DEGREE THESIS (Original text).
TITLE: APPROACHING A PHOTOGRAPHIC DIALOGUE;
AN INVESTIGATION IN TO THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE OF THE
GREEK TRAGEDY OEDIPUS THE KING AND THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF NAN GOLDIN.
1. THE FORMAL EXAMPLE OF OEDIPUS THE KING
1. THE FORM OF THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE
1. THE CONTENT OF THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE AND THE DIALOGUE
1. THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF NAN GOLDIN, FROM 1972-1983
1. THE FORMATION OF HER NARRATIVE
1. THE CONTENT OF HER INDIVIDUAL WORKS
1. THE PHOTOGRAPHY OF NAN GOLDIN, FROM 1984 – PRESENT
1. THE CYCLIC LINKAGE
1. THE CREATION OF THE DIALECTIC
FIGURE ONE: Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, USA, 1983
FIGURE TWO: Nan one month after being battered. New York City, USA, 1984
FIGURE THREE: The Hug, New York City, USA, 1980.·
FIGURE FOUR: Anthony by the Sea, Brighton, England,1979.
FIGURE FIVE: Gostscho kissing Gilles, Paris. France, 1993.
FIGURE SIX: Cookie at Vittorio’s casket, New York City. USA, 1989.
FIGURE SEVEN: French family before the bath, Sag Harbour. USA. 2000.
FIGURE EIGHT: Ulrika. Stockholm, Sweden, 1998.
In this thesis I will specifically examine the formal narrative structure of both the photographic
work of Nan Goldin (1954 -), and the Greek dramatic tragedy Oedipus the King (430 B.C.). With
this investigation I aim to show that the principal elements of this Greek tragedy, can be inferred from the structure of Goldin’s work (from the period between 1972 – 1983). In a general sense I aim to show that the formal structure of Greek tragedy is still achievable within contemporary art forms.
My interpretation of this Greek tragedy has been circuitously influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). In his book The birth of Tragedy, he extolled the original
qualities of Tragedy as the greatest artistic achievement. As a classicist Nietzsche understood Greek Tragedy as essentially containing two polar opposites. He also noted the play Oedipus the King was a superior example of Greek tragedy, which contained a two-way dialogue, between both audience and the performers on the stage.
Although Nietzsche’s views are not discussed within the essay, they should be regarded as the underlying influence for both my interpretation of Oedipus the King and also the photographic
work of Nan Goldin. Other important books include The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Sophocles
1 Identified as ‘the Apollo – Dionysian duality’. For Nietzsche these two Greek deities (Apollo and Dionysus) respectively, symbolised both freedom and repression, of the emotions.
‘The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus iii, and also COSTA, G. Nan Goldin
55, Hong Kong, Phaidon, 2001.
The story of Oedipus is derived from a Greek ancient myth2 It charts one families rejection of their son (Oedipus) when he is born, his search for identity, his unintentional murder of his father and his
unpremeditated marriage to his mother. In many ways therefore this play is based around the bonds of family, which is also implicit within Goldin’s work 3 .
Goldin’s childhood was troubled by her sisters’ suicide. Which was the result, according to Goldin, of the repression of her sexuality, influenced by the dominating role of her parents and home environment. Goldin’s photographic career began, when she left her family home following this tragic event. This event introduced her to American sub-culture and stimulated her search for a personal identity.
In the first chapter I will examine the formal bond between past and present, alongside myth (Religion) and drama. I also aim to examine the individual characterization of the figure of Oedipus, with the opinion that he is an embodiment of the polarities symbolic of the entire play4.
In the second part of the essay I will examine most directly, the more disturbing aspects of Nan Goldin’s photography. To establish if these photographs (from the period, 1983 – 1994), have been
2 This myth was first recorded around the period when a uniform religion was established in ancient Greece.
4 This idea is particularly influenced by the writings of Nietzsche.
presented by the artist herself, to be interpreted as tragic (in the original dramatic sense). Her work from this later period is compared with her previous work (from the period 1972 – 1983), as I
believe her more tragic photographs documenting Aids, condition the understanding of her overall work.
In the third part of the essay I examine the photographers’ later work (from the period 1994 – 2001).
Many commentators see this work as her most introspective work, which followed the death of a
number of her close friends, to the Aids virus. As a result, Goldin departed, almost completely from the close circle of friends whom she had lived with for a number of years. I aim to show how this
departure, informs this current body of work.
Overall this investigation into Nan Goldin’s photographic work and the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King, attempts establish ostensibly5, how this classical art form can be seen in her contemporary artwork.
I understand ostensive as meaning ‘pointing to the quality ‘ (Penguin dictionary), as opposed to describing it directly.
i NIETZSCHE, F, ‘The Birth of Tragedy ‘ The Birth of Tragedy and Genealogy of Morals, Golffing, F, (Translator) United States of America, Anchor Books, 1956.
ii GOLDIN, N. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Heiferman, M, Holborn, Mand Fletcher, S. (Editors), Hong Kong, Aperture Foundation, 1986.
iii FAGLES, R. (Translator), OX, B. (Introductions), Sophocles ‘The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, United States of America, Penguin Books, 1984.
The Greek dramatic tragedy Oedipus the King, has been described as “the most brilliant example of theatrical plot, the model for all to follow” and is regarded as the epitome of Greek drama. The
myth it is based on has indeed been retold and reinterpreted by many successive authors. In this chapter the plays formal structure and content are examined. Firstly I examine key stages in the play and their relation to its mythical background and religious function. Secondly I examine
Oedipus’ characterisation and his significance to the overall play.
In the play itself, Oedipus is the king of Thebes, and the citizens of the town are dying as a result of a plague. Oedipus try’s relentlessly to find the cure. He discovers that the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, Laius, must be found before the plague is lifted. As a result of his determination he realises he had unintentionally murdered Laius, who turns out to his father, and that he married his mother, Jocasta, who later commits suicide. The play reaches its dramatic climax, when Jocasta
hangs herself, and Oedipus, with the pins from her robes, blinds himself out of sheer despair.
The myth this play is based on was widely known by the original Greek audience, as it was passed down through the generations from the time of Homer in the eighth century B.C., it describes
Oedipus’s foretold destiny, by the god Apollo, his search for identity and how he became king.
This theatrical transcription was therefore very much a part of the Greek cultural heritage. The
Greek audience understood that Oedipus’s ultimate fate was foretold to his parents before he was born. This information was central to realising the significance of the events of the play.
The formal structure of the play is dependent on these mythological origins. Greek theatre began as a rationalised form of worship to the Greek god Dionysus, the god of alcohol (among other
things)1 Dionysus’s followers were required to ‘lose themselves’ within the cult that worshiped
him. In Greek tragedy a group identity was formed (to symbolise the cult) by a chorus, which was comprised of representative members of the public. The chorus made general comments on the
events of the play. This helped in creating a dialogue between the members of the audience and the actors of the play.
The plague in the play, in this religious context, was sent to Oedipus as a form of Ate, or
punishment from the god for his material success. But also for the mortal power he showed in
killing Laius. His punishment is miasma2, which not only affected the individual; it also depleted or corrupted those around him.
1 Before the fifth century B.C., worshipers of the cult of Dionysus engaged in orgiastic dancing. They also consumed alcohol and other narcotics. The cult of Dionysus became the state religion, shortly after Democracy was formed in Athens (around the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.).
2 In ancient Greek religion miasma could mean ‘hereditary guilt’, similar to the notion or original sin in Christianity.
Source: DODDS, E.R, The Greeks and the Irrational, United States of America, University of California Press, 1997, p 36.
The form of the play, with its mixture of old religious beliefs and current, modem day problems,
encouraged the audience to empathise with Oedipus, as his struggles against the over-riding power of fate (or Moira), were also theirs’. It also made the audience fearful and respectful to the gods. This delicate balance between pity and fear produced religious elements in the formal structure of the
play, produced the tragedy’ s primary function, a cathartic effect and the purging from ones’ deepest fears.
Various theorists down the years have given their interpretations of the play. One such thinker Sigmund Freud, describes Sophocles’s work as an exhibition of “our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first murderous wish against our father”. Although, to a certain extent this is a valid view supported by the ever-present primordial urges in the play, the interpretation is not important in understanding the plays continuous success. We must look closer at the role of the tragic protagonist to see why the success and popularity of this particular play has been sustained.
In his characterisation of Oedipus, Sophocles has been criticised for not dealing directly with specific religious problems, as Aeschylus did, or with issues of the triumph of reason, as Euripides had3• But instead Sophocles concentrated on his individual characterisations, and their individual conflicts. He did not discuss these topics directly; instead he discussed them ostensibly through the
3. In the history of Greek drama, Aeschylus lived shortly before the time of Socrates, while Euripides was a later playwright who embraced the scientific method of his day.
inherent qualities of his tragic protagonists. Oedipus’s struggle for liberation from the plague, throughout the play, reflected the contemporary view that “man is the measure of all things” (stated by the contemporary scientific thinker, Protagoras), that human destiny could be forged by ones
own free will. This is contrasted with the fact that ultimately, Oedipus’s actions remain fated.
In the play Oedipus assumes apotheosis when he claims “I’ll bring it all to light myself … I am the lands avenger by all rights and Apollo’s champion too… I’ll rid us of this corruption”. For this
arrogance Apollo punishes him, as the audience already knows.
In the play Oedipus is both free and fated, and as Nietzsche has stated, because of this “it seems to us that we can fathom their [the Sophoclean hero] innermost being”. With this statement I believe Nietzsche is saying that the hero’s inner conflicts, are also our conflicts and struggles. I feel that the conflicts’ implicit in the play (symbolised in fate and free will) are also implicit in the formal
structure of the play4.
Identification with this struggle creates empathy, but it also creates fear. Fear that, in a sense his qualities, which we admire, in his search for the truth, will lead us also to a similar fate.
4 This interpretation has in-art been influenced by the writings of Goethe on the subject of tragedy. Goethe had an “unorthodox interpretation of Aristotle’s catharsis, as an effect only likely to be produced in the structure of the play itself’. Source: www.brittannica.com Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, by Elizabeth M. Wilkinson.
I feel that the form and the content of the play are in agreement5• I feel that the content of Oedipus’ characterisation has been portrayed as containing strict polarities. While at the same time the form of the play itself, expresses a strong bond between past and present, pity and fear and most
noticeably fate and free will. The polar opposites expressed in the play Oedipus the King, are I believe its most important quality.
Rather than contradicting each other.
In this chapter I will examine the work of photographer Nan Goldin in respect of the principal qualities of Greek Tragedy examined in the previous chapter.
‘Nan Goldin’s work is difficult to separate from the events of her life. In her first book The
Ballad of Sexual Dependency. she describes her work as “the diary I let people read’. The
majority of her work surrounds her experience of American subculture between the early nineteen seventies through to the late nineteen eighties. As a result, Goldin’s work as a whole can be
examined as a narrative form. Like the Oedipus tragedy, many of her works intimately document the relationship “between truth and stimulation, and individual and collective histories”.
When examining Nan Goldin’s work as a self-contained narrative. Her work can be seen to exhibit a certain cinematic quality, giving the impression of being in a particular sequential order, apart for the chronological. Within this order like in most feature film movies, there is contained within, a
beginning, a middle, and an end (open or closed)1.
works from The Ballad of sexual dependency such as ‘Nan and Brian in bed, 1983’ (see figure
one), show Goldin lying in a bed, with an ambivalent facial expression, as she looks discreetly at her partner.
Nan and Brian in bed, New York City. USA, 1983
This photograph is seemingly meant to express the duality between her “desire for further contact, while at the same time showing a sense of apprehension”‘. It has been commented that this
photograph “succeeds perfectly in portraying an intimate relationship”. This photograph is just one example, according to Goldin, of her obsessive need to record every detail of her life. She feels this
from the immense loss she felt following the suicide of her sister.
The photograph of Nan and Brian in bed is in many ways a microcosm of Goldin’s entire editing technique. This photograph therefore shows that Goldin intends her work to be read, as it were, as a narrative statement6 Also in the way the composition includes a smaller photograph of Brian,
expressing quite a different attitude towards Goldin, than shown here. Within this singular
photograph there are relations drawn with other photographic documents, which are included so as ostensibly relate to different aspects of the subject within the single frame. In many ways this editing technique is similar to that used by the traditional photographic essay, such as those used by
Life Magazine, in particular.
This method comprises both the practice of journalism alongside aspects of traditional
documentary photography seen as far back as Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean war, for example in the photograph ‘Valley of Shadow, 1855’, which shows a desolate landscape littered
with small cannonballs among the rubble. In such cases the particular aspect of the subject that the photograph records merely points towards a particular quality associated to that subject, therefore
the subject is only identifiable as such, when a text caption, or in Goldin’s case, another photograph referred to. Although, it seems to me that there are marked differences between Goldin’s work
and the photo-essay. Her work does not follow one singular narrative theme, but many, and her subject is not a material subject (like the Crimean War), but the intangible subject of the self.
Which, I believe was implied in her statement ”The Ballad of sexual dependency is the diary I let people read’,6.
To a certain degree, in order to realise the full significance of this photograph, an understanding of the
photographs wider context is entirely necessary, as Goldin’s partner Brian was later to severely
physically abuse Goldin, nearly to the point of blinding. (See figure two).
Nan one month after being battered, New York City, USA, 1984
Upon reflection, there are many aspects of Goldin’s work which can be seen as images documenting the simple experience of her surroundings, images recording “situations with no particular story
behind them”i. These images even when shown alongside her better-known work, seem to deny the common categorisations, that Goldin’s “pictures [are] of the squalor of the life of her friends”i.
Such descriptions in my opinion disregard the complexity of her work.
Images such as The Hug, 1980 (see figure three), is one example of Goldin’s work, which I feel can be appreciated as a photograph, distinct from the more tragic photographs surrounding, Aid’s or
Goldin’s physical abuse.
The Hug. New York City. USA. 1980.
Anthony by the Sea. Brighton.
The photograph ‘Anthony by the Sea, 1979’ (see figure four), may also be appreciated apart-from the more tragic photographs. In this photograph a male figure can be seen in a darkened room, with his gaze fixed on a hazy seascape, visible through an open window. Visually it is a strongly
contrasting shot, with deeply saturated colour with compositional qualities reminiscent of David
Hockney’s painting of interiors, in the nineteen seventies. While at the same time her photograph may be seen as a symbol for a particular psychological mood. This work is a refreshing alternative to the many poignant and graphic images which make up her back catalogue.
Goldin’s work from 1994, seems further removed from clear relations to the rest of
her work. A number of her photographs from the period nineteen 93 to the present, appears to show documents showing a religious interest, which were not previously shown. Her works from this period have been described as “introspective”. They seem detached, non obtrusive and quiet.
Although the religious subject matter of these photographs cannot directly be related to her
previous works. If we consider them in relation to the events of her life, they seem as “Oedipai7 eactions to”1 the loss of ‘The family of Nan’. Marked by the death of Gilles, Vittorio and Cookie
See Figures five and six), but also the loss of her parental family, following the death of her sister.
Gostscho kissing Gilles, Paris, France, 1993.
Cookie at Vittorio’s casket, New York City, USA, 1989.
Relating to the Electra complex, rather than the Oedipus complex described by Freud.
While photographs such as ‘The Hug’ and ‘Nan and Brian in bed’ may to a certain extent be seen as individual photographic documents. their full significance may not be fully understood, until considered as part of a whole. As we should not overlook the fact that our interpretation of these works is largely dependent on what edition of events, Goldin herself allows us to consider.
The empathetic identification with the subjects of Nan Goldin’s photographs of the tragedy of Aids encourages the viewer to “become an active participant in the taking of the picture, [by] reconstructing what went before and the circumstances in which it was made”. Like Greek tragedy this empathetic identification creates a kind of collective dialogue between the work and the viewer. This sense of truth by agreement also comes across when Goldin describes, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read”. Although when viewing her most recent work, I feel that this statement takes on quite a different meaning.
“By far the biggest internal change in her work since 1994 is revealed in her recent pictures of
people”. Her earlier photographs which were very intimate and involved, although now they are replaced by the plasticity, which is created as a result of the more “self-conscious foreboding and self-historicizing content”.
The spirit of this more recent work is certainly more melancholy, and in comparison with her other work, these current photographs are also more pensive. With pictures such as French family before
the bath, Sag Harbour, USA, 2000 (see figure seven), in the same sense as before, these works
draw relations to other stages in her work. The French family evokes a kind of cyclic connection with ‘The family of Nan’, but_ also her natural family, although with the photographs from this period, the connection seems quite calculated.
Her recent photographs of children are very “clinical, still and emotionally repressed”P. They seem like cold and retracted adorations of children she is afraid get close to. This cautious approach is
perhaps brought on by her lack of control over the situation. Where before the people who
surrounded her gave her comfort and made her feel like she belonged, now at best they are like distant and nameless relatives (see figure eight.).
Figure seven. (Picture, not shown here)
French family before the bath, Sag Harbour, USA, 2000 (not included).
Ulrika,Stockholm, Sweden, 1998.
If we look at her work as a self-contained narrative the present work seems like a conclusion or at least a synthesis of her life story. The notions of the family and her cold detachment from her subjects seem similar to the conclusion to Oedipus the King. As in the final stages of the play, Oedipus is separated from all bonds of fate and family; He wonders aimlessly, with little of the determination to find the truth that he once had, as his unconscious search for his own identity was realised. In the final stages of the play Oedipus is able to contemplate what his search had realized. In a similar sense, Goldin has achieved the independence from her family bonds, which had been her initial wish.
Like other great works of art which purge and give meaning to human suffering’, there needs to be a protagonist whom the viewer can identify with. In these most recent works Goldin rhetorically positions herself in that role. The dialogue present between photographer and subject, and photographer and viewer in her earlier works, is now inhibited by the presence of the photographer.
The insight into the subjects’ emotional self is denied, instead her subjects become truncated to metaphors for her own sense of loss.
To the best of my knowledge the following interpretation has not been made before. I feel that Nan Goldin’s overall work creates dialectic8 Not in the sense that it is dialectic “between art and life” (I understand the dialectic as the Hegelian dialectic, comprised of Thesis, Antithesis and synthesis. Source: www.Marxist.org (dialectic).
rather one, which merges the events of her childhood with those of ‘The family of Nan’, into her most recent work.
Based within this way of thinking, the events of Goldin’s childhood become her initial thesis, which conditions the overall understanding of her work. The antithesis is the repression of her sexuality, caused by the conditions imposed by her childhood environment. These conditions become opposed when she leaves home to live in Boston, with her new ‘Family’. Following the tragic events that brought her new way of life to an end, her synthesis is based in her current work, which in my opinion is an amalgamation of both the previous stages.
- Goldin’s later photographs show little of the documentation of couples, which dominated the majority of her work from the early seventies through to the early nineties. While the notions of the family unit that have been present throughout her work, assume dissimilar forms in her more present work.
If we distinguish these three different phases in her narration 9, we can see differing levels of sensitivity. In the early work many of her photographs were voyeuristic in a style similar to Diane Arbus, as at times Goldin has photographed “very much as a tourist or an empathetic collector of unusual species”5•
9 The first period: 1972 through to 1983. The second:1984 – 1994. The third: 1994- present.
As Nan began to accept the influence her family ties had on her life and her work, I believe her work began to echo this idea. As Goldin’s early photographs, such as ‘Anthony by the Sea, 1979’, do not indicate this sense of family bond, I feel. that the artist has deliberately attempted to create a kind of self-contained narrative, based around Goldin herself and centred around her notions of the family (possibly to distinguish her work for Arbus).
While other contemporary photographers such as Richard Billingham have specifically made the notion of the conjugal family central to their work, Goldin is interested in family relationships, rather than concentrating on the traditional nuclear10 family structure. In this sense I feel Goldin also departs from the style of other photographers of the family, such as Edward Strichen in his Family of Man, but also the nineteenth century photographer Julie Margaret Cameron and also Clementina Howerden; photographers who have set a trend for the photographing of this most important of photogenic subjects. As an alternative, by rejecting these traditional norms, Goldin has created a body of work, which is at once, personally identifiable and also universal.
10 The nuclear, or conjugal, family is the basic unit of family organization in virtually every society. (Source: Britannica.com)
FAGLES, R. (Translator), KNOX, B. (Introductions), Sophocles ‘The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the
King, Oedipus at Colonus, United States of America, Penguin Books, 1984, p 131.
R. Fagles (Translator) B. Knox (Introductions) “Oedipus the King” The Three Theban Plays, United States of merica, Penguin Books, 1984, p 167.
http://www.angelfire.com/goth/lord bathory/sec9.htm Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy . G, COSTA, Nan Goldin 55, Hong Kong, Phaidon, 2001, p 3
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G, COSTA, Nan Goldin 55, Hong Kong, Phaidon, 2001, p 4 www.bjp.co.uk Nan Goldin
www.bjp.co.uk Nan Goldin
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http://www.artforum.co m/inpr int/id=3457&pagenum=2 Nan goldin review of Whitechapel exhibition
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AGLES, R. (Translator), KNOX, B. (Introductions), Sophocles ‘The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the
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I have approached the investigation of the Greek dramatic tragedy Oedipus the King from the position that the polar opposites implicit in the play are its most important aspect. After examining both the narrative structure of the play and the characterisation of the protagonist, I feel that the unique characterisation of Oedipus played the most decisive role in achieving the tragedies unlimited religious function.
The tragic event that resulted from the conflict between fate and free will, was not just rooted in Greek religion, it was a serious comment on human nature. This notion that human nature is in constant conflict between two polar opposites, I believe is essential to the play. For the audience of the original production, identification with the tragic protagonist was paramount, if the play was to achieve its cathartic effect. Therefore, as this tragedy is regarded by many as ‘the greatest example’
of Greek Tragedy, I feel I can say with a degree of certainty that the polarity symbolic of Oedipus’ characterisation, are the most important attribute to Greek dramatic tragedy.
In respect of this view, I have investigated the work of photographer Nan Goldin between nineteen seventy-two through to nineteen eighty-four. Conducted in a similar method as the previous
chapter, I began by examining the most tragic aspects of her work.
As a result of examining these works in relation to other stages in her narration, I found that I understood each photograph more clearly. Therefore I feel that the context, which, she constructs is the most important aspect of her work. Within this chapter I also examined photographs from this period of her work, which may also be approached as photographs distinct from a tragic context. Although I found that these photographs, in a certain but indefinable way, were inseparable from the wider context of her overall work.’
In the final chapter I examined Goldin’s most recent work. Photographs, which seem quite
removed from the intimacy she achieved in her previous photographs, but work, which I feel does not achieve the same degree of dialogue with the viewer, than she had previously. Of the works
discussed, I feel that Goldin has intentionally photographed scenes reminisant of her previous work, in order to stimulate notions of interconnectivity with the events of her past. I also feel that
with these most introspective works, Goldin is attempting to subjectively form our interpretation of her overall work, away from her individual subjects into a singular investigation into the self.
I feel that the findings from chapters two and three are in part inconclusive. I feel that further investigation into the artists’ psychological character would have established a more persuasive
argument. Also, that although it was not my original intention, more direct linkages between the Greek tragedy and Nan Goldin’s work would have created a more persuasive argument.
Possibilities for future research may include investigating the narrative structure of more contemporary tragedies, such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina relation to Goldin’s work .
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1. Zeff, Lisa, ‘Leni Refenstahl’, The History Channel, August 2002.
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