Once upon a time, I crossed paths with Hilton Als. He was an acquaintance of Julie Trachtenberg, the daughter of Alan Trachtenberg, my advisor at Yale in the American Studies department. Julie and I were buddies in New York.
Somewhere in my files I have a photograph I took of Julie and Hilton skirting a puddle somewhere near Washington Square Park, circa 1987. Julie was wearing her black jean jacket, black peg-leg jeans, black aviator shades, lit cigarette in hand. She was in a “tough dyke” phase; we’ve always been friends. Hilton is wearing a long dark coat. We may have been on our way to a party, but it was daytime when I photographed them, walking ahead of me. Their overall blackness and mobile geometry unconsciously mirrored the Tri-X/Leica/boho-bricoleur esthetic I reveled in—and with varying degrees of success cultivated—at the time.
At the party, which may have been on an entirely different day, though involving the same personae, I overheard someone telling a female friend that her jeans were so tight “they look as though they’re inside you.” And I recall Hilton touching my forearm as I brought a cigarette to my mouth, tracing the vertical channel between two muscles and voicing Bernard Berenson-esque formal appreciation for a detail that might have been part of a male figure carved in marble.
A distance lingers in that moment. Not just chronological, but psychological and emotional. Had I been inclined to be seduced, the touch would have been an overture. But I was more interested in the absorbed-jeans woman than in the imposing dark figure closer at hand.
Reading Hilton’s piece about Nan Goldin in The New Yorker this week brought me back to that place, time, and distanced feeling. There’s a coolness to the writing that places Goldin’s career in a display case. Nothing terribly wrong or inappropriate about that, especially given the enthronement she’s been subject to in the last decade or so. The thing is, I remember a different Nan Goldin, present and vivid, from a few encounters in New York and Minneapolis. I didn’t know her much better than I knew Hilton, but I worked at Aperture during the birthing of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and witnessed the sanguinary mayhem of that period. I was an editorial work scholar, and was busier with magazine-related duties assigned by Larry Frascella than with work Mark Holborn delegated. Mark was, in the moment, deeply engaged with Nan, wrestling her photographic Bildungsroman—“the diary I let people read” is the tagline I recall—into book form.
Hilton accurately described the “emotionally intense” relationship between editor and photographer. I was ignorant of anything beyond that in Mark’s personal realm, though it was obvious from his workplace demeanor that he had become overly invested in the process. Larry, a wise, pragmatic editor and mentor, told me that he would never allow a book to become more important than himself; that was what Mark had allowed to happen. Larry always put his own professionalism and sanity ahead of a given project’s eccentric urgencies.
I understood Larry, and sympathized with Mark. I had seen a couple of live iterations of the Ballad in the Lower East Side (St. Mark’s Church rings a bell), and had my doubts about its suitability for book form. Much of the pleasure lay in the performance. Once Nan showed up (late, as Hilton observed, was often the operative word) and started the soundtrack, the show was bound to change. One image might have been swapped for another. She didn’t use as an automatic sequencer, so the dissolves from one image to the other had, shall we say, personality. A projector might blow a bulb, or get stuck. I don’t remember Nan holding a projector, but it wouldn’t have surprised me. It was alive, impromptu, and exciting. The crowd hooted, laughed, teased the artist.
In other words, the performance was juiced. As were the photographs; more about that in a moment. My favorite parts of Hilton’s essay address the moment when Mark Holborn, and Marvin Heiferman before him, recognized the rupture Nan’s photographs represented. (And bravo to Henry Horenstein, who pushed Nan toward Larry Clark. I’d not heard that bit before, or been aware of his role in her progression.) MoMA’s dry, clean esthetic was unprepared for the 1980s Nan. The fact that the institution has now acquired the slideshow, however dehydrated and emasculated (is there a feminine version of that word?) it may be, proves a kind of ironic justice; this effusion of life in images needed cultural gelling to gain a place in the “Modern” pantheon. The museum, to be sure, has itself become more heterogeneous and inclusive in the post-Szarkowski years. But it, and most of the photo world’s august institutions, took some time to catch up to Nan’s revelatory, iconoclastic work. (Photographers, of course, picked up on her example right away.)
About the juice. There was a fluid, elusive quality to the work I encountered in the flashing ephemerality of those slide performances. “Slideshows” would be the right word; Nan’s slides showed me things I’d never seen in mainstream photographs, Larry Clark notwithstanding. Open wounds, black eyes, semen, blood, sweat, various other effusions. Heroin in syringes, beer in bottles, hard liquor and wine flowing into, and occasionally, in dire circumstances, out of people whose bodies were hardened by circumstances, not by spinning or aerobics classes.
The juice of violent or sexually urgent encounters was right on the surface. And other emotions—love, loss, ennui—seemed to course through the Ballad. All this relational, particulate matter seemed to be tenuously but expertly held in solution in Nan’s photographs. One extra helping might have made the visceral, pulsing mass coalesce and ooze out the frame. The Ballad’s relationships throbbed with life energy. One of the rough thrills of the Ballad I remember was a trio of slides: a portrait of Nan’s parents, a picture of a couple (Duke and Duchess of Windsor?) in a wax museum, and graffiti of two skeletons coupling. Eros segueing into Thanatos.
I’m sure everyone who saw it live has their own quotations, extractions from the flow, visual phrases that stuck despite disappearing after a moment. No rewinding possible, no scanning backward. The performance naturally complemented the images—messy, urgent, and profoundly touching. Life and art are the Ballad’s blood brothers.