Before I begin, I feel it's probably important to mention that Nan Goldin is actually a big part of why I decided to dedicate my life to photography. When I was a student I stumbled across her infamous Ballad of Sexual Dependency and it completely transformed all of my preconceptions about what photography was meant to look like. There was something deeply fascinating about the offbeat amalgamation of normalcy and melodrama inherent in the way she photographed her subjects; and her work really made me appreciate that ability certain photographers have to reveal the sublime in the mundane - a benchmark I continue to aspire to.
Speaking at her 2009 lecture entitled Chasing a Ghost, Nan Goldin starts out with a lament for the 35mm film days and a bold indictment of the digital revolution. She speaks candidly and passionately about legitimate issues that will surely hit home with the new generation of photographers. Over-saturation of the market and the immediacy of smartphones and social media resulting in too many people taking photos in contemporary culture; to the extent that the art form is at risk of devaluing itself - a phenomenon beautifully illustrated in conceptual artist Erik Kessels' Photography in Abundance project in which he printed a day's worth of Flickr uploads (over a million snaps) and piled them up in a room.
Now, with that said, where I start to become skeptical is when Nan takes the fight to digitisation itself, proposing that DSLRs and Editing Software hinder authentic photography and strip away at the reality of an image. She says "I want you all to go out and throw away your digital cameras and get analogue cameras, and forget Photoshop, and don't add anything or take anything away that wasn't there..."
The irony is that by placing such pointed emphasis on the technologies themselves, calling for the abolition of all things digital, Nan Goldin and others alike run the risk of contradicting the very artistic principle that matters to them most - the message. Because in the end, whether you use a Leica M6 or the latest Phase One in pursuit of your vision, it's the story you're trying to tell that defines the image, and so it would surely be consistent to view the camera as neither here nor there, rather than something which degrades visual storytelling.
And with regard to the 'adding and taking away', this issue hits at the very idea of the photograph itself, and of its relationship to material reality. As Susan Sontag put it back in 1977, 'In deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects. Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are.'
So this begs the question, was photography ever actually an art of objective representation in the first place, even before the birth of the digital revolution. As photographers working in the contemporary world, we're afforded ever more profound and varied opportunity to actualise our visions, and in my view, we've come too far to simply rewind time and regress to some false idea of an infallible pre-digital era.
And it would seem as though the photographers of today are by no means driven by this idea of authenticity and adherence to truth. Acclaimed portrait photographer David Uzochukwu, for example, said in an early interview with Boost Nu, "what I want to do in my pictures is not to show reality, but to show what I saw in my head... to bring my dreams and my visions to life". So my question to Nan Goldin is: in the same vain as our neighbouring art forms, painting and cinema, shouldn't photographers be thriving to transcend reality instead of simply recording it?