How's this for a photographer's dirty little secret: I often end up wishing I hadn't gone out of my way to see a photography show in a gallery. I've been disappointed too many times by walls full of crappy digital color prints, or by seeing good ideas overpowered by very big enlargements of images that don't demand (and sometimes can't support) the outsized presentation so popular in recent years. The good news is, with the exception of a small subset of work that really does rely on a large scale for full effect, color photography bestows the fullness of its gifts on all viewers, even those who choose to view it in a well-printed photo book. In the age of digital printing, very little (if anything) is lost in the "translation" from print on the wall to page in a book.
So I've been known to advise people to look at the book (oh yes -- in this age of digital printing, there is always a book) rather than make a special trip to see an exhibition of color photography. But I'm telling you that if you're in Boston between now and March 3, 2013, you should take the time to see Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency as a slideshow. I'm very familiar with this epic, aching work in book format (first published in 1986, it's still in print today), but I'd never managed to see it as originally presented until a few weeks ago, when This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s opened at the ICA, with a version of the slideshow looping in a gallery devoted to works grouped on the theme of Desire and Longing.
Goldin grew up in Lexington, MA and moved to NYC after graduating from SMFA/Tufts in 1978. Her photos from the late 70s/early 80s candidly document the day to day lives of her circle of friends, in and out of relationships, auditioning identities and navigating freedoms and responsibility. The work is autobiographical and beyond: a chronicle of underground life in post-punk, post-Stonewall, pre-AIDs (and definitely pre-gentrification) lower Manhattan.
Begun in 1979 and built on a core of photos from the early-mid 80s, Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a visceral "visual diary" that Goldin leaves open to public view. With no access to a darkroom at the time, Goldin shot slide film and projected her photos on nightclub walls, with live musical accompaniment at first, and later to a recorded soundtrack of hand-picked songs. Unvarnished, often harsh, but intimate and sometimes sexually explicit, these pictures feel voyeuristic, so the idea of viewing them among strangers adds a layer of tension to the experience. But the slideshow format is really how the work is best experienced. It's an unflagging stream of moments high and low, torrid and indifferent; faces and bodies engaged and disengaged, tender and hardened, glamour and sleaze and everything in between; with The Velvet Underground, James Brown, and Petula Clark to remind us that there are always pieces of the story that photos don't tell. As a book, it's pretty damned powerful, but as a slideshow it's full-on operatic, and not to be missed.
The version of Ballad of Sexual Dependency on view at the ICA runs 45 minutes, and yes, they've provided a well-placed bench (but only one, so go on a weekday if you can).
This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s is on view at The Institute of Contemporary Art through March 3, 2013.