Contemplating a recent exhibition of the photography of Nan Goldin, German poet and academic Joachim Sartorius admits he found it astonishing that, of some 80,000 attendees, more than two-thirds appeared to be in their early twenties.
Sartorius attributes the interest of a younger generation to the timelessness of Goldin’s work, to something in the images that “touches upon the prehistoric theme of interpersonal relations.” Well, perhaps it’s true that the German youth are enticed by the primordial subtext intimated by The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. But I have a different theory.
The insalubrious snapshot portraiture with which Goldin made a name for herself through the 1980s oozed a certain seedy intimacy, chronicling the New York underground’s pre-AIDS hedonism with an affection that bordered on romanticism. Goldin’s defining style, in other words, is slum-glam and heroin chic, and her influence has never loomed larger, as the ubiquity of Terry Richardson and ads for American Apparel attest.
It’s no wonder young people are interested in her work: They’ve long since inherited its legacy. Nan Goldin: I Remember Your Face conjures the aura of Goldin’s halcyon days with the ease of diaristic reminiscence, and for that it proves a valuable record. But on the subject of her cultural significance the film remains oddly quiet.
The director, Sabine Lidl, understands that familiarity was central to Goldin’s methods, and the sense of ease between documentarian and subject here is a virtue. But in the pursuit of friendliness she has gotten too close to recognize the wider view.