PRINT November 1996


Nan Goldin once declared her “aspiration was to be a fashion photographer”; her goal, “to put the queens on the cover of Vogue.” Denizens of the other side, Ivy, Misty, Colette, Bea, Crystal never did make it to the cover. Theirs may have been a theater of affect, of lip gloss and excess, but the glamour was real: it rode shotgun with them in the backs of cabs, in foil sachets, in the exotic accoutrements of a third sex. And for a generation of photographers sick of overlit and unattainable ideals, these were indelible images. The gender game may have veered the other way—toward the liminal androgyny of the model-waif—but it is from drag queens that the play of sublimated disaffection and bruised mortality has been drawn. Twenty years down the line fashion appears to have done a great deal more of Goldin than she of it.

Recently, with fashion shoots in The New York Times Magazine, in Visionaire, and a catalogue for Matsuda, Goldin has returned to her early ambitions. For Matsuda, the label designed by Yukio Kobayashi (aka Koba) since 1983, Goldin chose to photograph her friends: an array of ages and genders. Lolling around, at odds with the imperative to “strike a pose,” their attitudes are distinguished by self-possession, the clothes taken up incidentally, like conversations. A woman with her back to us stares into the blue embers of a TV set. Rising above her diaphanous hipsters, a G-string bisects the body and gaze. An Olympian odalisque, were it not that in Goldin’s mirror, the master-slave hierarchy of seeing and being seen collapses the pictorial into the emotional plane. A few pages on, she—Kathleen reappears, entwined in the arms of another. Pure sexy beatitude.

Classic cuts and a lo-fi approach to high-tech materials give Matsuda’s Autumn/Winter ’96 collection the retro-deco feel of Bladerunner, recast for Gay Pride Day. Cutting away from the gender bias, Koba uses futuristic fabrics as a sentient skin, needle-punching polyurethanes into elaborate, perforated patterns that literally open the wearer to the world. In Goldin’s images the sheen of technology and its iridescence serves only to call attention to the luster within.

Once satellites orbiting the heavy matter of drugs, gender, addictions to love, and free-fall glamour, these are people for whom the past provides a density and gravitational pull visible only in their eyes. Gone is the bare-bulb intensity, the opiated halation of the ’70s and ’80s. In its place the slower burning fuels of friendship and trust suggest the compensations of innocence lost. From the world of Teflon expression where the eyes rarely open onto the soul, Goldin redeems the cliché. Even James King, a 17-year-old model-star accustomed to the professional demands of simulation, responds to the camera with almost impermissible levels of doubt. Soaked in a soft androgynous glamour, King’s upturned gaze and panda eyes convey a sense of déjà vu. In photographing her, Goldin seems to reach for a place to which she herself could never return.

Neville Wakefield is coeditor with Camilla Nickerson of Fashion: Photography of the Nineties, out this month from Scab. A retrospective of Nan Goldin’s photographs is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through 5 January 1997. Flash Track is organized in collaboration with Paris contributor Olivier Zahm.