The idea that Nan Goldin, famous for her intimate documentation of blankly dissolute and seedy subcultures, might direct that same roving, provocative gaze towards children – well, the mind boggles at the potential indecency of the whole thing. Yet actually, it turns out to be one of the American photographer’s most deeply fascinating bodies of work – up there, arguably, with her acclaimed magnum opus, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’.
Like that immense work, the photographs in ‘Fireleap’ are presented as a slideshow – though much shorter, clocking in at only 15 minutes, during which time we see the developing lives of numerous different children, from pre-natal (that is, images of their pregnant mothers) through to moody adolescence. And while Goldin’s style has become a tad familiar by now – with its arty artlessness, its off-the-cuff, snapshot quality – her approach seems particularly suited to portraying kids, suggesting an atmosphere of candour and spontaneity, and capturing their often wild and extreme emotions, their unguarded behaviour, their sheer weirdness. The impression is of children as foreign arrivals, extraterrestrial beings (songs such as ‘Space Oddity’ play on the soundtrack) gradually assimilating the codes and rituals of adult society.
Perhaps inevitably, Goldin seems most interested in the way they come to terms with their own visual presence – staring into mirrors as babies, dressing up in different costumes, or, as in the culminating image, hiding under blankets, as if rejecting the gaze of the camera itself.
Elsewhere, there are some actual photographs, mainly eschewing social topics in favour of scenes from nature: a rich, flaring sunset; a lonely, nocturnal tree; dawn seagulls fluttering like confetti. The themes are hackneyed, but the images feel fresh, lucid, almost primal – evidence of the powerfully curious, distinctly childlike sensibility that permeates Goldin’s own vision.