LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph


LIVE from Nan Goldin’s INsight conversation

Join us live from the Paramount Theater for Saturday’s INsight talk with Nan Goldin, interviewed by photographer Sally Mann.

*This liveblog is not an exact quotation of the entire conversation…but it’s as close as we could get :)


A little late, but the lights go down and guest editors Scott Thode and Kathy Ryan appear on stage.


Kathy: Whenever I’m in a gathering of the photo tribe, I find myself wondering, are other professions like this? We really are just one big family.


In an annual tradition, Vince Musi (the voice of the festival) asks, one by one, for the photographers, workshop students, staff, volunteers, everyone who makes the festival happen to stand and be recognized with applause and laughter.


Nan: Hi I just got in from London and this piece you’re going to see…oh my god I can hear myself…it’s something I did in Paris. I was invited to do something at The Louvre. I started photographing the statues and painting every Tuesday. I was completely alone in the museum. It was one of the great experiences of my life. I didn’t even know I loved that kind of art. I knew I loved it, but not much about it. It’s called Scopophilia. Peter Hujar told me what it is: It’s an incredible pleasure you can get just from looking. It’s not necessarily sexual, voyeuristic, it’s just enormous pleasure from looking. That’s what this piece is about.


The slideshow is long, an incredible number of photographs of statues and figures in classical paintings, interspersed with Nan’s own images, taken over many years, of men and women, together and alone, in moments of intimacy and confusion. Most of the classical art she focuses on mirrors the same themes in her work: love, sexuality, loneliness, dependency.


Nan and Sally take seats side by side on the couch.

Sally: I’ve got ten pages of questions, but that doesn’t seem like us…It occurs to me that Kathy Ryan put us here on stage together for a reason. We are perceived to be so strong and unflinching. Yet, I know that I’m fragile as ash. And I have the perception you feel the same. There is so much sweetness in that slideshow.

Nan: If men were like we are, they’d be called perfectionists. You probably have the same issue of people wanting to talk about your first work and not being able to get past the changes.

Sally: But we all love to talk about our new work. We’re artists, we’re always moving forward. So, what’s in your new work?

Nan: That’s the thing about really new work, you can’t talk about it because you don’t even know what’s going on yet.


Sally: The best moment is when you realize you’ve taken a photo that doesn’t fit at all with what you’re doing. Do you do that?

Nan: This project is all about that. I have this assistant I’m really close to. He’s really young but he has this incredible visual memory. And he went through all my old boxes. There are still mounds of boxes (slides) from the old day, but nobody has looked through them in years. He dug through those … a lot of these images haven’t been seen.

I was in heaven going to the Louvre every day. I was falling in love left and right there. He was digging through photographs. So it was like two parallel archaeological digs.

But I have nothing to do with Nan Goldin. She died about ten years ago. Do you know a Sally Mann that you’re not anymore?

Sally: I don’t necessarily like the person I used to be, but I recognizer her. But you feel like it was a complete change for you?

Nan: I’ve had so many sea changes. Before I was battered and after. Before I was on drugs and after. That’s not what I am talking about. I’m talking about this public Nan Goldin; she’s got nothing to do with me. This famous person, this cult figure, has nothing to do with me.

Sally: I have this sense that instead of being an artist, you became a cult figure. And America does that to people. Maybe that’s why you left America for a while?

Nan: When Bush was elected, I left. I was saying I would leave, and I thought I should do what I said for once.


Nan: But to my friends, I’m just Nan. If people believe in that other Nan, I don’t work with them.

I think of you as having the perfect life. Maybe you don’t see that.

Sally: Oh no, I’ve been extremely lucky. That’s the thing: Our lives really couldn’t have been more different. I was thinking about you and your club life. At that exact point I was getting pregnant with Emma. I wanted to have your life but it just didn’t work out. I can’t even smoke.

Nan: Oh anyone can smoke.

Sally: No I’ve tried for years.

Nan: I encourage you to smoke, it’s good for you. I’ve got to wonder who’s making money off of us not smoking. They never do anything for our good. That’s why you should smoke.

No, but I wish I had had the life that you had.

Sally: It’s boring.

Nan: Are you kidding? Riding horses, having three beautiful children. Having a husband. Having a relationship with your father. I never had children and I regret it terribly. It’s not about being boring or hip, or doing drugs. I don’t regret any of that. It’s just, I’m living in a self-imposed exile. I don’t see people.

Sally: You’re right, your life is not at all what I thought it was like. Your life is like my life. Larry caught me, I didn’t leave my farm for six weeks.

Nan: But you can ride your horses.

Sally: But you’re living in Paris.

Nan: I hate Paris. I hate the people. Me and the French don’t mix. You don’t understand. I love to ride. I love to be in the country.

Sally: I read that you fell off a horse and broke ten ribs.


Nan: He took me to Christian Louboutin’s house.

Sally: The horse?

Nan: Yeah. I was on this maiden voyage of this ship that went up the Nile. It was made for Christian, but he wasn’t there. So I had this boyfriend and he worked for Christian, and Christian fired him because of us. The boy bought the horse for me; Christian Louboutin had fired him so he was the enemy, so the horse took me there.

The first doctor they took me to was in a truck. I thought my back was broken. We get there and the doctor can’t touch me, because men can’t touch women there. We were in the desert in a totally Muslim world. The temperature was about 104 degrees. The x-ray, you couldn’t read it, it was like vintage photography. So he said, nothing’s broken.

Finally I went to an American hospital and they said you have three ribs broken. Then when I get back to Paris, it was ten broken ribs. But that all sounds so fabulous. That’s what I mean.

Sally: The living in Egypt sounds pretty good, and the young boyfriend too. I mean, my husband is OLD.

Nan: I like older men.

Sally: You can come to the farm but you can’t steal my husband.

Nan: I’ll steal your son.

Sally: Oh by all means. He needs someone to support him.


Nan: But my boyfriend, he still wants to marry me. But he’s so boring. I mean, he’s hot and the sex is great, except during Ramadan.

Sally: How old is he?

Nan: Ten? No, he’s 36. He was 28 when I was with him. I haven’t seen him in years. He keeps calling me to talk about my pussy but I’m not into it.

Sally: Let’s talk about your pussy for a minute….One thing about your slideshow I realized, all the women had their real pubic hair. All the fashion and stuff now, women are infantilized with these little wisps of hair.

Nan: Yeah, do you guys out there shave. Stand up. I’m waiting. [Awkward laughter]

There’s not a lot of nudity in the paintings. But if I had shown the pictures of my children. I have these god children. My new slideshow is opening in two weeks, all about children. These two god children in Berlin when I would go there they would do little performances for me. One went to a Turkish school, so she was showing me her belly dancing and the other is leaning over watching, and you can see their vaginas. It’s such a beautiful image about sisters. It’s been such a problem all around the world. In one place they shredded 10,000 copies of a magazine I was in because of that picture.

I did this show called Thanksgiving and that photo was part of it. Elton John bought one of my prints. That was back when my art still sold.

Sally: You have that problem too??

Nan: Oh honey.

Sally: Anyway…

Nan: Elton John lent his show of my work to this gallery in London; they told me they had wanted a show with Mapplethorpe instead. Anyway, they called the police and said, you might want to censor this photo, to get publicity. Elton John took it all down; he said if you’re not showing one picture you’re showing any of it. I was going to be prosecuted under British Law for child pornography. Elton John spoke on my behalf and that was it.

But it keeps going on. It happened in Poland too.

Sally: I had a show in London last summer too. They had a selection of the family pictures. And the week before a man had been convicted of child pornography and among his stuff was one of my books, so it was deemed pornographic. So the judge called the police and said this image from the book was on the wall in this gallery and it was a real legal problem. They called and said they were going to take the photo down. So I got Mark Stephens, who’s defending the Wikileaks guy, he’s really tough, and he and this Robertson guy tore the whole place apart and got a promise that I would not be arrested if I went to London.


Nan: So with Scopophilia, I did show children. But if you look at the paintings in the Louvre, we’ve got nothing on them. The children are naked and having sex, I mean, they are angels so they can do what they want….

So what happened to you with the family work?

Sally: Nothing really. But it’s really tricky. There’s one photo that is so illegal, “The Three Graces,” it depicts a child urinating, my lawyers say don’t even risk it.

Nan: Wait, I have a lot of pictures of children pissing.

Sally: It’s illegal to photograph a child urinating.

Nan: But it’s legal to kill a child outside of America.

Sally: The thing about pictures of children is they are up to interpretation, but urination is actually in the statute.

Nan: But that doesn’t happen in a private gallery?

Sally: Yes.

Nan: But it’s in London.

Sally: London is worse! When you go over there, I’ll give you the name of my lawyer.


Nan: The last work of yours I really looked at was the decomposing bodies in the forest…

Sally: Wait, I’m interviewing you.

Nan: No, I want to know about that work and how that led you to the work with your father?

Sally: Yeah, my interest in death. You’re sort of dealing with mortality all the way through.

Nan: This thing in London is the first thing I’ve done that isn’t about AIDS, death, loss. There’s a kids slideshow. There’s landscapes. And there’s this new work called Shapeshifting.

The three things that interest me the most are deserts, oceans, and the sky. Those are the spiritual things for me, things that are so vast that you begin to understand your size in the world. When I was a kid I met this TV newsman who was quitting his job to go around the world with a bunch of sky watchers…people who look at the sky all the time. Ever since then I look at the sky every day. It does amazing things. You think my life is so exciting; all I want to do is look at the sky. But yeah, these pictures are clouds and the horizon. I’m very interested in the horizon.

Sally: Do you put the horizon high or low?

Nan: In the middle.

Sally: Me too.

Nan: I can’t talk about this new Shapeshifting work, which is in grids. It’s the thing I care most about in the world. The grids are about shapeshifting. It’s the beginning of wanting to do kind of magic. Things about what the eye can’t see and states of being rather than people being in states. You know, I don’t have the need to photograph people any more. It’s really different to be an artists for a few years than for 30 years. You know that.

Sally: I do. I think we all begin to deal with the transitory nature of memory. But I think even the way you photograph sometimes speaks about memory. They are almost visual memories. Are you aware of that?

Nan: No, they’re just out of focus. But it’s nice to hear.


Sally: Eudora Welty was reading a short story, talking about a marbled cake one character gives to another. All these PhD students said, how did you come up with the wonderful metaphor of the marbled cake with yin and yang? And she said, well, it’s a recipe that’s been in my family for a long time.

Nan: I call it the post-rationalist world. You do what you do and let people say what it’s about, then you repeat what they say.

The first reason for my work was to remember. That’s why I’m so disturbed by the computer age. There is no way for my photographs to be real anymore. I made pictures so the world I came from, no one could revise my memory. Now, nobody believes anyone’s photographs anymore. There is a beautiful show on BBC called Machines that Rule Our Lives with Beauty and Grace, something like that [All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace]. It’s unbelievably frighting. If anyone intelligent watches this and is still on Facebook…seriously. What happened to real life, real relationships?

Sally: What happened to privacy? Do you have a web page?

Nan: Yeah. Do you?

Sally: A friend just put one together for me.

Nan: It’s nice to see what you’re doing.

Sally: It’s nice that people don’t call me up and ask stupid questions, like when I started taking pictures.

Nan: What happened to books? Books are dying. And movies and DVDs. In France at least they still believe in cinema. All those things we did as teenagers, we were so hungry for information. We would go anywhere and do anything to find out about things no one knew about. And now, it’s all just there.

Sally: Are they smarter than we were?

Nan: No, they’re stupid. I’m talking about the integrity of my images. If my goal was to make a body of work no one could revise, now in the world of digital photography I’ve failed.


Sally: When I’m working on things, I think, how much easier would this be if I just did it on the computer, when I’m burning and dodging and printing.

Nan: They stopped making my film, Sepiachrome [?]. They haven’t let me make a book in 8 years. I have this terrible contract with Phaidon. But I’m about to get out of it. There was a clause that said I wouldn’t make another book with another publisher without going to them first. And it was a horrible relationship. They took the book away before it was done; I wasn’t allowed on press.

Steidle is ready to print four or five of my books if I can ever get out of that contract. I’m going to do one more book with them and then I can do more.

Sally: Let this be a lesson to other photographers, not that anyone will ever publish a photo book again.

Nan: It ruined my life.

Sally: Well, it ruined 8 years of your life.

Nan: But look at me, how many do I have left?

Sally: Hey, we have plenty left.

Thank you all.

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  • http://alexparadis.tumblr.com Alexis Paradis

    it’s amazing to read you both now, two months earlier I was studying your work! Thank you Look3 to make this happen, it’s great!

  • Jonathan

    Nan seems to have been thinking about the BBC’s Two Programmes – All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Love and Power

  • xiangyun chen

    i really wish i could be there. But i will be in NM, will you post the interview video on the website later?

  • http://theliteraryabsolute.blogspot.com/ Rainer

    In the section 18:04 “Sepiachrome” should be cibachrome. They are prints created from color transparencies. Goldin’s work was mostly printed in New York by a guy named Stuart at Laumont Studio. Her new work sounds intriguing. I always thought someone should publish an edition of Nan’s landscapes and nature shots, which are atypical and infused with emotional vibrancy.

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