CULTURE | Party Is Over
An Essay on Night Photography and Nightlife Culture
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” —Jack Kerouac, On the Road
A large body of artistic photography capturing nightlife situates itself on the delicate yet captivating line between glamour and danger. New York photographer Nan Goldin, known for her beautiful but distressing photographs of carefree youth, depicts the nightlife of raunchy, raw, depressing, dangerous, and illicit partying. Beneath her work lies a dangerous undercurrent—the subject’s party can’t last forever. A wary, frightening question of whether this is one debauchery-filled night or a doomed lifestyle looms in the viewer’s mind. As a culture, we must question the source of this fascination and pursue an understanding of what’s depicted. From watching nightlife-photography subjects engaged in sexual acts, dancing their hearts out, doing dangerous drugs, and performing illegal acts, the viewer is held in a state of simultaneous admiration, jealousy, and disgust. The dangerous behaviors celebrated and documented in these works cannot be seen as neutral; to one audience, they serve as a caring documentation of a wild bunch, but to another—the audience responsible for more art-world sales—the work is only spectacle.
photos by Manuel Rodrigues
Two artists who capture this aesthetic and sit firmly between the push and pull of these two audiences are Goldin and Manuel Rodrigues. As a local photographer, Rodrigues continues in Goldin’s iconic style by honestly and boldly documenting the queer underbelly of San Francisco and Oakland. Both these artists capture a place and a time filled with opportunity, beauty, rawness, and pain. Rodrigues documents the parts of San Francisco and Oakland resisting gentrification, and Goldin, similarly, came to fame in New York City in the 1970s, when junkies and artists had free reign over much of the now-hyperdeveloped Lower Manhattan. Although Rodrigues’s pictures don’t show hardcore drug use the way Goldin’s work does, he shoots scenes filled with eerily similar behaviors.
Looking through Rodrigues’s work, the fun party and the sad morning after are juxtaposed, but the crazy-fun night out dancing and drinking and the next-day hangover in bed and alone are only a fraction of the scenes revealed. The nights spent dancing and engaging in a multitude of activities blur into one, where the sadness of Goldin’s subjects can be found, but they also reveal beauty and love. There is a tension, a sneaking suspicion that something has got to give, so the darkly looming question throughout Rodrigues’s work is how long it can last. Will next year’s collection be of junkies, or will it be of a less wild but still beautiful crowd?
Perhaps the most obvious example of this kind of work is photographer Goldin. At 20 years old, Goldin was given an opportunity for her first solo show, which focused on the queer scene in Boston in the early ’70s. She experienced a quick rise to fame with her painfully beautiful photographs of people on the fringes of normative culture: the addicts, transpeople, and queers. Goldin’s photography was at the forefront of “heroin chic,” not exactly a positive claim to fame though an enormously influential one. Her work featured drug addicts, drag queens, sex, and physical abuse in what many bemoaned as being done in a glamorous manner.
But Goldin was no stranger to pain. She experienced a traumatic loss at 13 years old when her eldest sister committed suicide, and given a camera two years later, she decided to immerse herself in an oppressed community. After graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she moved to New York City and made one of her most famous series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, featuring the gritty underbelly of the Manhattan drug scene.
The candid photographs serve as hauntingly violent and abhorrent depictions yet offer the viewer an unusual contrast of tenderness and intimacy. Goldin almost always uses the available light of a scene, painting her traumatized subjects in the most humanizing and loving way possible despite the sickness, destruction, and pain. She manages to capture them in the warmest light and in their most tragically elegant moment. Goldin is undoubtedly tender with the subjects—these are her friends and lovers, and their gaze into her camera reveals it.
Much of Goldin’s work is a futile effort toward redemption, a plea for the beauty and passion to rise above their harsh lives. Indeed, most of her subjects in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency didn’t survive much longer due to overdoses and the AIDS epidemic. As viewers, then, we are given a look at their raw struggles and the light Goldin paints them in, while most of us have never had to bare their incredible pain.
These photographs stand between two worlds. They have a mainstream appeal precisely because of their otherness, yet a deep integrity remains because of their honesty and love for the subjects, who were shot by a photographer going through all the same pains and pleasures. The question then becomes this: Who benefits? Although the art world represents every facet of society, the art market and the consumption of these images is predominantly done by a wealthier audience, one sheltered in many ways from the risks these subjects face.
One photographer who runs in a parallel world to Goldin and Rodrigues is Ryan McGinley. Certainly no stranger to the NYC underground art scene, he was close friends with Dash Snow, a photographer à la Goldin and performance artist reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas whose career was ultimately short-lived due to his untimely death by drug overdose. McGinley’s astonishingly beautiful photographs delve instead into the pure joy, freedom, and love of youth. We are attracted to his subjects for their positive attributes.
McGinley finds and elevates that which is best about youth. He takes your favorite party, your first love, that feeling of Anything is possible and captures that moment perfectly. The Kids Are Alright certainly stands in sharp contrast to the grittiness of Goldin and Rodrigues; our love for their work is more complex because of their subject’s illegality, risks, and pains and the unsustainability of their lifestyles. I often wonder if we as a society would love Kate Moss as much if she’d never had a drug addiction—I highly doubt it.
Maybe this is OK. I know and love the exciting feeling of anything being possible, which can grow at the beginning of a Friday night with friends. McGinley captures that magical and wonderful “anything” perfectly, while Goldin’s subjects have wandered too far, their photographs serving as a warning shot. We don’t plan on following them, but we want to identify and to understand what brought them there. Anything was possible, but now they are trapped, which can be miserable, even deadly. Rodrigues is still operating in a wonderful in-between space; we don’t know which way his subjects will go, but I’ll keep watching.
The question is not whether these photographs are powerful, moving, or talented; there is no question that they are. They are problematic, however, when asking who benefits from them. Documenting queer culture, Latino life, and addiction for a larger audience runs the risk of commodification; the marginalized, queer body becomes a spectacle and hollow entertainment instead of a moving identification for the viewer. No doubt, these works possess highly disparate meanings depending on who does the viewing.
I, for one, have been involved with and witnessed the content of these works firsthand many times, and the artists capture the highs and the lows powerfully and sincerely. These aren’t the works of outside photographers helicoptering above a situation to grab a moving shot before leaving unscathed, and they aren’t one-dimensional views of “the other.” They are complex investigations into hopes, dreams, and lives.