The Editorial: The Ballad is Back

The Editorial: The Ballad is Back

Before Flickr, before the unnavigable mess that is Tumblr, we saw fine art photos primarily in three ways: in galleries, in magazines, and in monographs. Dusty old volumes on messily stacked shelves in art school libraries, lone hardbound bricks proudly displayed on coffee tables. You knew someone with a Mapplethorpe or Ruscha book had style, just like you knew someone with Robert Frank or Ed Weston had taste. Dentists’ offices and old people always had an Ansel Adams lying about, and every shutterbug ever had some bound collection of the same iconic Cartier-Bresson snaps. They were precious commodities, not lest because they normally cost a small fortune, but because they were published in relatively limited quantities and were objects their owners pored over.

And while legions of small publishers, as well as the most culturally savvy big players like Phaidon and Taschen have succeeded in keeping the genre very much alive in the Instagram age, the newer crop of monographs simply cannot escape their time. They are all inevitably web-influenced, sleek, hyper literate collections that lack the clarity, the humble naïveté of their forbears. And while not to disparage the web’s amplification and democratisation of fine photography (we may have never known Vivian Maier without it!), there is something else in those pre-web books that hasn’t been recaptured in recent years.

So in a nod to those heady days of yore, it’s with great happiness that we learned of Aperture Foundation’s re-release of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a fantastic collection of photos if there ever was one. In the short year or so, since I’ve been taking photographs seriously, no other collection has been more useful for inspiration. But my relationship to Ballad – and certainly that of many photographers – is much more complicated than that.

Once upon a time, as a misfit teenager in rural America, I indulged in strange transgressions. Not drugs or … , but rather in a collection of cultural artefacts: I bought and hid designer clothes and art books in my bedroom as if they were contraband. The photo books were the most important: Garry Winogrand, Minor White, Jakob Holdt, Diane Arbus… and, most importantly, Nan Goldin. Her work, most saliently in Ballad was a revelation: its images were the first time I saw the camera’s potential to dig uncomfortably under the skin. Past social mores, through put-on artifice down to a soft, compromised, imperfect humanity. It wasn’t the deer-in-the-headlights I’m doing this because I know it’s provocative discomfort of Diane Arbus, but a far more honest, far less pretentious “other-ness.” I identified with these photos. And feel better about being human when I see them.

As a footnote, 2DM’s Skye Parrott was once Goldin’s protégée – check out her work for a more youthful, yet still very Goldin-esque eye.

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