by Lauren Greenwald
This article started out very differently. I have been thinking a lot about how we consume images, and how the many different ways in which photography can be presented change our perception of it. At the university where I teach, we offer a class every spring for upper level photo students, in which they produce a body of work and mount a group exhibition with their peers. In many cases, this is the first time any of them has exhibited work. Much of the talk has been about how to frame photographs, what kind to choose, what size they should be, how to install work in a gallery setting, how many pieces to include, etc. But I also want them to be aware of the broad range of the modes of presenting and viewing of photography that exists, even if they may not use these approaches themselves. I’m painfully aware of how few of the examples I show to students I have actually experienced myself (Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip) and how many I know only from books or the Internet (Michael Light’s oversized artist books, Erik Kessel’s Photography in Abundance, Ren Hang’s self-published monographs / photo zines, and until very recently, Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency). A few weeks ago, I was in New York for a conference, and went to see The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art (through April 16). My viewing of, and reaction to, the famous slideshow effectively hijacked this article. It made me even more aware of the power of the experience in viewing art, and the opportunities afforded by an installation or performance.
My first memory of photography, and recognizing it as a powerful visual tool, comes from a coffee table book in my grandparents’ living room – a hardback version of The Best of Life (1973). Created from the archives of Life Magazine (1936-1972), the images are organized in loose categories – war, sports, entertainment, youth culture, photo essays. I would sneak into the formal living room, a cool, dim place, away from the rest of my noisy family, and sit in a wingback chair, the open book covering my lap, or sometimes sprawl out on the carpet. My memory is of a soft green space (how accurate this is I can’t say), with the only sound being the ticking of a grandmother clock. I remember many of the images, but one in particular stands out, of a girl lying peacefully on top of a crumpled car. Published in 1947, the photograph taken by Robert Wiles shows a young woman’s body minutes after her suicide by jumping off of the Empire State Building. The original caption in Life read, “At the bottom of Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in grotesque bier her falling body punched into the top of a car.”
Labeled by Life as “The Most Beautiful Suicide”, the beauty and horror of the image existed simultaneously, and I remember the mixed emotions it drew from me as I sat in the quiet of that soft green room. Many years later, the photograph would have a second life, appropriated in Andy Warhol’s print Suicide: Fallen Body (1962).
And as Warhol’s Factory became a cultural landmark of the art world beginning in the 1960s, and his prodigious recording and documenting of his world, work, and life made him an important artistic voice in New York City in the 1970s, so did Nan Goldin become a force in the New York scene in the 1980s, as she produced, performed, revised, and solidified what would become her best known work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The first time I became aware of this work was in reading an essay written by Darsie Alexander in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005), edited by Sophie Howarth. Alexander discusses one image, The Hug, New York City, 1980, how it embodies the contradictions and complexities of Goldin’s work, and the dual formats her images inhabit. She writes, “…this tension between the stasis of a photographic object as a discrete container of information and the open, fluid qualities of The Ballad frame The Hug as both a singular an relational image - one with two distinct but interwoven lives.” And as Howarth writes in her introduction, “The mutability of photographs is central to this anthology. By dint of their reproducibility, photographs have a tendency to become unhinged from their original context and to reappear in unexpected and often incongruous places. And when they do, their meaning is always coloured by the framework through which we see them, be it in an album or an archive, an exhibition, a magazine or a book.” This is particularly true of Goldin’s Ballad, as it’s most often seen in the book version published by Aperture in 1986, or curated into even smaller, more digestible, groups.