t the place but the timing that made certain situations blossom. In the end I’m more interested in people’s ‘races’ than actual countries. When I meet someone, I can instantly smell if we have things in common. Their sense of humor, the way they stand looking at the world. «They say photography is a small death. You capture a moment and, at the same time, you kill it. I see things differently. Photography means giving life to things. By singling out a moment, you give it value. More and more I try not to show my photos one by one, but as a corpus, a succession of images, entire chapters complemented by music and personality. It’s more like cinema, putting together various valuable snapshots and placing them one next to the other: a beautiful landscape, a face worth loving, a gaze, a decrepit building, a guy yelling as he enters the icy cold sea. «In America, there’s a kind of emotional death. Time flies more quickly and doesn’t leave space for anything to develop. The only thing that is expressed more easily is the agony, even for the most simple things. Like, for instance, being in New York and waiting in line to pay at the supermarket and the customer at the till doesn’t have his money ready. All of a sudden, you get all this terrible tension, as if these lost seconds are years out of other people’s lives. Things are better in Europe. Growing older, I have come to realize that time and the way we measure it is the most important quantity in life.» The child within Would you have liked to have children? I would have liked one child, no more. My lifestyle, however, didn’t allow for such a choice. Artists are the most self-centered beings, traveling constantly, avoiding responsibilities and routines. They are children themselves. Personally, I’m still a child. Of course, the institution of family has changed substantially. I know people who grew up with one parent or two parents of the same sex and are balanced emotionally. In many cases, they are happier than those raised in traditional family settings. Generally speaking, each child is prey to his parents’ relationship. If it’s a positive one, the child moves on in life, otherwise it absorbs every emotional tremor, every collision, all the rivalry and aggression and it takes a really huge effort to get rid of it all one day. Who are the children in your photos? Most of them are the children of friends, kids whose pictures I took at different points in their lives. I enjoy taking their pictures because they reflect my own childish side. I feel that there’s a kind of fluidity in every person’s journey of existence. Different elements spring out from within, depending on the phases we go through. Our feminine side versus the masculine, the child versus the adult, the kind of short-lived victories before the battle resumes again. As far as I’m concerned, for instance, I have spent most of my life as if I were 19. My father, who is over 90, says that he feels like a 12-year-old. I have come to the conclusion that the inner balance of our sex and age are constantly changing. We float among our different personae and photographs capture our temporary faces. The Nan Goldin exhibition runs at the Rebecca Camhi Gallery (9 Leonidiou, Metaxourgeio, tel 210.523.3049) to May 29.

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