PRINT January 1994


Society works in strange ways: in order to have it you must be involved with people. My mother, who never read Proust, believed in an ideal Platonic society—which is to say, a society of people (her children) based on herself. Meanwhile, my mother had become a “nice” person in order to separate herself from her own mother’s family—which is to say, her family had been constituted of people who were not nice. Isn’t that one function of society: to let one become an individual, so that one leaves it?

Mostly what we “like” in photographs is what we recognize as emotion in them; a decisive emotional moment made evident. What I recognize in Nan Goldin’s photographs are people leaving the self she has photographed for another self she may or may not have the opportunity to photograph in the future. Nan Goldin herself leaves things behind also, just because she has photographed them, so that they don’t exist in the imagination as vibrantly anymore. How many things has Nan Goldin left behind? How many emotional debts has she incurred? Are her photographs her payment for the debt incurred in remembering people photographically?

When Nan Goldin was an adolescent her older sister, Barbara, committed suicide. She left her parents’ home in Maryland shortly thereafter. In Boston in the ’70s she met a number of drag queens; her experiences in the world of the “third sex,” as she terms it, coincided with the start of her career in photography. Examples of her work as, in a sense, a court photographer in this society appear in her first book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986, and in her second, The Other Side, 1992.

Eventually Nan Goldin left Boston for New York and Provincetown and Berlin and a drug-rehab center and other parts unknown. Traveling distances—in the mind as well as in geography—has made her an inveterate letter-writer. But the letter-writer’s insistence on staying in touch is a paradox: what does “touch” mean from a distance? As agents of memory, photographs can be thought of as letters—letters from the past to the present. Nan Goldin has written as much: “I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again,” the “real memory” being the visceral effect of the person in their milieu, in and out of society, captured on film.

The colors! The colors of a Nan Goldin photograph—simultaneously supersaturated screen and thing, like the surfaces made by certain Color Field painters, Kenneth Noland, say—are greeting-card sentiments issued from the immediate past. This is my world. Remember me in it?

Society is the same everywhere, and is predicated on exclusion. Very boring the way people define themselves as the measure of what they are not, of what someone else is not.

Like Nan Goldin, French-born photographer Dominique Nabokov likes staying in touch with society, but society as it is shaped by the parents Goldin’s kids are dyeing their hair to get away from. Dominique Nabokov came to photography in a roundabout way (through her love of film), and has matured in it with the focus of the amateur become professional. She is a chronicler of a society that determines much of the intellectual and political future of New York. Not unsurprisingly do her photographs appear in The New York Review of Books and Vogue, among other publications.

Nabokov met her late husband, the composer Nicolas Nabokov, when she was a young woman. Through him she saw that the white hair of accomplishment—the look of power—ultimately doesn’t distinguish the truly great from the merely capable. The subjects of Nabokov’s photography wear this look of accomplishment, but at times they wear it lightly and confusedly. Sometimes, though, they wear the look of: why in the world would you want to be anywhere else?

Society works like this: one determines to be part of it so as eventually to complain about how little it rewards one to belong.

Hilton Als is editor at large for Vibe magazine.