Photography, Politics, and Death in All The Beauty and the Bloodshed

By Trey Taylor

In a 1985 essay entitled ‘Photography and Fetish’, the visual theorist Christian Metz ventured a number of observations on the relationship between film and photography. While both forms of representation seek to capture reality, ‘prints left on a special surface by a combination of light and chemical action’, they nevertheless diverge in crucial respects. Among these is the difference in ‘lexis’: the dimensions or ‘units’ by which a medium is received by the viewer. In photography, this takes the form of a silent and immobile surface, whose temporality is determined by the length of the audience’s gaze. Whereas in film, it is enlarged to include dimensions of sound and movement, and the temporality is fixed by the filmmaker as the runtime. Also posited is the film’s collective mode of reception – to be projected in a public arena, watched by many at once – against the photograph’s privacy: often (but not always) held as totem – a symbol or memory of a people or place – perceived solitarily. But what Metz finds particularly significant is the play of presence and absence in photography and moving images: the photograph persists, the slice of time which it abstracts is frozen, rendered permanent as an object of representation, while for film the succession of images cancels the previous one, and its movement cannot but run the course from beginning to end. Metz finds in these specific qualities of immobility and silence a configuration remarkably similar to death, and here the final difference between photography and film comes into view: while the latter’s movement ‘gives back to the dead a semblance of life’, photography, by contrast, ‘maintains the memory of the dead as being dead.’[1]

Laura Poitras’ documentary about the life and work of the photographer Nan Goldin, the Oscar-nominated All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), coheres around this fact. As has been noted elsewhere, [2] the film is operating immediately at two levels: first, as a biographical depiction of Goldin’s struggles against her claustrophobic upbringing and in the margins of society, the crevices wherein she produced her remarkable photo-series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; and second, as a participant-observation of Goldin’s work with Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N), an activist organisation attempting to hold the Sackler family – owner-operators of Purdue Pharma, whose ‘aggressive marketing and incentivization schemes’ [3] ensured the overprescription of oxycontin – responsible for the opioid crisis. But upon this structure are layered two more concerns: that of the charged relationship between art and politics, interrogating material questions of narrative, representation, visibility and invisibility; and that of the nature of photography, of its relationship to the play of form, time, and mortality. My proposition, once again, is that it is the fact of death that unifies all these elements.

In the first instance, the continuum from Goldin’s traumatic early life, through the composition of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and successive projects, and finally to her battle against the Sacklers and the laundering of their reputation through the art-world, is one marked indelibly by death. The film is haunted, as is Goldin, by the suicide of her elder sister, Barbara, whose perfectly reasonable ‘actings-out’ against the middle-class repression of their family unit was pathologised as severe mental illness. Expelled from the home and sectioned, Barbara’s rebellion culminated in her laying down on the railroad tracks outside Union Station, Washington. One surprisingly astute psychologist’s report inverts Barbara’s apparent affliction: ‘The mother would like us to simply tell the patient that she is not well enough to be outside the hospital, when actually there is much evidence to suggest that Mrs. Goldin is too sick for Barbara to come out of the hospital.’ (It transpires in the course of Nan’s voice-over that her mother was sexually abused as a child, herself trapped by the nightmare of bourgeois suburbia). This reversal – that the world of the reasonable is the realm of pathology, and the pathological the realm of reason – reverberates throughout the film with the force of life and death: Barbara was silenced and cinder-blocked by the weight of conformity, to the point where she could bare it no longer; Nan, in her telling, escaped only by light of the camera, and the found-family of misfits she composed through its lens.

First at a hippie free-school in Boston, then with a community of drag queens in Cambridge, Goldin’s voice developed alongside her visual style. But it wasn’t until she moved to the Bowery in 1978 – the hodge-podge dwelling of the New York avant-garde – that the power and inimitability of her aesthetic vision matured. This was the time of The Ballad, a constantly evolving selection of images taken through her years amongst the down-and-out, screened in makeshift venues as a music-backed slideshow to the community it faithfully depicted. This work condensed a style hitherto unseen: a string of evocatively uncomposed images, exposed and coloured in a way that approximated the liminality of the lives of its subjects, oscillating between dream and nightmare. As such it provoked both opprobrium (“This isn’t photography! Nobody photographs their own life!”, Goldin recalls with a chuckle of vindication) and praise (‘What Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ was to the 1950’s, Nan Goldin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ is to the 1980’s’, one critic declared).[4] Its politics were that of the everyday; the abuses, negotiations, and erotics of gendered power in the underbelly of the American eighties; survival and lust often violently intertwined. The rich subjectivity of the works, bound neither to pictorial elegance nor ‘repertorial detachment’, is what gave them their force. The Ballad became a way not just for Goldin to seize her own narrative, to make the world her own by foregrounding those who sought to free themselves from hetero-bourgeois normativity. But as the AIDS epidemic tore through the place she now called home, it also served as an unblinking testament to those lives brutally curtailed by the inaction of institutionalised oppression. As the film’s biographical thread unfurls towards the contemporary, the characters we’ve met on the journey – the actress and writer Cookie Mueller, for one, who Goldin forged what was meant to be a life-long friendship with in the queer enclave of Provincetown before moving to New York – begin to perish.

The resonance with the opioid epidemic, even beyond Goldin’s personal addiction to oxycontin, is clear. ‘I knew of no political movements on the ground like ACT UP’, she wrote in an essay for Artforum in January 2018, interspersed with images of crushed pills, Sackler plaques, and addled self-portraits, which would come to be the founding document for P.A.I.N. ‘Most of my community was lost to AIDS. I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear.’ [5] If the Ballad represented Goldin’s artistic maturity, then P.A.I.N is the culmination of her politics; and indeed the brilliance of Poitras’ film pivots on how this struggle re-contextualises her photoworks, and how, and to what effect, the aesthetic intertwines with the political. As Rachel Hunter Himes writes in n+1, P.A.I.N constitutes perhaps the most successful example of the contemporary protest tendency to treat the museum as a node or terrain in a wider political struggle, ‘interrogating the financial systems that sustain the modern museum’ and ‘denouncing […] the ties [to] the oligarch billionaires who fund their collections, exhibitions, renovations, and expansions,’ and in so doing, buy themselves the gleam of social legitimacy. P.A.I.N’s immediate demand was thus to sever the art museum from ‘the taint of big pharma’ – hence the spectacular ‘die-ins’ and interruptions they conducted in the MET, the Guggenheim, the Louvre, and more. And the leverage Goldin possesses as a denizen of contemporary art, able to credibly threaten to remove her work from collections, provides the group with a potency unmatched by purely external struggles against the museum. [6]

But what is most striking about their tactics is their plurality. Goldin and her comrades release mock prescriptions from the spiralling stairs of the Guggenheim lobby, launching what the philosopher Jacques Ranciere would call a ‘disruption of the sensible’, symbolically reclaiming these spaces for the ‘part of no part’ – the invisibilized, the wretched – to which unsuspecting visitors provide spontaneous and unequivocal vocal support. But she also speaks forcefully at a government hearing, demanding sufficient access to harm reduction and contesting the stigma of addiction; and helps raise $35,000 for a drug-testing machinery, equipping a community care centre with the technical capacity to prevent ODs. There is no question here of fetishising the symbolic over the material, the transient over the institutional – as there is, much to his detriment, in Ranciere’s philosophy (‘equality turns into the opposite the moment it aspires to a place in the social or state organisation’, he writes in his 1995 work Disagreement). [7]  And the variety of their successes – not only in expunging the Sackler name from the temples of high-art (Guggenheim, the Tate, the Louvre), but also in winning legal compensation for their victims – ‘suggest the role that museum protest can play when undertaken as part of a broader political and organisational movement.’ [8]  Nevertheless, it is to their credit that neither Poitras nor Goldin is under any illusions about the ‘justice’ capable of being delivered by these existing structures. “We followed these people into bankruptcy court”, Goldin tells the crowd at the Urban Survivors Union, North Carolina, “and we are watching them completely manipulate the justice system. There is no justice for us, only for billionaires.” (Poitras, in an intertitle, adds that the settlement of $6 billion, delivered in exchange for unprecedented civil immunity, is dwarfed by the estimated $1 trillion cost of the opioid crisis).

The question of the relation between aesthetics and its socio-political substrate, raised to militant thematization through P.A.I.N’s actions, has always been essential to Goldin’s photographic practice. Allan Sekula once wrote that ‘the meaning of an artwork ought to be regarded […] as contingent, rather than as immanent, universal, or fixed.’[9]  As an art theorist and photographer himself, Sekula sought to contest the dual folk-myths of the medium as either pure expression or pure testimony, caught between the logic of the romantic and the scientific, both of which attempt to render the image simply denotative, possessing an immediate meaning ‘devoid of all cultural determination.’[10] The conventional form of documentary comes under the second logic here – the photograph possessing the ‘legal power of proof’, of unproblematic ‘empiricism’ – which merely conceals or naturalises the ‘concrete social relations’ in which it operates and which indelibly conditions its meaning. Thus we have the work of someone like Jacob Riis, whose images of social deprivation in late 19th century Manhattan can don the clothes of objectivity and realism while reproducing a particular discourse of liberal reformism. Stolen from his subjects in police raids to which he tagged along, the images – shot with a blinding flash, rendering them ‘defenceless and terrorised’[11] – constitute his subjects as the passive masses in need of charity. In this appeal to bourgeois sentimentality, Riis tends to neutralise, as Martha Rosler writes, ‘the potential arguments embedded in the images.’[12]  Goldin escapes this putative neutrality by forcing the question of narrative, of subjectivity, and the social conditions of the two: the frequency of self-portraits in The Ballad, the desperate proximity of herself as photographer to her subjects, and the aforementioned use of colour to capture the emotional entrapment of the milieu, establish her photos as ‘testimonies’ of a different order. What we have here is not the faux-realism of documentary photography’s early reformism, which suppresses the fact that photographs cannot simply penetrate objectivity but are ‘always the product of socially-specific encounters between human-and-human or human-and-nature’. Nor even the critical realism of Sekula and others, which employs the semantics of documentary serialism to engage in a cognitive mapping of obscure systems of power (think here of Sekula’s Fish Story (1995), which tracks the sprawling networks of production, consumption, and exploitation in the contemporary shipping industry). But instead we have a realism from the margins, a realism of the cycles of hopes and dreams, whose muddy expressionism is testament to the real experience of peripherality. It asks the questions Sekula demands of a new documentary: ‘How do we invent our lives out of a limited range of possibilities, and how are our lives invented for us by those in power?’[13]

This is also present in Goldin’s use of slideshows; an ‘impure’ form which Sekula also tended to deploy, contesting the fetishisation of the single autonomous image, valorised by the museum’s walls. If Metz wrote that cinema enjoys a collective reception that photography does not, the use of slideshow confounds this split. It shifts the photograph towards the filmic – a distance which was already quite narrow in The Ballad, Goldin reflecting that the series seemed to depict ‘characters’, her friends already caught in performance for both escape (the polymorphism of identity) and survival (the doe-eyed, the hooker). Repeated showings allowed the community to cohere around their own representation of themselves and, indeed, to take charge of this representation, shouting or applauding in response to images they liked or disliked, a feedback which Goldin used to continually edit the sequences. While the slideshow does approximate the filmic in its collectivity and expanded lexis (runtime; sound), it is nevertheless the case that this collective editing is a specifically photographic quality: the extra demands of narrative and temporal intelligibility in film would not permit such an open-ended adaptation. In any case, the material support of the participative slideshow re-affirms The Ballad’s distance from that conception of art and artists as ‘the bearers of an autonomy that is systematically and covertly denied the economically objectified mass spectator,’ anchored in ‘concrete social relations, rather than […] a mystified, vaporous, and ahistorical realm of purely affective expression and experience.’[14].

A corollary of this anchoring, of course, is historicity. If the meaning of a work is tendentially ‘pinned’ by the contingent social relations and discourses that surround it, then their passing or transformation opens new interpretative possibilities. For The Ballad, this passing takes the literal form of the loss of the community it depicted to AIDS. But more than a loss, the work transforms from a living play of self-representation, enabled by the specific collective presentation, back towards the photographic form of ‘testament’. ‘Photography doesn’t preserve memory as effectively as I had thought it would,’ she writes frankly in the afterword of the 1996 photobook:

‘A lot of the people in the book are dead now, mostly from Aids. I had thought that I could stave off loss through photographing. I always thought that if I photographed anyone or anything enough, I would never lose the person, I would never lose the memory, I would never lose the place. But the pictures show me how much I’ve lost.’

Do we not see here exactly the specific dynamic of presence and absence that Metz wrote of in 1985? That the photograph, more than the film, not only allows for a ‘remembering of the dead, but a remembering as well that they are dead, and that life continues for others.’[15] And why we should want to do so, to remember the dead as dead, is a fundamentally political question.

The philosopher Martin Hagglund argues that the experience of finitude is what provides life with meaning. [16] In the same way the spatial horizon allows us to orient ourselves, to know up from down and which way we are going, the existential horizon of death is what allows us to value things, to prioritise one thing over another and to mourn them when they are gone. This desire for eternal life – which appears in Goldin’s attempt to halt loss, to freeze her subjects in time and space and never relinquish them – is, for Hagglund, the betrayal (in both senses of the word) of the desire to live on with someone or something, for just a while longer. Because eternity would do away with finitude, we would have no reason to value or care for one another. It is in this condition of vulnerability that solidarity finds its purpose: the imperative to hold one another, to keep faith with one another, against those forces which seek to commodify, instrumentalise, and discard our time. If both AIDS and the opioid epidemic viciously foreshortened the lives of so many, they did so because of systems of domination and exploitation who feed themselves by culling the time of others. To remember her subjects as dead, then – a remembrance which the silence and immobility of the photograph allows – is not to indulge in a quietism or forgetfulness but, on the contrary, to maintain fidelity to their death as an unjustified violence. It is this that David Wojnarowicz, an artist friend of Goldin’s who features prominently in the documentary, attested to when he wore a jacket emblazoned with the following: ‘If I die of AIDS—forget burial—just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A.’ To do justice to Wojnarowicz is not to plead for eternity but to take hold of the facticity of his death and struggle against those forces responsible for it, so that, in the words of an unknown Algerian poet, ‘tomorrow they won’t dare, they won’t dare to murder us.’[17]

1 Metz, ‘Photography and Fetish’, October, Vol.34, 84 (1985)

2 Fry, ‘Nan Goldin’s Art, Addiction, and Activism in “All The Beauty and the Bloodshed”’ (2022)

3 Hunter Himes, ‘Museum Pessimism’, n+1 (2022)

4 Als, ‘Nan Goldin’s Life in Progress’, New Yorker (2016)

5 Nan Goldin, Artforum (2018)

6 Hunter Himes, ‘Museum Pessimism’, n+1 (2022)

7 Ranciere, Disagreement, 34 (1995)

8 Hunter Himes, ‘Museum Pessimism’, n+1 (2022)

9 Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary’ (1978)

10 Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ (1975)

11 Van Gelder and Westgeet, Photography Theory in Historical Perspective, 169 (2011)

12 Rosler, ‘In, Around, and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography)’ (1989); quoted in Van Gelder and Westgeet

13 Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary’ (1978)

14 Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary’ (1978)

15 Metz, ‘Photography and Fetish’, October, Vol.34, 85 (1985)

16 See Hagglund, This Life: Why Mortality Makes us Free (2019)

17 Andras, Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us: A Novel (2021)

Author Bio

Trey Taylor is a writer and photographer based in London, UK. He has a BA in Political Theory and Sociology from the University of Cambridge, and an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory from the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston. His writing has appeared in the Cambridge Journal of Political Affairs, Damage Magazine, and Sublation Magazine. His work can be found at:


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