Nick Hackworth

Nan Goldin: Devil's Playground, Whitechapel Art Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Stained red by blood and sitting uneasily amidst a welter of bruises, the state of Nan Goldin’s eyes, caught in a merciless self-portrait, provokes one of the only truly moving moments in this exhibition. It seems that Goldin has been a victim, not only of domestic violence, but also of her own success.

Since the late Sixties, this US photographer has been taking intimate snapshots of her friends in the bohemian demimonde she inhabits. She has recorded them going through the entire and predictable gamut of human emotions and states: laughing, crying, partying, making love, taking drugs and dying. But this form of human reportage, informed by the snapshot aesthetic that Goldin herself pioneered, has spawned so many imitators in the worlds of art and fashion, of both form and content, that these images have been robbed of their full impact. It’s only when Goldin turns the camera on herself that you are shaken into accepting that the images record real lives.

To these lives, Goldin has added a coherence and a narrative. Among the 300 photographs crowding the walls at her first UK retrospective are some of Simon and Jessie, a young couple whose lovemaking is elevated to a universal symbol for first love. More poignant still are the images of Cookie Mueller, an actress and friend who Goldin photographed between 1976 and 1989 and transformed into a personification of transience. Here is Cookie tearful at her wedding and others tearful at her funeral; she died of Aids in 1989 at the age of 40. This example takes you to the heart of Goldin’s work. While her style and content may have been ripped off and thus cheapened, the compulsiveness with which she has photographed those around her has given her work a staying power it would be churlish to deny and difficult for her imitators to appropriate.

Until 31 March. Tel: 020 7522 7878 (recorded information) or 020 7522 7888