After Eden And After. A conversation with Nan Goldin

Spring sees the launch of a new book by Nan Goldin, which is always an event in the art and photography worlds, as no matter how many people try to emulate her work and no matter how desensitized to ‘the image’ we become by overload, no one attacks and caresses our senses in quite the same way. Eden And After (Phaidon Press) is an extensive survey of Goldin’s work with children in all their joys and sadnesses. In 2011 she showed an overwhelming new slideshow of children called Fireleap at Rebecca Camhi Gallery in Athens and Sprovieri Gallery in London, and this book comes from the same explorations of an extraordinary body of work.


" Most of all I want to thank the kids. Children of the present, past and future who have allowed me the pleasure of photographing them and have actually let me put them in a book. There were so many pictures of you which I am attached to, some which are still in the book and so many that had to be taken out so the book wouldn't be too heavy for you to pick up. Thank you kids for making this book. Never a mother, always a godmother, I would like to canonize my brood. Those I've known for all the years of their lives; my godchildren and the offspring of my closest friends. And the other special children I've just begun to know. "

Nan Goldin NYC 2014

IM. Nan, can you tell us how this extraordinary and beautiful book came about?

Nan. The idea of the book came from me and Guido Costa together, so its a collaboration. A lot of my recent work had been photographing children but without a book the work remained largely unknown. I had made a new slideshow of kids called Fireleap, with a music track that is all songs sung by children. In my history often my slideshows end up as books including my first book "The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency". Doing a second book with Phaidon, a decade later after "The Devil's Playground", I thought it would be interesting to visit another playground.
It took me a year to make this book because there were so many possibilities. When Jack Ritchie, my great editor and I, had finished the first final edit after about eight months we finally counted and they were 500 pictures. It was a little grandiose for a children's book so it took another two months to cut it back to 320 pictures.

...what is it that ties Nan, a woman with no children of her own, so profoundly to the world of childhood that it has recently grown into one of her major photographic obsessions resulting in hundreds of pictures? It would be easy to slip into simplistic clichés, analyzing this body of work as a surrogate for motherhood, or to see this obsession of hers as an attempt to reconnect, through the channel of art, with childhood, a realm of immediacy and truth.
In both cases, I believe, one would be indulging in a degree of romanticism that is completely foreign to the overall tone of Nan Goldin’s work, which is, above all, one of realism and political engagement, never of rhetoric or cheap sentiment.
As for sentiment, it cannot exist without the sense of bashfulness that protects and preserves it. And a child’s bashfulness is something absolutely precious, to be guarded. It has nothing to do with the adult brand of modesty, let alone that common sense of decency that politicians love to go on about.

excerpt from Bambini by Guido Costa, Eden And After

Guido Costa who I have worked with for many years wrote a profound text for the book. He was one of my many friends who edited a section of the book. The pictures of Guido and his daughter Isabella are also some of the most important pictures in book. Mainly it was done in Berlin, in photographer Markus Jans’ apartment. I did it all on paper. I refused to do it on the computer until the final layout because books don’t have light behind them so to me to edit on a computer doesn’t make sense. So we made hundreds of little cutouts and Xerox’s that covered the whole floor in Berlin which is the size of a soccer field. I would walk to the room every day and accidentally kick all the orders of the images that I have made so I'd have to start again but I had this great guy working with me named Jonas who unbeknownst to me was documenting every layout, which was essential to ever finishing the book. Then Jack came and we remade the final layout in New York working from 4pm to 4am every night.

This book is my most narrative. It begins with the children arriving on the planet from some place we don't know . It goes from birth to many stages of childhood.
And shows the ability of children to be free to be anyone they want and to take their play seriously. They can be different creatures everyday and believe in that. Its only when they start to be pushed to conform that they start to become more normalized - when society gets a whole of them.Thats the beginning of their destruction. So they leave. Thats the last chapter called "The Departure".

My premise is - why don’t we remember our lives before four? My belief at that time - at least a year ago - is that we don’t remember because we come from somewhere else and we’re still in touch with that. "There’s a story of a little girl saying to a baby do you remember God? Because I’m beginning to forget." I believe in the story. Not necessarily God but the big question that they already know the answer, and then they forget.

IM. My daughter talks of things that happened to her at a time that we lose our memories of - when she was one or two perhaps.

Nan. I don’t remember my childhood, not from before about five though I have some fleeting images from about one and a half.

IM. I do sometimes wonder if the fleeting images that I have are things I’ve fortified or constructed over time.

Nan. Of course, but that’s the problem of all memory. In the first chapter - after the arrival - there’s a picture of a girl that’s two weeks old and she’s giving me this look. You can see that this child knows a lot. It’s like she’s winking at me.

IM. That gaze really caught my eye...

The only ones who actually wish to share the mischievous destiny of those savage runaways or minor guerillas rather than dictate it, the only ones who can understand that cherishing & unleashing are the same act--these are mostly artists, anarchists, perverts, heretics, a band apart (as much from each other as from the world) or able to meet only as wild children might, locking gazes across a dinnertable while adults gibber from behind their masks.

excerpt from Wild Children by Hakim Bey, included in Eden And After

Nan. I first heard "Wild Children" read at the funeral of my close friend Gigi Giannuzzi, he was a real wild child. I definitely identify. It's a brilliant piece of writing that  articulates what I believe and what I try to say in my photos.

IM. He also writes under another name, you know? Peter Lamborn Wilson. He wrote a brilliant book on Green Anarchism called Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology...

Nan. I tried to find Hakim Bey to ask if I could publish this poem in my book. You can't reach him by any modern methods. You can only write him a letter, and mine came back from the post office unopened. Then by chance I found the actual broadsheet with that poem. The publication says when you open it ‘No Copyright. 1968 Anyone can use this as they want’.

An important part of this book is about gender and the lack of distinction that applies to a lot of kids who often have a malleable sense of their gender. They can live both parts of themselves. It's that same malleable ability that I see in some drag queens I know. Not a single adult who looked at the whole book could read the gender of a lot of the kids correctly. Some of my kids are totally androgynous and others are living opposite to the gender that they were born into. One of the most important is my goddaughter Io who lived as a boy for about 7 years. There are also beautiful feminine boys, one that seems too sensitive for this world and another who is joyously leaping in his own ballet.

My favorite chapter is called Bears Coming Tooling.The title came from a dream. It doesn’t mean anything but it feels right.It started as Bears Coming Trolling but I found out that means something evil on the computer so I changed it. In my day ‘trolling’ meant driving around and picking up girls! They climb on their fathers' heads, they belly dance. In this chapter the kids are often naked. I don't understand the judgment of some adults about these pictures who can't fathom that we are all born naked. This is where the kids are completely wild without any inhibitions. I think the most terrible thing you could do to a child is to make them feel any shame of their bodies.

IM. You’ve always been very supportive of the autonomy of children, and that’s what really comes through here. That comes across loud and clear.

Nan. That’s great, that’s the most important thing to me. I think its going to be radical. I looked into books about children. Very few artists in history had children as their major subject. True there is Lewis Carroll, Juliet Margaret Cameron, Barron Van Gloeden , Ralph Eugene Meatyard and my favorite Helen Levitt. Lately books about children are much more prevalent. A number of photographers are focused on their own children especially Sally Mann and Annelies Strba. I also discovered incredible pictures of children among the work of my favorite photographers such as the early work of Arbus, August Sanders, Peter Hujar and Anders Peterson.

There are also a million pictures of children taken in the context of photojournalism; sociological studies of poor children around the world or the most touching images of the victims of war. This book is different in that it has pictures of dozens and dozens of different children but all kids that I know personally. I made this book for the kids in the book.

Eden And After by Nan Goldin is published by Phaidon Press in March 2014'

All images courtesy of and copyright Nan Goldin