Seeing what is

Self-portrait writing in diary, Boston by Nan Goldin (1989)

Every so often when we’re watching TV, an ad plays for the latest Google Pixel phone. Like the phone, the ad is slick and sleek, looking pretty and talking fast. It has irritated me since the first time I heard it: when introducing the camera’s Magic Eraser feature, it refers to other people in the background of a user’s photos as “annoying,” as though we shouldn’t be inconvenienced by the fact that others exist in a narrative starring ourselves.

There’s an insidious creep of “main character syndrome” in digital spaces lately. Filters and ring lights make people look brighter and more perfect than they are. Other people or imperfections in the background of our photos are “distractions” (the term used in another Google Pixel ad). We aim for poised and perfected images that can be framed for a gallery wall.

So it felt like a huge exhale when I turned on a new documentary the other night and saw life, messy and often unsightly, splashed across the scene in original photographs. The film was All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the story of artist and activist Nan Goldin’s life.

Goldin may be most famous for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985), a photo slideshow that depicts images of her life in New York in the ’70s and ’80s as the AIDS epidemic ravaged her community. Most recently, she’s fought to hold the Sackler family responsible for their role in the opioid crisis. Her activism dovetails beautifully with her photography, which she says is really a practice in capturing emotion:

A lot of people seem to think that art or photography is about the way things look, or the surface of things. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s really about relationships and feelings…it’s really hard for me to do commercial work because people kind of want me to do a Nan Goldin. They don’t understand that it’s not about a style or a look or a setup. It’s about emotional obsession and empathy.

Photo: Peggy Nolan

There’s resonance in the work of photographer Peggy Nolan, who just released a new photo book called Juggling is Easy about her experience as a single mother raising seven kids in South Florida in the ’80s and ’90s.

It’s not lost on her why her work is resonating in the time of self-representation on TikTok:

“The age that my kids were when I took those pictures, what really mattered to them was community. That’s what they cared about. To deprive them of that would have been awful — I would have paid the price.”

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