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Book Review: Eden and After


Book Review Eden and After By Nan Goldin Reviewed by Blake Andrews After studying Nan Goldin's recent book Eden and After, I wanted to look through one of her older books to remind myself why I liked her photos. I pulled out my tattered copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency from the shelf. It was my first time thumbing through it in a while but the photos were just as powerful as I'd remembered.

Eden and After. By Nan Goldin.
Phaidon, 2013.
 
Eden and After
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Eden and After 
By Nan Goldin
$100.00
Phaidon, London, 2013. 320 pp., 300 color illustrations, 10¼x10¾".

After studying Nan Goldin's recent book Eden and After, I wanted to look through one of her older books to remind myself why I liked her photos. I pulled out my tattered copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency from the shelf. It was my first time thumbing through it in a while but the photos were just as powerful as I'd remembered. They had the force of a dime-store dream. They were raw, seedy, descriptive, confessional, vulnerable, and expressed an impeccable sense of casual precision. In short they were everything we think of when we think Nan Goldin.

Eden and After? Eh, not so much. Yes, some of the individual photos here are very strong. A few of them originally appeared in The Ballad. But the best images in this book are watered down in a sea of mediocre ones. Sea being a particularly operative word since the book comes in at 380 pages. Part of what made The Ballad work was its careful edit. Even in its expanded slideshow format every picture pulled its weight. And the book was even tighter. The images came like punches in a barrage. But it's perhaps a more difficult task for an image to pull along a book weighing 6 pounds.
 
Eden and After. By Nan GoldinPhaidon, 2013.

OK, fair enough. People change, and Nan Goldin clearly has. Instead of holding her to some prior standard let's forget the past for a moment and examine the current work at face value. In simplest terms, Eden and After is a collection of photographs of children made over the past three plus decades. Goldin does not have children of her own. Most of the subjects are close family and friends, and Goldin has gotten very intimate access. The photos are all shot from immediate range and in varying stages of exposure, in various locations around the world. I'm guessing she collected these photos during her travels without specific plans, but simply organized by subject: Children.

Eden and After. By Nan GoldinPhaidon, 2013.

When it came time to make a book — her first in 11 years — a Genesis theme somehow asserted itself. Thus the Eden reference in the title. The opening chapter shows photos of formless beings representing the womb, then a series showing very pregnant women. Next up we see young children playing in The Garden, followed by chapters showing kids whining, reaching, dressing up, looking coy, and generally behaving like kids. It seems logical to expect The Fall to come along at some point, but book never gets there, instead looping back through womb-like light studies. Literary excerpts by a wide range of authors (William Wordsworth, Wislawa Szymbroska, Hakim Bey(!?)) spice up the photos, and an afterword by Guido Costa.

Eden and After. By Nan GoldinPhaidon, 2013.

If the book lacks Biblical heft, it may be because all of the photographs are of pre-pubescents. By cutting things off before adolescence the photographs lack the depth of adult thoughts and situations. I'm not saying kids are innocent and uncomplicated. Believe me, as a father I know kids sometimes act in very adult ways. But that side is not very visible in Eden. Instead the photographs generally depict children as playful sprites. Eugene Smith's Walk To Paradise Garden would not look out of place here. That's a very nice photo but also idealized. And much of Eden and After seems trapped in that worldview. A less charitable comparison might be to Anne Geddes. No, the book doesn't feel quite that fuzzy. But you get the idea.

Eden and After. By Nan GoldinPhaidon, 2013.

"The best of my work is about empathy," says Goldin in a recent interview. "Trying to feel what it is to be in another person's body; to break that glass. I don't think any of us understand the other person well enough." This was the great strength of Goldin's earlier photography. She could make the viewer care about anyone. I don't doubt she has great empathy for children. But truly understanding what it's like to be a young child is probably an impossible task for any adult. 

When adults do enter the picture, the book picks up steam. A late chapter called Lion's Den shows children and parents together, sometimes relating in very candid and vulnerable ways. They are very entertaining, probably the highlight of the book. But then it's quickly back to photos of sprites. "I’m telling a story about children as these magical beings that come from another stratosphere and arrive on the planet," says Goldin in another interview. "I started to believe, while I was making the book, that children come from somewhere else, and the reason we don’t remember our first few years is because [while we're very young] we still remember where we came from."

Eden and After. By Nan GoldinPhaidon, 2013.

I think Goldin remembers where she came from. But for whatever reason she's made a conscious attempt to shift gears. Eden and After represents a softer, gentler side, and one with quite a bit of motion blur. Maybe in the end this is a book less about children than about Goldin and the changes she's been through. If The Ballad was her photographic Eden depicting innocence leading to the fall, this is what comes After.—BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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