The Performance Switched Off: Nan Goldin


While researching the last article for this small series I stumbled across this intriguing portrait of a man called David. The photographer is Nan Goldin who is famed for her intimate and candid documentary portraits of her friends. Goldin began this personal diary of her friends and acquaintances after the tragic death of her older sister. Goldin’s intention is to capture her memories and to compile a family album of her newly constructed family. This particular photograph is from her series ‘The Other Side: 1972 – 1992’. It was taken during the period that Goldin lived in Boston where she shared a flat with her friends. Some of her flatmates and friends were drag queens and with them she regularly frequented a local drag bar. Her photographs from that time meticulously document the unusual relationships and everyday lifestyles of her friends. They capture the vibrancy of her friends self-made gender identities and reveal the daily reality of living with the constructed characters we all naturally create in our lifetime. They evocatively expose the transience of the day by day realities that we manage to construct with a little help from our friends.

None of Goldin’s photographs document performance in a typical sense. These images are not staged, nor do they capture a particular performed artwork. What makes her work fascinating is that is captures the everyday performance of constructed identities. David, like many of Goldin’s friends, concealed his masculinity so to perform a feminine persona. Naturally David’s personal reasons for creating this persona are unknown and are ultimately private. However by allowing the viewer to see the unconventional appearances of her friends Goldin manages to show the way we all perform for the outside world in an effort to convey or to conceal our internal reality. Our personal performances can be a complete construction designed to hide our true nature, or they can be our intrinsic truth made manifest. Whatever the case the everyday performance can be the most complex and fascinating.

What makes this particular photograph so beautiful though is the impression that the performance has paused. Despite David’s obvious awareness of the camera it seems as if for a split second his guard is down and the performance of everyday existence has momentarily halted. The power of Goldin’s work is this intimacy and by documenting her friends she can by-step any pretence. Her skill lies in simply letting the subject just be, and letting their nature, constructed or not, control the tone and feeling behind the image. Perhaps the irony of this article is that when a performance is switched off it can reveal so much beauty. The gift of the camera in its capturing of split second moments is that it can reveal aspects of a person that we would normally never notice. If we look beyond the theatricality of any photograph we can hope to detect the authenticity of human existence. Perhaps one of the most beautiful and fascinating aspects of a performance is when the theatrics temporarily dissipate and suddenly and unexpectedly we are confronted with a glimpse of reality.