There are few photographers whose work permeates mainstream public consciousness. Annie Leibowitz, one of the world’s foremost in celebrity portraiture, is perhaps the most recognisable working today. Comparatively, Nan Goldin’s name might not be a household one but still carries great weight, her documentarian style of social/autobiographical photos and slides occupying the opposite end of the subjective spectrum to Leibowitz.
It’s this huge body of work, more like a diary than a portfolio, that comprises much of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras’ documentary about iconic feminist photographer Goldin. All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is interspersed with footage of its subject’s recent battle against the Sackler family (former owners of bankrupt drug company Purdue Pharma, credited for the opioid epidemic in the US): Goldin considers the Sackler “blood money” pumping through major institutions’ veins a stain on the art world’s halls.
As a record of Goldin’s exuberant and sometimes tragic life, from her childhood in buttoned-up 1950s suburbs to the queer and artistic counterculture of 70s New York, All The Beauty… feels a little disjointed at first. The film cuts back and forth between Goldin’s photos, alongside her narration, and the artist’s current involvement with activist group P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), who campaign to have the Sackler family’s money and name removed from the world’s biggest art and antiquities collections. Both sections are fascinating, though for the first half of the documentary, I found myself wondering if Poitras should have kept things linear, or chosen to focus on one angle or the other.
However, as things progress and these two ‘storylines’ – if you will – become chronologically closer, the past informs the present more and more. Goldin’s formative years rebelling against parents who didn’t understand her or her late sister; curators who told her women didn’t make good artists and her photos weren’t art; mourning her community ravaged by the AIDS epidemic in the face of a complacent government… all of this informs the rage, passion and tenacity with which Goldin, a former OxyContin addict and overdose survivor herself, tirelessly goes after Big Pharma – transforming the Guggenheim, Louvre and more into protest battlegrounds. Drug bottles litter the ground, prescription notes rain down like a snowstorm and bodies are strewn across the floor, representing the half-million (and counting) lost in the opioid crisis.
Much like her hands-on activism, Goldin’s photography was unlike any other of her time, because she wasn’t a passive observer moonlighting in a foreign land but an active participant. The people she photographed were her close friends, her chosen family. As such, her viewpoint is non-judgemental, honest and intimate, without ever feeling exploitative (she even allowed her subjects to rip up pictures of themselves they didn’t like). Similarly, the strongest thing about Poitras’ filmmaking is that she provides space for Goldin to simply tell her story through her work and words. Simply put, it’s a beautiful marriage between one documentarian and another.
Today, we’re all Nan Goldin, of sorts – self-documentation is almost proof of existence in our content-centred, perma-online universes, a compulsion Goldin says she shares when explaining how she became an artist. But while her style has become ubiquitous, she remains a fearless pioneer, and there’s a humbling lack of ego in both her work and the ‘outsider’ communities to which she’s dedicated her life. The idea of radical self-love and representation has been twisted a lot for corporate gain lately. All The Beauty and the Bloodshed draws a clear and sometimes painful line between the personal and political, potently reminding us that the function of art in society is that art should have a function.
Dir: Laura Poitras (113 mins)
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed is in cinemas from Fri 27 Jan
words HANNAH COLLINS
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