Picks and Pans Review: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

updated 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/09/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Nan Goldin

Photographer Nan Goldin's "visual diary" of her friends and lovers and their milieu of clammy sheets, tattoos and dirty feet recalls the comment James Dickey made about Frederick Exley's autobiographical novel, A Fan's Notes: "No one should have had Ex-ley's life, and no one who has read it can ever forget it." Goldin's world, as recorded in these feverish color photographs, is a subterranean bog of slovenly crash pads, punk bars, thrift shop party dresses and sallow, sometimes bruised bodies sprawling across lumpy mattresses on bare floors. After reading the book some people will probably feel they need to take a shower. But affronting bourgeois notions of hygiene, taste and conduct does not seem to have been Goldin's purpose—she is much too involved with what is in front of her camera to care what the straight world thinks or to bother about contriving ways to offend it. "The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex," she writes. "The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I'm not crashing; this is my party." And, to paraphrase that philosopher Lesley Gore, she can cry if she wants to. There is a sobering close-up of Goldin's friend Suzanne, with her eyes downcast, a single tear descending her cheek; a photograph of her friend Butch at a New York bar, her clasped hands not quite obscuring a vulnerable smile, her eyes welling with tears; and a stark close-up of Goldin herself after she had been battered by a boyfriend. Her face is swollen and brown with bruises; her narrowed left eye is crimson, almost exactly the shade of the lipstick she seems to have applied with great care just prior to having Suzanne press the shutter. There's more than a little to cry about here: The men appear to be a narcissistic and callow lot, a bunch of wiry louts. The women's faces mostly describe stoicism and longing. But, in photographic terms, Goldin's eye is dry, even when it is blood-red. As she examines the bodies and the body language of her subjects, you can sense her perplexed fascination with the Great Divide of gender and her yearning, as she writes, "to figure out what makes coupling so difficult." It's a question photographs alone can't answer, of course. But these photographs, like few before them, make you grapple with the sad and compelling weight of the question. (Aperture, $39.95)

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