nan and brian in bed 

A Visual Analysis:

Nan Goldin is an American photographer whose work has acted as a pioneer for ethnographic documentary photography. Her snap-shot style photographs capture universally recognisable themes such as love, friendship and family. As well as exploring these more commonly represented themes, her work also frequently breaks down social taboos surrounding issues such as drug addiction and explicit sexuality. Unlike other documentary photographers of the time (such as Diane Arbus), Goldin’s photographs take place within her own social groups. Her work therefor acts as a diary of sorts, whereby she captures the painfully raw and intimate moments of her own life.

The image I have decided to analyse is titled, ‘Nan and Brian in bed, New York City, 1983’, which is part of a collection of images called ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’. The photograph depicts Goldin and her then lover, sitting in bed together. The book offers an invitation into the personal world of Goldin, as well as simultaneously reflecting upon universal concerns of the nature of relationships. When defining the essence and exploration of ‘The Ballad’, she states, “I’m trying to figure out what makes coupling so difficult” by reflecting upon “the struggle between autonomy and dependency.”

The projects photographs work together to capture the personal stories of her friends and lovers in a way that’s consistently compelling and passionate. All the images possess a brutal honesty in their depiction, whereby no area of her life remains private. The personal nature of this project challenges the relationship between subject and viewer, creating a voyeuristic tension and making them feel almost as if they were there as the photographs were being taken.

This sense of voyeurism is instantly present within ‘Nan and Brian in bed’. Even its simple denotation of a couple sitting in bed together, feels personal, as if it’s something which as a viewer we should not be permitted to see. It is only when studying the images semiotics, that we start to see all the connotations of conflict and tension between the two subjects. The rich amber colour creates a hellish and sinister environment that appears instantly discomforting. This sense of foreboding is contrasted from the typical feelings of warmth which may come from these tones. The colour could also represent sun-set or rise, perhaps suggesting the ending or beginning of a relationship, this creates a juxtaposed sense of love and hate. Many of the photographs from ‘The Ballad’ use bright colours in the same way to instantly create an emotive response. This complexity allows the viewer to consider the image beyond its face value and stands as an example of Goldin’s understanding of semiotics.

Considered from a formalist perspective, the positioning of the subjects within the image is one of the most important compositional factors.  It is the forms of the subjects which create a palpable resentment between the two, as if they’ve just had an argument. Goldin’s gaze acts as the focal point of the image, drawing the viewer towards her. She appears undeniably interested in Brian, staring longingly towards him, as if trying to read his emotions. Her seemingly resentful yet thoughtful gaze, highlights a yearning for intimacy, a desire to be seen in which we all possess. Contrastingly, Brian seems uninterested and vacant. As he smokes his cigarette and stares out of what is presumed to be a window, he appears to be wishing he were elsewhere. Brian’s lack of eye contact acts in a disempowering way and sparks the question of whether he consented to having this picture being taken. This highlights the ethical conundrums of a personal project such as ‘The Ballad’. The overall lack of eye-contact between the two subjects, contrasts from the typically depicted ‘staring into each other’s eyes’ trope, in which for example, might be seen in a Disney movie.

The intimate placing on their bed, also plays an important part in the form and emotion of this image. Subjects throughout the book are almost always displayed in an intimate light, within their own homes and relationships. In the book introduction, she talks of the bed being ‘a forum in which struggles in a relationship are intensified.’ The bed therefor becomes an element which creates tension within many of her images. A bed is usually thought of as a place of comfort, safety and warmth, yet in this frame there is an example of binary opposition, whereby it instead appears uncomfortable and cold. The bars of the bed frame surround Goldin’s head and shoulders, becoming eerily symbolic of a cage. This may be representative of abuse and possession, or perhaps feeling stuck within a relationship. This element brings a claustrophobic sense of imprisonment to the image.

Her smallness appears submissive in comparison to his strong and straight back. This contrast highlights how men are so often depicted as the stronger sex. By turning his back towards Goldin, he appears to be mentally and physically rejecting her. He looks almost ashamed as he turns away from her, perhaps revealing a sense of vulnerability or a lack of trust towards women.

His unapologetically nude state is juxtaposed with Goldin’s covered and hunched up appearance. This may demonstrate how the societal pressure for women to appear perfect, has affected Goldin, to where she may be more self-conscious than Brian. In his 1972 book ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger talks of this societal pressure, and the damaging effect it has on women. He talks of women splitting their identities into two halves, being the surveyor (how they see themselves), and the surveyed (how they think people see them). He simplifies this theory by saying “men act and women appear. Men look at women and women watch themselves being looked at.” Looking at the image from this point of view we can see that by holding herself in such a fragile way, Goldin is surveying her own appearance. She’s doing this all whilst wishing to be surveyed upon by Brian.

Continuing with this sense of disempowerment, there are several feminist conclusions which can be made about this image. The very fact that ‘dependency’ is in the title of the book acts as a form of anchorage towards a feminist approach. By using the word ‘dependency’ Goldin subtlety highlights how sexism has forced women to rely on men throughout the ages. In the introduction of the book, Goldin talks of what she believes to be the undeniable differences between the sexes, and how sexism and socialisation shape our identities. When mentioning why heterosexual relationships often fail, she is quoted saying: “maybe it’s because they have different emotional realities and speak a different emotional language’, ‘I often fear that men and women and irrevocably strangers to each other, irreconcilably unsuited, almost as if they were from different planets. But there is an intense need for coupling in spite of it all. Even if relationships are destructive, people cling together.”

When taking a feminist analytical approach with this image, it is vital to understand the context of some of the other images in the project. It is only when viewing the photographs of the project in full (in the correct order), when the audience starts to understand the relationship between Nan and Brian with more complexity. Only then can we see the progression of their relationship from being new and exciting, to becoming increasingly destructive. Throughout the book, there are several hints towards abuse, an image depicting a ‘Heart-shaped bruise’ being one of them. Although the most obvious depiction of abuse is in the infamous 'Nan one month after being battered' photograph. The image as described, pictures Goldin after being beaten by Brian in an incident which almost left her blind. The very fact that this image remains the most famous of the project raises a lot of questions. As highlighted in a 2012 lecture on Nan Goldin, professor Claire Raymond states how the popularity of this image shows a form of sadism from the viewer, she is quoted saying “a pleasure in viewing the damaged, harmed woman, haunts any reading of Goldin’s work. Why has this image, of her thousands of compelling and brilliant photographs, become the image by which the artist Nan Goldin is known?” She thus highlights the way in which sexism has allowed people to excuse, and even glamorise violence towards women. It is this image of the battered photographer, which plays an important role in understanding the content of ‘Nan and Brian in bed’.

While violence is clearly not as obvious within my chosen image as it is in the black eye picture, there are many subtle ways in which abuse is hinted at. When being aware of the context of their turbulent relationship, many of the previous points I made about the forms of the two subjects work in a way to create a feeling of a power imbalance. There appears to be a sense of fear and fragility in the way in which she’s holding herself, which possibly suggests Brian has struck at her before. It is also important to consider Brian’s point of view within this image.

Goldin talks about perhaps how he was feeling at this point in the relationship, by stating “men carry their own baggage, a legacy based on a fear of women, a need to categorise them, for instance, as mothers, whores or virgins.” This nod to Sigmund Freud’s ‘Madonna-whore complex’ highlights how the socialisation of gender roles and sexism is damaging to both men and women. Taking this theory into account, Brian was perhaps confused as to how to categorize Nan, maybe seeing her sexuality as a reason to define her as a ‘whore’. If that was the case, it may explain why he became abusive, and why he saw her to be worthy of violence. In ‘The Ballad’, Goldin talks of how idealism damaged Brian, therefor damaging the relationship. She is quoted saying “his concept of relationships was rooted in the romantic idealism of James Dean and Roy Orbison.” This displays how harmful romantic idealism can be, and how sometimes the reality of everyday conflict in contrast to this idealism, may eventually lead lovers towards violence. Although Goldin’s feminist approach brings some interesting points it is inherently biased, for how can she speak of male gender identity when she herself is female.

Terry Barrett highlights another feminist analytical approach, in his book titled ‘Criticizing photographs’, whereby he references an observation made by Diane Neumaier. When considering how male photographers represent their lovers within their work, Neumaier points out the often-exploitative nature of this dynamic. She is quoted saying “the artist expects his wife to take of her clothing, then get naked, and then after showing everybody the resulting pictures he gets famous”. ‘Nan and Brian in bed’ poses a rare scene in which the tables are turned, and it is the female capturing her naked male lover. If we analyse this image considering Neumaier’s opinion, Brian is the one being exploited. Therefore, it could be construed that he is in fact the victim within this frame, despite the strong hints towards Nan being the vulnerable subject.

As mentioned previously, Goldin defines the whole project from a feminist mindset by talking of the struggle between ‘autonomy vs dependency’. By viewing of the nature of relationships in this way, she allows the audience to question the very nature of monogamy, and why we feel the need to couple up with someone, when it will so often end badly. In the books introduction, Goldin is quoted saying “I have a strong desire to be independent, but at the same time a craving for the intensity that comes from interdependency.” The rise of feminism and equal opportunity for women has made it so that independence is often strived for, yet the desire for intimacy is still prevalent. The physical distance between the couple in this image (as well as her longing gaze), perfectly represent this constant struggle within coupling, making for an honest, yet heart-wrenching representation of the typical modern relationship. It is this sense of raw authenticity which defines Goldin’s photographic work.

Overall I think this image highlights the differences between men and women, in a simple yet considerate way. It does this all whilst dismissing the idealistic portrayals of love and relationships which are persistent within our society. After researching in great detail, I have learnt to appreciate the different frameworks and layers of this image, in a far more complex way than I otherwise would have. This photograph has led me to realise the massively harmful effect idealism has on relationships, and how it makes unhealthy partnerships so easy to develop.

I find that this photograph possesses a sense of agelessness, whereby it could be relatable at any time in history. It highlights a greater connotation about abuse within relationships, and how we all know someone who’s been through it, as well as how we all have the capability of experiencing it ourselves. The overwhelming indications of love vs hate, autonomy vs dependency, are ones which possess universal qualities, in which we can all relate. The brutal honesty present within this photograph, alongside the many contrasting themes emphasised, overall create an image that is both perplexing and unnerving.