Photo Books

American Photography, Nan Goldin

BY Vince Aletti, March 1, 2014

I’m a fan of Top 10 lists, anthologies, and collections of all sorts, so the American Photography annuals always appeal to me. Issue #29 (Amilus/D.A.P.), surveying editorial and personal work from 2012, is typical in its heft, range, and organization. Because the photographs are arranged alphabetically by photographer, there are some jarring juxtapositions, but the random nature of the mix suits a collection that brings together celebrity portraits, disaster reportage, sports, fashion, and meticulously styled still lifes of food. For someone who spends way too much time looking at magazines, the book is a reminder of how much I miss. Even though a lot of the photographers here are familiar (including Cindy Sherman, Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth, Nadav Kander, Tierney Gearon, and Roger Ballen), most of these 229 images, and many of their authors, are new to me. But once the excitement of so much fresh material has worn off, I wonder about what isn’t here, and why. American Photography pitches itself as “a time capsule of the world we inhabit and imagine,” but its jury selects from paid submissions — an enormously large pool (over 9,000 entries last year) that still represents only a portion of the eligible work. I was among the jurors in 2006 and was struck by the absence of great fashion photography; that remains a factor, and a key weakness in the time capsule. Perhaps because this is not the World Press Photo contest, photojournalists aren’t represented as well as other sorts of editorial professionals, and there’s almost no overlap between the two year-end round-ups. In the end, every juried process has its flaws, and American Photography remains a valuable cross section of editorial practice. Magazines have always been incubators for new talent (Justin Maxon, Alejandro Cartagena, Kenji Aoki, Michael Turek, and Marcus Nilsson, all new to me, make strong impressions here) and part refuge, part support system for gallery photographers (including those mentioned above) ready to mix it up with the seasoned pros (Dan Winters, Jill Greenberg, Peggy Sirota, and Martin Schoeller are among this year’s chosen). The mix of art and commerce is invigorating and instructive. This may not be the whole picture, but it’s a fat, satisfying slice of it.

Nan Goldin’s terrific new book, Eden and After (Phaidon) is the first to focus exclusively on her photographs of children. Although it covers 30 of the busiest years of her career, from 1977 to 2013, nearly all the work is new. (Some of it appeared in the excellent fashion magazine Kid’s Wear, which has published Goldin’s liveliest editorial spreads of the past few years.) Her best photographs have always been intensely personal, most often the result of longstanding, if sometimes quite fraught, relationships. In the course of time, many of these friends and lovers had children, and the kids turned into some of the most colorful and uninhibited members of what’s become known as the Family of Nan. In a book that’s sequenced like one of Goldin’s slide shows, the pictures have a chronological flow, with images of pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood building gradually to studies of budding maturity; many children reappear regularly and we watch them grow up. The setting is Goldin’s familiar version of international haute bohemia — a cozy, relatively privileged place that’s comfortable with casual nudity, gender blur, and frequent costume play. The mood ranges from manic to melancholy, a rollercoaster the photographer knows all too well, but there‘s a middle ground of sweet contentment here that feels new. Although Goldin herself is absent from the photographs, Eden is intimately autobiographical, a different window on her world. At nearly 400 pages, the book (like most godmothers) is over-indulgent, a bit too much, but it’s full of love, yearning, and pleasure: a perfect balance of innocence and experience.