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.
So when I had the chance to see The Ballad myself, in the original slideshow format, I did. It was transformative. MoMA is playing the 45-minute projection continuously, and show consists of around 700 images, curated from Goldin’s masses of photographs taken from the 1970s into the 1990s, and is accompanied by a soundtrack that is eclectic, nostalgic, and so literal in some cases as to be laughable, but deeply affecting and never trite. The Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror, Dionne Warwick singing Don’t Make Me Over, The Creatures’ Kiss the Girl, James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, and Klaus Nomi’s version of You Don’t Own Me, among others, augment and embellish the snapshots appearing and disappearing rapidly on the wall, and correspond to loose groupings of images, women by themselves, together, getting ready to go out, pregnant women, parents with children, men with women, men with men, people with cuts, bruises, in tears, laughing, partying, having sex, taking drugs, getting married, and lying in open caskets. In watching and listening, you feel a connection to the artist and her subjects / collaborators – you can imagine them sorting through images, playing them time and again in different locations, choosing music, changing sequences, adding and subtracting elements over a period of time and space. As I sat in the dark space, taking in this visual diary, I actually felt a chill of recognition.
It didn’t matter how authentic or contrived the imagery was, or that I didn’t belong to that New York. I didn’t care how reckless or vulnerable the people in the photos seemed, if they were performing for a camera or being the object of a voyeuristic gaze. There was connection, disconnection, fear, bravado, love, lust, hysteria, and rage. The line between photographer, subject, participant, and viewer dissolved. I was a teenager again, impossibly proud and self-conscious, and unaware of the future. The future was something else, this time was now. I remembered the urgency, the emotion, the now-ness of that time in my life.
In her introduction to The Ballad in 1986, Goldin wrote, “Real memory, which these photos trigger, is an invocation of color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life. Memory allows an endless flow of connections. Stories can be rewritten, memories can’t.” Ten years later, she wrote, “Photography doesn’t preserve memory as effectively as I thought it would … I had thought that I could stave off loss through photographing. I always thought if I photographed anyone or anything enough, I would never lose the person, I would never lose the memory, I would never lose the place. But the pictures show me how much I’ve lost.” I think it’s less about the specific memory than the images serving as talismans, or touchstones for recalling memories. It also becomes about creating a personal mythology, and our tendency to periodically revise it as time goes on. The changing of sequence, the associations and groupings, and the additions and omissions of images, constantly re-contextualizes the photos within the work. The linear progression of one image dissolving into the next affects how we see them, and I am sure the image that is disturbing and creepy in one edit becomes tender and loving in the next.
The visceral effect this slideshow has on the viewer, and its ephemeral nature (I immediately regretted only watching it once) reminded me of another life-changing exhibition I witnessed, one similarly memorial and timely, characterized as well by a mass of imagery. After 9/11, a photographic exhibition was conceived and organized by writer Michael Shulan, photo editor Alice Rose George, and photographers Gilles Peress and Charles Traub. Called here is new york: a democracy of images, it was open to anyone who wanted to contribute an image, and the submitted photos were scanned, printed, and hung all together in an empty storefront in Soho. The title, here is new york, is from the E.B. White poem of the same name, a love letter to New York, and the subtitle, a democracy of images, quite accurately describes what the project became, an archive of more than 8,000 images from close to 3,000 contributors. It eventually traveled to over a dozen US cities and even more international venues, and a selection of the images was published in a book. But when I saw the exhibition, in early 2002, after returning to NYC for the first time after 9/11, the gathering of images, the sheer volume of photos, created a compelling and overwhelming experience and an extremely evocative record of this world changing event. It allowed people who had been there to share what they saw, what they experienced, and what they felt. It allowed those of us who were not there to participate in this outpouring of grief, loss, and regret, and to join in memorializing the tragedy. While, like The Ballad, the book version of here is new york is massive and comprehensive, it doesn’t compare to the experience of walking under rows and rows of photographs strung up on wire, like so many prayer flags, or facing a wall of images from floor to ceiling, a terrible imitation of a curtain wall on a skyscraper. Thousands of voices came together as one voice with this exhibition.
And then, just last week, another fresh young voice was lost. The Chinese artist, Ren Hang, died on February 23rd. A rising star in the art world, Ren Hang was not yet 30, and his often sexually explicit photographs were censored in China while earning him fame internationally. In the few days since his death, it’s fascinating to see how the media is labeling him: as “China’s hotshot erotic photographer” (BBC), “A subversive to China’s censorship” (The Daily Beast), “Controversial and renowned” (The British Journal of Photography). His short career was exploding and his output prodigious. His impressive body of images, often of beautiful, naked young things in highly stylized poses and compositions, are sexy and not, grotesque and elegant. The people in his photographs are friends, random strangers he meets, and fans, but it’s impossible to tell who belongs to what group. They are all one large body, one great party. It’s easy to draw a line from Andy Warhol to Nan Goldin to Ren Hang. In an interview I watched recently, he reminds me of old films of Warhol, soft spoken, a little detached.
But now, his work is a complete body. It won’t ever grow, and will be forever fixed as one large collection of imagery. Maybe it, like The Ballad, will be reinterpreted and reorganized, a fluid river of memory of a time and place, or maybe it will simply become a eulogy for the man himself.
It’s sad and ironic that Taschen just released his first international monograph, Ren Hang, late last year. In the text on their web page about the book, he is called “an unlikely rebel.” In his life, he was seen as being a powerfully positive force for inclusiveness, expression, and creative freedom. I hope his quiet rebellion, and the joy and exuberance found in his images, continue to live and inspire future artists.
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.