IN THE NEW afterword to Aperture’s recent rerelease of her classic, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin writes:
I am terrified that everything I believe about photography, about this work, is over because of the computer and easy manipulation of images it facilitates. This work was always about reality, the hard truth, and there was never any artifice. I have always believed that my photographs capture a moment that is real, without setting anything up.
Later, she continues:
Now, it is so distressing: no one any longer believes that a photograph is real. Almost every time I give a talk or teach, I ask this question about truth and photography. If all but four or five in an audience of two hundred artistic people don’t believe that photographs are true, then what does that say about the rest of the world? So this eliminates the larger reason for having done this book — not for me, but if nobody believes it as having happened …what is the point? The belief that a photograph can be True has become obsolete.
If these concerns come off as slightly erroneous or overdue (haven’t photographers been using Photoshop for the last 20 years?), primarily they speak to an issue of context. What appears to be in question is not so much the capability of photography to represent the “Truth” as Goldin posits it — in the general sense of the word, it would seem people do still believe, easily at times, in photography’s ability to factually represent a certain version of the truth.
But in an art context, where the meaning or formal composition of an image, not its validity, is of central importance, to demand that photographs be literally understood as True is to impose a gratuitously limiting dictum. Goldin has always conflated her life and her art though, and perhaps nowhere else as much as with this massive work, which loosely chronicles nine years of her life and that of her friends (in slide form it contains over 900 photographs and covers even more time). Her indignation is thus understandable, since to suspect that her photographs are somehow manipulated is to undermine their documentary value, and that is, she suggests, their primary value. She has always presented her work as a direct reflection of her circumstance, an adjunct to her memory (or, at times when she was too inebriated to remember anything, as a memory itself), a way to puncture the familial denial of her upbringing and breach silence on topics like drug use, physical abuse, sexuality and later, AIDS.
But, whether due to the absolute saturation of diaristic images now in circulation on the Internet, or some other turn, the fact is that in the last few years, the rift has widened between the kind of snapshot, documentary-style photography Goldin champions and — except for certain perennial favorites — the majority of photography in contemporary art. More and more, in an art setting, photography is used as a process to create abstract or self-consciously composed imagery, often as a component of a larger conceptual frame; it tends to present reality through metaphor, or by way of a signifier, rather than by straight documentation of subjects’ lives. So, yes, it may be fair to say that people no longer believe that a photograph in a gallery or museum or art book is true, precisely because they are no longer b...read more