American photographer Nan Goldin’s lucid and vivid portrayal of New York life in the early ’80s changed the role of the photographer in modern society. Her unflinching honesty and appetite for authenticity saw her capture the dizzying highs and crushing lows of her close friendship group in the squalor of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, complete with hedonistic parties, drag queens, heroin addiction and domestic abuse.
For Goldin, this diaristic mode – the capturing and documenting of her immediate surroundings – was integral to her artistic expression. Her refinement of this approach has since given subsequent generations of photographers the confidence to use their environments as both subject and inspiration.
Her focus on the frailty of human relationships has become her calling card and her images tackling this subject are still considered some of the finest ever produced. For this installment of Know Your Photographers, we explore the life and work of one of photography’s greatest innovators, Nan Goldin.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency
Nan Goldin’s photography centers around the idea of family, both the inherited and the acquired. Her life has been spent capturing the intensely intimate and profoundly personal moments of those closest to her, namely her lovers and friends.
Throughout her career, though, there has been one body of work that has come to define her as an artist, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; a condensed compendium of human relationships that acts as a personal diary chronicling her life experiences.
Originally conceived as a slideshow to entertain her friends, The Ballad is a culmination of Goldin’s work over a seven-year period, beginning with her move to New York from Boston in 1978. Having long been intrigued with people who lived their life on the fringes of society, she became heavily involved in the gay and transsexual communities living in the shared apartments and squats of New York’s Bowery District.
Going to parties, taking drugs and capturing everything with her camera, this adopted lifestyle would become the basis for The Ballad.
After touring the slideshow around underground cinemas and art galleries in both America and Europe, The Ballad was eventually published to critical acclaim by Aperture in 1986. It was viewed as a unique insight into alternative lifestyles and was widely praised for its fearless approach in tackling transgressive subject matter, including issues surrounding the interplay of love, dependency and abuse.
But the real power of The Ballad comes from Goldin’s personal point of view and her unwavering dedication to authenticity. This helps give the images power beyond the confines of their frames, imparting an intimacy on the viewer that previous photographic works had rarely achieved.
It can feel confessional at times, but never once does her proximity to the subject come across as voyeuristic or exploitative. In this way The Ballad borders on the anthropological: a detailed and studied observation of a modern ‘tribe’ that Goldin manages to make as exotic and interesting as any found deep in the Amazon rainforest.
Some images are beautiful, showing the vivacity and boundless energy of this young rebellious group, tied together by something akin to sibling camaraderie. Other photographs are powerful for completely different reasons. One image, entitled Nan One Month After Being Battered, is a self-portrait depicting Goldin defiantly staring back at the camera, her face covered in bruises and eyes stained with blood.
The injuries were inflicted by Goldin’s partner, Brian, who beat her so badly that he almost blinded her. Goldin kept the image as a visual reminder to herself to never go back to him.
This destructive element, particularly between the sexes, is an overriding theme of the book and has long been a subject that has fascinated Goldin. The dual ideas of autonomy and intimacy within a relationship play out over and over again in The Ballad. The bruises and the blood are intertwined with images of affection and passion; an open-minded and frank visual commentary on the fundamental flaws present in all human relationships.
Although Goldin insists that her photographs are not of “marginalized people as everyone writes of us: outsiders, drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites,” there is no denying that her work shows a world on the peripheries of society. But Goldin’s adopted family actively strove to remove themselves from the normal and mundane.
“We didn’t care what straight people thought of us,” she recalled. “We had no time for them, they didn’t show up on our radar.” For Goldin, there was something empowering about this rejection of typical values, perhaps a reaction to the rather straight-laced upbringing she had back in Boston.
After the release of The Ballad, Goldin’s life became ever more chaotic. As she was supposed to be enjoying the success of the book and impending gallery tour, her drug use turned into abuse and she found herself perpetuating self-destructive patterns. Aware of the damage she was doing to herself, she checked into a clinic in 1988 to tackle her substance and alcohol addiction issues.
Influences and the Diaristic Mode
The urge to relentlessly document her personal life and immediate surroundings has long been a part of Goldin’s methodology. Born in Washington D.C. in 1953, her life was shaped from a young age by the suicide of her older sister, Barbara. The next few years were a blur of foster homes and heroin use and it is clear that Goldin actively adopted the roll of an outsider in this period.
In 1968, she enrolled at Satya Community School in Massachusetts where she met the photographer David Armstrong. He made two indelible marks on her life, later by helping edit The Ballad into book form, but first by introducing her to the Boston drag and gay scene, a subject area she would make her own.
“I fell in with the drag queens,” she recalled. “My desire was to show them as a third gender, as another sexual option, a gender option. And to show them with a lot of respect and love, to kind of glorify them because I really admire people who can recreate themselves and manifest their fantasies publicly. I think it’s brave.”
As well as her life experiences, there were a number of pioneering photographers that influenced not only her visual language, but also gave her the confidence to shoot in new ways. Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces exhibition in 1973 enthralled her with its discursive imagery of Shore’s many road trips across the American continent in the early ’70s.
Another major influence was William Eggleston, whose revolutionary use of sumptuous color and famed democratic shooting policy opened up whole new areas of artistic exploration in Goldin’s mind.
But perhaps the most influential figure in Goldin’s photographic upbringing was photographer and filmmaker, Larry Clark. In his seminal 1971 book, Tulsa, Clark played the documentarian who went native, fully submerging himself within the youth communities of Oklahoma.
The pistol-wielding kids he captured were bored, spending their days shooting amphetamine and looking for excitement in the rural sprawl of the American Midwest. Clark was fascinated with the darker side of adolescence and slowly turned from objective observer to willing participant. Showing his dedication to the cause, he even spent 19 months in jail after being convicted of assault and battery for shooting a man in the arm during a game of cards.
Although there had been many photographers who used their experiences as a means to inform their work, Tulsa, in all its raw visceral detail, had an ethnographic quality to it that fascinated Goldin. For her, it brought about a realization that a body of work focusing on the personal observations of an individual could be artistically relevant.
Under Clark’s mentoring, her photography began to focus more on her own private point of view, an aesthetic shift that would eventually lead to the production of The Ballad some 15 years later.
Beyond the Ballad
Although Goldin’s personal and professional life has been dominated by The Ballad, she has remained active in the years since its release. The idea of family is still a constant theme in her images and she has published over 15 books, believing the medium to be the best way to present photography to an audience.
Books such as Tokyo Love, released in 1994, recount her visit to Japan to meet fellow photographic provocateur, Nobuyoshi Araki. Others, like Desire by Numbers, released in the same year, chronicle the lives of young male prostitutes in Southeast Asian countries. Although her location has changed, the same simple concept remains: to shed light on those subjects so often forgotten and overlooked by mainstream society.
But a large chunk of her work since The Ballad has focused on the children of her closest friends, those who she has known since they were in the womb. This seemingly innocent subject matter has still managed to gain her much infamy. In 2007, the police were called to her exhibition at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, after management deemed the image Klara and Edda belly-dancing to be indecent.
Depicting two young naked girls dancing, the police removed the image, owned by Elton John, for further investigation. Eventually no criminal case was brought, but the episode created an uproar in the British press.
Goldin is one of the most influential living American photographers of the last 50 years. Her use of the snapshot aesthetic to develop meaning and provide a candid critique of interpersonal relationships has influenced hundreds of photographers, including the likes of Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans.
However, it is her development of the diaristic mode, documenting the people and things closest to her, that is perhaps her greatest achievement. It showed the photographic community that you didn’t need impressive landscapes and incredible subject matter to make powerful images laced with nuanced meaning.
By empowering those with a camera and a story to tell, she ultimately made photography a more democratic discipline. This legacy can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of photos uploaded to social media sites such as Instagram on a daily basis, all owing a stylistic and conceptual debt in one form or another to Nan Goldin.
Now check out the photography of Irving Penn.
- Lead image: Nan Goldin