In this wonderful haunting and brutally honest autobiographical documentary, Nan Golding talks about her life from her school years in 1960’s Boston, through to the 1990’s.
Now, a very influential photographer, it took a long time for Nan to be recognised as an artist. This was partially due to the snapshot style of her images, and partially to the taboo subject matter. Nan says she knew life on TV wasn’t real ife, and she sought to record every detail of her daily life through her camera.
The still images, gradually changing from Black and white Kodak prints through to glossy colour prints, move across the screen, adding to the feeling of time passing.
In 1971 Nan was living amongst the gay community in Boston, USA. The focus of her camera were the drag queens she lived with, who Nan said were “the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life”. She describes her work as a homage, and candidly describes getting her films developed at the local drug store, and the queens putting the photos into piles to see who has been photographed most. As she shows us these beautiful, laughing people, she tells the hidden stories of how they couldn’t go out in the day time and their isolation from the homophobic American mainstream society.
Nan’s photographers of her best friend and sometimes partner, Cookie, portrays a bright, vibrant party girl. Nan talks of Thanksgiving dinner at Cookie’s house – with Heroin and Turkey dinner, and parties where everyone took coke – but no-one was an addict. The early images are nostalgic, and have a recognisably 1970’s warm colour cast.
The images move on and Nan shares photos of Cookie’s wedding. The bride looked radiant, the groom was a dashing Italian, and the photos look like happy family snapshots. However, as always in Nan’s life, nothing is what it first seems, and the very next set of photos are of the young groom lying in his coffin, with his still beautiful, but dying widow grieving beside him. And the story of Cookie fades away.
Suddenly we are in the mid 1980’s. Gone is the warm seventies orange tint, gone are the laughing people, and the talk of ‘family’ dinners and parties. The images are bluer, colder; the subjects are squalid rooms and self portraits and the theme is drug abuse. With stark honesty Nan talks about her time in rehab and how she used self portraits to find out who she was. Talking in a near monotone, she drop in facts that would be inconceivable to many people, but are easily missed – like she hadn’t gone out in the daytime for 15 years!
After leaving rehab the style of her images again changes. They are brighter and become about light and people. Portraits dramatically lit by natural light, a couple kissing in the park. Nan moves back to people again, and revisits her journey exploring sexual identity and external behaviours. She shows intimate portraits of her girlfriend, with the girl gazing straight at the camera, at Nan. These move on to warmly lit series of her and her boyfriend of 2 years at various point of having sex, and she uses the photographs to examine at the distance between them afterwards. The mention of her leaving him when he battered her is almost a throw away comment.
Towards the end of this documentary, Nan returns to beautiful drag queens in differing stages of dress. She talks about the transformation of self, and the courage to manifest that, and continues to explore this theme.
The final set of images are of the stunningly beautiful Kim Harlow, a performer in Paris, and a post-op transexual, taken in the theatre dressing room. Nan shares her shock and sadness when she found out, just 2 months after the photos were taken, that Kim had died of AIDS.
Nan says that her work is often misunderstood as being about sex and drugs; but its not. As she says
“Its about the condition of being human; the pain; the ability to survive; and how difficult it is.”