Coming Clean at the National Portrait Gallery

Coming Clean is a photographic journey through the life of an addict, detailing every intimate and confrontationally painful moment. Before Graham MacIndoe delved into a life of crippling heroin addiction, he was a successful photographer living in New York. When his personal life took a turn for the worst, MacIndoe fell into a state of helplessness and heroin became his only comfort.

Documenting his addiction, the artist uses a digital camera as a form of catharsis. MacIndoe’s soul is bare for everyone to see. The viewer is forced to acknowledge the lonesomeness of an addict and how heroin can destroy a person, body and soul.
A particularly striking image is of a gaunt and balding MacIndoe standing by a bathroom mirror; he refuses to acknowledge the man in his reflection, looking grimly down on the floor. Captured in grainy and gritty style, every inch of MacIndoe is exposed.

At the beginning of his addiction, MacIndoe captures himself sprawled on a bed, shutters drawn. He lives in darkness and chaos; the camera is his only company. This crippling loneliness is shaded with the shadow of a passing sunset. A pile of clothes lies strewn beside the man who has seemingly lost everything.

Another photograph hung closely by this is a grainy image of MacIndoe injecting heroin into his arm. It is an unwanted, but important sight. Deep into his addiction, is a solitary figure, a shadow. This is a particularly striking image for the viewer. It is confrontational, yet conveys the message that MacIndoe was aiming for.

In one picture, the viewer is forced to understand the isolation and depression that addiction can bring. MacIndoe does not glamourise his drug use, he makes it raw; the photo shows the needle-marks of where he last injected: his arm, skeleton-thin, hung limply in the air as the needle pierced through his sandpaper-like skin. Coming to the end of the exhibit, one can see MacIndoe’s demise into despair; he is barely clothed and these photos capture the loss which lingers behind his eyes. These images are haunting, nauseating almost.

Coming Clean is terrifying, emotional and life-changing. It displays how addiction can consume someone, destroy every inch of them mentally and physically. It is a grandmaster of storytelling, depicting a devastating journey into madness. MacIndoe gives a masterclass in portraiture, capturing every essence of the human condition. Although he is not kind to himself, he is real, which is important to see.

Coming Clean is an unmissable exhibit for understanding the consequences of addiction. MacIndoe presents a work of art unlike many others, and for that, he should be strongly recommended.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Until 5 November

Photo credit: Dun_Deagh via Flickr

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