Nan Goldin

Photographer Nan Goldin

Photographer Nan Goldin

Over the last thirty years, Nan Goldin has achieved international fame as a photographer by creating alluring images of outsiders, similarly to Diane Arbus and Robert Frank. However, the striking difference is that Goldin’s outsiders are none other than her friends, family and acquaintances, the inhabitants of a bohemian wild lifestyle. Her images are that of tenderness combined with brutal honesty making for a beautiful yet raw collection of images, “I want to show exactly what my world looks like, without glamorization, without glorification. This is not a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain, a quality of introspection” (Nan Goldin)

‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ being her most voluminous and best known set, is a series, which began in 1979 as slideshows for Goldin’s friends. This eventually turned into hundreds and hundreds of photos, a visual diary that is still being written today, as well as a book, first published by Aperture in 1986, which is still being printed. I had never actually read the book and so decided to book it out at the university library.  I’ve been obsessing over it ever since. Whilst I want to create studio portraits for my final degree show, with works like Goldin, Shabazz and Davidmann I’ve been inspired to take a documentary approach also. I want to take photographs of my subjects in their own environments as well as the queer communities’ night scene in different cities. I may include these images but only time will tell. Either way I like the rawness and spontaneity of Goldin’s images in “The Ballad” and is something I want to emulate for personal development and to add more contexts to my final images perhaps.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency  

‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ is a visual diary chronicling the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family and lovers. Nan Goldin’s photographs show truth, a candid document of her life and personal odyssey. As well as this, Goldin unconsciously captures a universal understanding of the differences between men and women, and an element of humanity that longs for companionship. Beautiful drag queens, transgender, gays and lesbians colour the pages, highlighting the diversity of the human species as well as universal wants and desires. ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ shows the party and wild times of Goldin’s life and her friends, the high, if you will from people in love to getting high.  In her later series Goldin reveals the downward spiral as many of the people in ‘The Ballad’ their lives are tragically cut short from sexual diseases, addictions and causes from living life in the fast lane during the 70’s and 80’s. Suddenly, you are faced with the bleak realities which took over this queer community, reflecting a key part in human history.

By the 1990s, many of the characters that populated the New York scene were dead and gone. Goldin’s images of Gilles and Gotscho (above) reflect the high, the love, the drugs, the 80’s and suddenly death by the 90’s. It reveals the shocking realties for many of those who were apart of the queer community and drug scene during the 80’s. AIDS ravaged the downtown landscape, and Goldin found herself a historian for a time that she had not expected to end. Filled with sex, drugs, violence, intimacy and nudity, “The Ballad” is none less than page turning and ultimately infectious. What I love about Goldin’s images is how they jump forcefully into the swim of behaviour that appears to be happening spontaneously.  The action and people in the images appear to be real events unfolding naturally before the lens whilst the photographer is somehow involved more as a participant. A sense of ease and rawness exude from the images. This is Goldin’s tribe and these are remarkable human beings, despite living on the cusp of regular society. It pays credit to Goldin as a photographer and are enviable elements within her works.

Photographs of women and couples, people smoking, photographs of men flexing their muscles, photographs of empty beds, photographs of people in bed, photographs of children, photographs of people shooting heroin, photographs of women looking in mirrors, photographs of urination, photographs of the human body, self-portraits, photographs of people. On the one hand, these running themes call to mind the sameness of Goldin’s days but there is also a beauty in the rhythm Goldin creates. I really like this consistency within Goldin’s images as it reflects that whilst this life is most certainly riveting and even taboo for some, for Goldin this was her every day.  And so through these running themes of nudity, sex and beds and the groupings of her images, again reinforces real life and truth.

Goldin’s images are that of provocative and revealing compositions yet create elegantly expressed pieces of art. Decried as ‘heroin chic’ it seems to me that the images are more sad than chic, but they do have an amazing vividness and sense of getting inside the world of Goldin’s life and subjects. The self-portraits of Goldin, most notably, the images of her with a black eye after being beaten by Brian, her boyfriend at the time or looking at herself in a gloomy mirror, are shocking glimpses of the photographer that remind us that she is more than an anthropologist. This is her life we are looking at, “I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history’, and behind every image there is something at stake.

Brian, was against publication, sure that the images would prove that he had battered her. As Goldin was careful to point out, they don’t: there are images of her bruised face, but Brian is never identified as the abuser. “I wanted it,” she explains, “to be about every man and every relationship and the potential of violence in every relationship.” This is what I adore about Goldin. She’s fearless and unapologetic revealing the complexities of relationships that are universal, no matter how brutal as well as the fragility of the human condition. Its heart wrenching to see how many of characters photographed are no longer with us, but reinforces a moment in history we should never forget and still plagues the human species even today. In those days, Aids was viewed as a purely homosexual disease so the characters I’d imagine would have been faced with a great deal of hostility. Whilst our knowledge of Aids is now more enlightened, the queer community, trans, gays and lesbians are still treated with a degree of hostility.


Goldin, N (1986) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency


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