Shooting Away The Pain

In April 1964, 18-year-old Barbara Goldin threw herself across the railroad tracks outside Union Station in Washington and was killed by an oncoming train. Her 11-year-old sister, Nan, never got over it. Last week in Paris, as the 48-year-old photographer recalled the story, she reached for a napkin, weeping. "Kids threw stones at me and shouted, 'When are you going to kill yourself, like your sister did?' " she says. According to Goldin, a Washington Post story at the time included reactions from trapped passengers who were angry because the suicide caused them to miss betting on the daily double. "Can you believe it?" she says incredulously, adding that she swore off newspapers after that. She says her sister's psychiatrist told her that she, too, would kill herself. "Instead of dying, I began to photograph," Goldin says, clearly proud that she proved the shrink wrong.

But the most upsetting reaction to Barbara's suicide came from the Goldin girls' parents. Nan describes them now as typical 1950s middle-class suburban Americans, who just couldn't accept what had happened. "I watched how my sister's life was revised all the time. It had nothing to do with my family life, what was going on around me. It was all about 'Don't let the neighbors know'," remembers Goldin. "I wanted to find out what was happening behind closed doors. The way to take control was to make antirevisionist work." By this she means creating images of literal bleakness. And it is that commitment to capturing raw reality that vaulted her from a 1970s club kid taking snapshots of her roommates to one of the most influential documentary photographers of the late 20th century.

Like Dorothea Lange's pictures of the Depression and Diane Arbus's images of the down-and-out in 1960s New York, Goldin's work is frank and intimate. It shows the emotional difficulties on her subjects' faces every moment of their existence. In the 1970s and '80s, Goldin captured drag queens in all their incarnations, and the downtown-Manhattan club-and-drug scene at its most depraved. In the late '80s and early '90s, she showed how AIDS ravaged both communities. Now photography buffs can view more than 400 of these startling images at a retrospective of Goldin's work at the Pompidou Center in Paris (through December, before moving on to London, Madrid, Turin and Warsaw). She sees her work as a "visual diary," and that's what makes it so powerful. It's her life, too.

After what she described as a "few years of good behavior" after her sister's death, Goldin left home at 14 and moved into a group flat in Boston. While attending a "hippie-free" high school, she met David Armstrong, a young photographer who introduced her to drag queens, whom she immediately began shooting. At 20, Goldin held her first show, in a basement nightclub in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Those original black-and-whites, mostly of her roommates, and printed by Goldin herself, are included in the Pompidou exhibit, and show Goldin's burgeoning talent for capturing "the truth," as she calls it, in a neorealist style that blends fashion photography and photojournalism.

Goldin studied photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for three years to learn technique. Then, in 1978, she moved to New York, where she worked as a bartender and dived deep into the downtown gay, punk and drug scene--her camera always in hand. "While Nan tilted as far off the plumb line as any of us," her friend Luc Sante once wrote, "she could nevertheless summon the motor skills to take pictures of it all." Finally, in the early '80s, Goldin put dozens of these pictures together in a slide show entitled "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency." When she presented it, her friends were stunned. She hadn't only been taking pictures of their twisted lives. She'd been making art.

But at the same time, she was in an emotional free-fall. She spiraled into heroin addiction, lived in squats, was involved in abusive relationships and sank into a depressive madness, at one point confining herself to her squalid downtown apartment for weeks, able only to photograph her walls. Goldin eventually checked into rehab. The first thing the doctors did was to take away her camera. When she got out, she says, she had to rediscover light.

While many of the characters and images from her wilder years are now iconic--Cookie Mueller in her casket, David Armstrong glaring through aviator shades next to a pool, drag queens Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in full eye makeup and jewels--the most revealing are her many self-portraits. There's skinny Nan with frizzy red hair, dressed as a dominatrix, Nan windblown in dark sunglasses and blood red lipstick, Nan having sex with her boyfriend Brian and, later, Nan black and blue, following a beating Brian gave her that nearly left her blind. She says she took those pictures so she'd never forget what he did to her. They are indeed her visual diary.

When she first exhibited her work outside her downtown clique about 15 years ago, the pictures shocked the bourgeois society she mocked and despised. But like Robert Mapplethorpe's gay sadomasochistic photographs, Goldin's images have lost their ability to shock over the years; society has caught up with her. The Pompidou exhibit shows that Goldin's work from the '70s and '80s is not timeless, but of a specific era and of a very small community. She may have wanted originally to reveal what was going on behind the walls of all those middle-class suburban homes. But instead Goldin chronicled a subset of misfits and rebels--people like herself.

These days Goldin has settled down a bit. She's been drug-free for a few years, and she's made up with her parents. She donates generously to AIDS causes for "drug addicts and women with AIDS and to Africa, because they don't get money like rich gay florists," she says. For a while she taught at Yale, but now she lives in the trendy Oberkampf section of Paris, with several assist-ants on staff to keep her together, and gives art students guided visits of her exhibit.

Most important, she's moved into a new and truly beautiful direction with her photography: sweet portraits of her middle-class friends making love, laughing and playing with their children and, most surprising, ethereal landscapes of the underwater grottoes of Capri, and the rolling waves of St. Bart's. "Everybody has secret photos they keep in a drawer. Mine were landscapes," Goldin says, laughing at the irony. But the true irony is that Nan Goldin, known for her blunt view of self-loathing and self-destruction, had to find peace within herself to create images that will last.