Sex, lies and photography

Between Mario Testino's glamour heaven and Nan Goldin's urban hell, where's the reality?

Aidan Campbell

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Topics Politics
  • Mario Testino Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London
  • Nan Goldin: Devil’s Playground, Whitechapel Gallery, London

At first sight, there seem to be few links between these two photographic exhibitions in London.

In the posh West End you’ll find Mario Testino’s glossy shots of the international jet set – complete with Madonna, Kate Moss and Princess Di. In the dank East End you can catch Nan Goldin’s photos of urban squalor – complete with junkies, beat-up wives and down-and-out transvestites.

For many, Goldin’s world of sexual abuse and narcotics seems far more real than Testino’s shallow world of fashion photography. But Testino claims to capture the ‘real person’ behind the celebrity.

After years in arty wilderness, Testino shot to fame in the late 1990s – routing grunge and heroin chic with his glossy images of The Beautiful People. Obsessed with actors, models and royalty, Testino justifies his success by claiming to find that one-thousandth of a second when a person is at their very best. His pictures seem to promise that, in a flash, any of us could be beautiful – and such instantaneousness is his version of reality.

Nan Goldin relies on a very different strategy to get her realistic-looking photos. Unlike Testino, she believes in roughing it and slumming it, in order to capture the essence of modern life.

In Goldin’s pics, modernity is a ghoulish society full of victims and their tormentors. A former heroin addict, Goldin released Ballad of Sexual Dependency in the 1980s, a photographic autobiography featuring hundreds of slides depicting her life, times and dysfunctional relationships. Ironically though, contrary to Goldin’s carefully contrived context of human ruin, her work confirmed for me that people can be still be wonderfully creative. Some of her photos of dire people and places are magnificently captured by that marvellous invention – the camera.

Criticised for being overwrought and theatrical, Goldin’s version of reality turns out to be just as invented and ephemeral as Testino’s. And by most accounts, the trendy Goldin now spends her days flitting between New York and Paris, or sunning herself by a friend’s pool.

Both Testino and Goldin claim to present ‘real life’ – but in fact, each offer us their different versions of it. But isn’t that the whole point of imagery? That it is really unreal? Photos are fleeting, rather than tangible by definition – because imagery is the product of our imagination, not of material reality. Photos and paintings are transitory impressions which bear little direct relation to real life. The camera may not lie, but thankfully there’s nowhere quite like Testino’s glamour heaven or Goldin’s urban hell. Both these rival artists present fantasies generated by their own minds as a glimpse into modern reality.

If you are an artist, glamming up doesn’t necessarily mean you’re evading social problems. And slumming it doesn’t grant you a special insight into the streets. The best art presents imaginative versions of our world – and if we recognise that is all that Testino and Goldin are portraying, then both are worth checking out.

Aidan Campbell is the author of Western Primitivism, African Ethicity: A Study in Cultural Relations, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and a contributor to Art: What Is It Good For?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

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Topics Politics

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