The Devil's Playground

Nan Goldin is a photographer whose work is a record of her life. If this were the 19th century, she might be called a diarist. Her formal compositions have depicted her friends in candid moments—in bars and clubs, funky bedrooms and bathrooms, hanging out, having sex, doing drugs, looking warily at each other, themselves or the camera. Often these characters were estranged from society, but not necessarily from each other, and especially not from the photographer. Anything and anyone Goldin shot were intimate to her. In exhibitions and in books, she has included some self-portraits, a few of which presented devastating views of her own self-destructiveness. But, she suggests, no portrait of her could be complete without the people she loves and what’s around her. ‘‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,’’ the work in which she first documented her friends and herself, her scene, forged a genre, with photography as influential as any in the last 20 years.

Her sprawling new book, The Devil’s Playground (Phaidon), jars loose memories of her early photographs. As before, she presents what she has and likes in front of her—breakfast on a tray, friends having sex, and young, nude men and women. But now her stage is broader, set in a more expansive world, maybe it’s global, and the characters and scenes have changed.

The book opens with large-scale vistas of the natural world and friends dwarfed in it: men in blurred landscapes; fiery red and somber blue apocalyptic skies; single characters floating in placid seas; and the base, or face, of a gnarled, grotesquely green redwood tree. Goldin tells her most recent life story in pictures of places she’s been—now, instead of the old bars and clubs, they are romantic countrysides or beaches, elegant hotel suites, balconies and terraces.

Goldin also turns her eye to biological families, a grouping that was absent or infrequent in her previous work, and even includes a series with her own parents and a photograph of her brother. Handsome parents frolic with their lovely children. The pristine portraits of her friends’ children nestle against shots of the parents serenely touching and kissing. Goldin hopes to expose unguarded instances of sexual and familial love, maternal and paternal affection.

In one series, a couple and their son roll around on the bed, the parents alternating between attention to the child and each other. In another, Goldin shoots a woman on one bed, a man on another; he’s tenderly touching their child’s head. A sequence of the couple making love follows, with their child out of the picture. Goldin’s mothers are sexual beings, never just maternal. A nursing mother’s breast will also be an object in her husband’s mouth.

All children wonder about their parents’ devotion to each other and to themselves, and compete for their love. Freud said that it was the primal scene children longed to see, that sexual curiosity was the source for the desire to know. Everyone’s Garden of Eden. Any photographer is outside the scene, watching. But wanting to get inside the familial embrace, or, like a child, into its parents’ bed, Goldin is necessarily pitched outside the family’s frame, and as a result the collection carries a startling melancholy.

The many formal, austere portraits of Goldin’s friends add to that feeling. Often they are standing or sitting, darkness surrounding them. Like the photographer, they are solitary, and, looking at her solemnly, they could reflect her singular position. Set in the dark or against a blurry background, Goldin’s subjects feel as if they are cut from time, disconnected, not anywhere or in any place. Oddly, place seems unimportant here. Even the book’s numerous landscapes seem to represent just an outside to an inside, an impersonal, exterior world to an elusive interior one. Or maybe the pictures document a huge, gorgeous, alienating world.

A section titled ‘‘Empty Rooms,’’ which lies at the center of the book, insists on what’s lost or gone. Goldin is traveling, staying in hotel rooms, visiting friends, returning home and leaving. There’s a portrait of a plumped pillow on a bed, rumpled sheets and two pillows that stand in for bodies that once lay there, a mirror that reflects light only on an ordinary bureau, golden paintings above a bed’s backboard, and all are stage sets for memory. Juxtaposed with those images are a photograph of Christian Schad’s painting of a masturbating woman, taken in Zurich, and a fire in Napoleon’s Elba fireplace. In a way, the two photographs disrupt the narrative flow, but then remind the viewer of other ways to be on your own, by having sex alone or by being an outcast or prisoner.

Hotel rooms usually mark transitoriness and freedom from daily life, but they’re haunted by the many bodies that have passed through. The photographs are also haunted by her absent friends, some of whom have died and some of whom are far away. Temporary stations themselves, the empty rooms emphasize the inadequate hold anyone has on life, how it all just goes, finally. So the collection ends with religion and death, which makes sense, since Goldin’s work is about how a life spans and spins, sometimes out of control. Fire, skulls and crossbones, skeletons in monks’ robes, votive candles blazing. The last image is a tombstone for a 14-year-old: ‘‘You Never Did Anything Wrong.’’ 

An earlier artist’s work comes to mind: Michelangelo Antonioni’s movie Blow-Up. In it, the photographer becomes a private detective. That transformation—and metaphor—influenced a generation of artmakers. Like Mr. Antonioni’s photographer, they wanted to enlarge the event, to get closer to the scene. Goldin investigates intimacy, her large-scale photographs even blow it up. Her work asks if an ineffable feeling or experience can be visualized, and, when it’s photographed, if it is available to others. Do we feel it, too? What do we see?

In these photographs, the artist/detective Goldin searches for secret, buried meanings, to find what is beneath the surface of a look that a photograph acknowledges but can’t explain. Here, mystery, enigma and sadness shadow the beauty of individuals, couples, children, rooms. Something’s missing, something’s wrong. Remember: the collection is called The Devil’s Playground. St. Augustine contended that evil was the absence of good, since God wouldn’t create or make evil. The Devil was absence, pure nothing. Maybe what’s not here, what’s left out or lost, is as significant as what is.


Share this essay