Documentary photography never gives up the lie that it is an unfiltered recording of reality in which larger truths magically shine through. Presented without irony, it insists that it is a snapshot of a moment in time that opens onto something... [more]
Documentary photography never gives up the lie that it is an unfiltered recording of reality in which larger truths magically shine through. Presented without irony, it insists that it is a snapshot of a moment in time that opens onto something sublime. Though the artist's hand remains unseen, the photographs pass judgement.
Nan Goldin and Larry Clark share the snapshot aesthetic of documentary photography. Punk rockers, heroin-shooting teenagers are all captured in their native milieu -- frozen mid-dance, mid-fix. But unlike other documentary photographers, these artists don't pass judgement on their subjects. They escape that trap by using two essential techniques: duration and self-inclusion. They are documenting a subculture they themselves participate in, and that changes everything.
Goldin and Clark work in series. In Goldin's portfolio, we don't get just one shot of the melancholic "Cookie at the Mudd Club." We see Cookie over the span of 20 years. Moments in her life accumulate into a history. Viewers aren't voyeurs, they are readers of a visual diary.
Sometimes, we see Cookie and Goldin together, holding each other, staring fiercely at the camera while the bright flash illuminates their powderless skin. Or we see Cookie with a lover, or a battered Goldin documenting her own abuse at the hands of a boyfriend. The artist is seen and implicated.
Clark photographed his friends over a nine-year period in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They make love, shoot up, and stare into the flat landscape with faces twisted by despair and paranoia. To see only one of these pictures is to encounter action raised to the totalizing level of essence, or worse, symbol. When one views an entire series, however, one comes to see the subjects as characters in a story. Ironically, in getting more information, we realize how little we actually know about these people.
Nan Goldin describes her style as a kind of personal tribute: "My work derives from the snapshot. It is the form of photography that most closely stands for love." The subjects are never pretty, but they are beautiful. Sweaty club scenes, clumsy sex, awkward teenagers in bad makeup - all are visions from a world that doesn't allow intruders. We have pictures of these subcultures only because artists such as Clark and Goldin were a part of them. We care about the characters because they give up their images with trust and love. [show less]