Your ultimate guide to Nan Goldin

The photographer saw the beauty in America’s tragic wastelands and offered us new ways of seeing the world – here we trace the seminal moments in her five-decade career

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Nan Goldin "Self Portrait writing in my diary", Boston 1989
"Self Portrait writing in my diary", Boston 1989Photography Nan Goldin

Few photographers can boast a body of work as deep and uncompromisingly honest as that of Nan Goldin. Internationally renowned for her documentation of love, fluid sexuality, glamour, beauty, death, intoxication and pain, Goldin’s photographs feature her life and those in it. Her visual language and “social portraiture” approach not only rejects the conventional limits of the medium of photography, it creates something unique: a mirror of herself, as well as the world.

Having run away from home in her early teens, before being fostered by several families, Goldin did everything in her power to run away from the respectable world, her parents and the Jewish household she was brought up in. It was in school that she tried her hand at photography, before putting on her first show in Boston in 1973. While photography offered her a pathway – on which she progressed before graduating from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Tufts University with a degree in fine arts in 1977 – Goldin was using heroin by her late teens. Having moved to New York in the 1970s, it was in 1979 that Goldin’s show of transgressive photos featuring her friends making love in messy apartments, her naked lovers and the Bowery’s drag queens (a subject that she would later make her own) was widely noticed and considered as groundbreaking within the field of fine art photography. By seeing the beauty in America’s tragic wastelands, she paved the way for photographers like Corinne Day, Wolfgang Tillmans and Juergen Teller. As her ever-evolving exhibition The Ballad of Sexual Dependency runs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art until February, we give you a definitive 26-point guide to the photographer herself.

A IS FOR AESTHETIC

Goldin’s snapshot style quickly became integral to her approach to photography. Shooting her friends and lovers during candid moments that range from intimacies in the bedroom to throwaway moments in a club or a bar, the photographer’s circle of friends naturally became her subject matter. While other photographers, such as Diane Arbus have made a name for themselves photographing marginalised people, Goldin lived and experience the exact same life as her subjects – the lawlessness, the struggles, the heartbreak and the pain – much like Larry Clark did (see L for more).

B IS FOR BARBARA

From Sisters, Saints & Sybyls to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the influence of Goldin’s sister Barbara, who committed suicide at 18-years-old, is a significant vein in the photographer's work. While Sisters, Saints & Sybyls was an image and video exploration of her sister’s suicide, in the book introduction to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – dedicated to Barbara – Goldin recalled, “I was eleven when my sister committed suicide. This was in 1965, when teenage suicide was a taboo subject. I was very close to my sister and aware of some of the forces that led her to choose suicide. I saw the role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction. Because of the times, the early 60s, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behaviour, beyond control. By the time she was 18, she saw that her only way to get out was to lie down on the tracks of the commuter train outside of Washington, D.C. It was an act of immense will.”

Immediately following Barbara’s death, Goldin was seduced by an older man. Despite this being a period of mourning, she became obsessed with him, stimulated by the sexual excitement that came with it. Later, after promising to marry Goldin, cruelly, the older man admitted that he had in fact only been in love with her sister.

C IS FOR COOKIE MUELLER

A recurrent protagonist in Goldin’s work was writer and actress Cookie Mueller, who featured in a number of John Water’s films. Having met in 1976, Goldin photographed Mueller extensively and a series of these intimate shots make up 1991’s book Cookie Mueller. In it, the photographer writes, “She was a cross between Tobacco Road and a Hollywood B-Girl, the most fabulous woman I’d ever seen”. Goldin’s images of the Lower East Side starlet range from photographs of her with her son, to those of Mueller’s battle with Aids of which she died in 1989, along with the occasional photo of the two of them together.

D IS FOR DRUG USE

High-risk substance abuse, domestic violence and Aids surrounded Goldin and her New York family, and while many of them did not escape the scene, Goldin did. Checking into a detox clinic for drugs and alcohol in 1988 two years after The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was published, as Goldin told The Telegraph in 2009: “When I crossed the line from use to self-abuse my world became very, very dark.” It’s unsurprising that Goldin has previously spoken about the redemptive properties of photography, despite having admitted that she once told her students not to study post-modernism, but to take LSD because “it teaches you the same thing”. Upon checking in, the clinic took away Goldin’s camera and her copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, fearing they may provoke sexual and drug-based urges in other patients. While so many of her companions died at a young age, Goldin’s images acted as a continuous reminder of what she has lost. Post-rehab, daylight became present in Goldin’s work (see X).

E IS FOR ENROLLING AT SCHOOL

Following expulsion from a number of boarding schools and disagreements with her parents, Goldin left home at 14 to live in foster homes and communes. It was during this period that she enrolled at Satya Community School, an institution that believed the school should fit the child, as opposed to the other way around. At Satya, Goldin met fellow photographer David Armstrong, who crowned then-Nancy, “Nan”. Sharing a mutual obsession for 1930s film stars, the women of Andy Warhol’s factory and a fondness for going to the movies, the pair remained very close friends until Armstrong died of liver cancer in 2014. It was at Satya that Goldin discovered photography, when American existential psychologist Rollo May’s daughter, who worked at the school, facilitated a shipment of Polaroid cameras to be delivered there.

F IS FOR FILM

It was in an interview with The Telegraph in 2009 that Goldin expressed that while she is widely renowned for her photography, these days her focus is on making film. Her work has varied between collages, slideshow projections, and film – all of which stem back to her early fascination with the movies shared with Armstrong. “My whole relationship to the world has been created by cinema”, revealed Goldin in a 2007 interview with the Tate. She also previously described how her slide-based approach stemmed from an aversion to printing in the darkroom in art school. She made slides to show her lecturers, and this habit quickly turned into her trademark. It was later in the 80s when Goldin started presenting her work in bars and clubs that she started to devise sequences of images, to pair with sound – a reaction to the way her images played off the live bands playing in them.

G IS FOR GENDER POLITICS

Much of Goldin’s work explores the conventions of gender politics, in particular, throughout The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Questioning what it is to be male or female, the book approached gender politics before there was a term to define such a thing. Having grown up during the height of conformism of the 1950s, Goldin realised how hard it was for females to own their individual identities. During her older years, she realised that there was no one-fits-all mould for a relationship, that sexual attraction and love could be different things, and that marriage could result in violence, pain and re-marriage. It’s these subconscious realisations that make for the politically charged pages of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. As the photographer put it in the introduction to The Other Side: “The pictures in this book are not of people suffering gender dysphoria but rather expressing gender euphoria.... The people in these pictures are truly revolutionary; they are the real winners in the battle of the sexes because they have stepped out of the ring”.

H IS FOR HEARTBEAT

Goldin’s Heartbeat is a multimedia installation of 245 portraits of “couples and lovers” that formed part of a wider exhibition titled Seduction. Featuring four European couples indulging in intimate moments and engaging in sexual activity, the images or “treasured moments” play out as a series of short stories that chronicle the intimacy, passion, love and longing between each pair. The minimalist electronic music that accompanied the installation was written by English composer John Tavener and performed by Björk.

I IS FOR IRREPLACEABLE NEW YORK FAMILY

It was upon moving from Boston to New York that Goldin found her new, chosen, dysfunctional family of outsiders, artists, transvestites, junkies, actors and prostitutes that became the subjects of her work. As Goldin wrote in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, they were a family “bonded not by blood or place but by a similar morality, the need to live fully and for the moment”. In turn, Goldin was one of the first photographers in the Western world to extensively photograph her band of outsiders from the inside out. While renowned photographers like Arbus and Sally Mann were aware and informed about their subjects, Goldin’s advantage was that she actually lived with her subjects and while they were not bound to her by blood, they were the family that she actively chose.

J IS FOR JOEY

Another main protagonist in Goldin’s work is Joey. From the famed “Joey at Nan’s apartment” and to “Joey in my mirror”, to the lesser-known “Joey at Spaghetteria” and “Joey at the love ball” – Goldin documented Joey in various scenarios in the early 90s, between New York and Berlin. Speaking to Sleek about her portraits of friends, Goldin says, “I know how to make someone look beautiful. And I’ll never photograph anyone I don’t know. You have to know the person to really be able to photograph them. But I never show pictures of my friends if they don’t want me to. My drawers are full of great photographs that I won’t show because the person asked me not to.”

K IS FOR KIM HARLOW

Kim Harlow was a very famous transsexual performer in Paris during a time where being trans was taboo. Known as one of Paris’ most beautiful women, Harlow featured heavily in Goldin’s work before she suddenly died of Aids in 1993. Perhaps the most iconic of Goldin’s Harlow photos is, “Kim Harlow in her dressing room at Le Carousel”, taken in 1991, that sees Harlow nude but covering her breasts in a very demure way, staring straight at the camera. Speaking about Harlow on camera Goldin says, “I was very, 
very attracted to her and found her incredibly 
beautiful and became friends with her. She didn't
 want to meet any transsexual or transvestite friends of 
mine because she really felt 
that she was living as 
a woman and didn't want to be classified in that world.”

L IS FOR LARRY CLARK

Goldin’s self-taught approach to photography and lack of traditional technique meant that many people rejected her as a “good photographer”. When a professor advised Goldin to look at the work of Larry Clark, she could instantly relate to the intimacy of his lawless pictures of teenagers having sex, playing with guns, or shooting up heroin in the 60s. In other words, they shared an insider’s perspective on what Clark coined “the outlaw life”. It’s no surprise that Goldin often cites Clark’s seminal book Tulsa – that documents the lives of a group of rebellious teens from his hometown through a series of black and white photographs – as a main influence on her work along with Clark himself who spent much time as her mentor. Much like Goldin’s, Clark blurred the lines between voyeurism, honesty, and exploitation, in turn creating new boundaries of what documentary photography subject matter could or should entail for the creatives that followed his lead.

“My drawers are full of great photographs that I won’t show because the person asked me not to” – Nan Goldin

M IS FOR MEMORIES

Memory is a key theme throughout Goldin’s work. She wrote, reflecting on Barbara’s death, “I don’t really remember my sister, in the process of leaving my family, in re-creating myself, I lost the real memory of my sister. I remember my version of her, of the things she said, of the things she meant to me. But I don’t remember the tangible sense of who she was . . . I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again”. With the snapshot nature of her photographs, it’s clear that Goldin documents her life and that of those around her as a way to immortalise memories of people, places and times forever. However, on a personal level her work doesn’t always have the desired effect. As she wrote in her book Couples and Loneliness, “I used to think that I could never loose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost”. Meanwhile, Goldin’s closing testament in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency upon reflecting on departed friends reads, “The book is now a volume of loss, while still a ballad of love”.

N IS FOR NAN'S LEGACY

While there is no doubt of the weight of Goldin’s legacy, it’s also more complicated than it might initially appear. While highly successful – her photographs that raise tens of thousands at auction – Goldin has also made no secret of her troubled finances, partly due to a contract with a publisher that stopped her publishing books for a long period of her career. However, while the photographers that influenced Goldin are apparent, her vast body of confessional work has, in turn, inspired many of today’s most seminal visionaries, from the late Corinne Day, to Wolfgang Tillmans, Juergen Teller and Ryan McGinley, and her work is instantly recognisable.

O IS FOR OUTRAGE, CONTROVERSY AND CENSORSHIP

Much of Goldin’s work has come under scrutiny for its controversial nature. It was only in 2007 that the police were called into Goldin’s exhibition at the Baltic arts centre in Gateshead, under the pretense that Goldin’s “Klara and Edda belly-dancing” photograph – part of a series owned by Sir Elton John – breached child pornography laws. Later, the Crown Prosecution Service deemed that the photograph was not indecent. Meanwhile president Bill Clinton famously made a statement accusing Goldin of promoting and glamorising heroin chic at a time when the entire fashion industry was put under a microscope for its use of skinny, emaciated looking models.

P IS FOR PAIN

It was while working behind the bar at Tin Pan Alley on West 49th Street that Goldin met her lover Brian, an ex-marine turned office worker who came to feature heavily in her work. Both drugs and their physical attraction to one another consumed them. Physically, with his hairy chest and his crooked smile, Brian was a vision of the textbook American man, while his behaviour was not. Brian used strength as a weapon, beating Goldin to the point that her eye nearly detached from its socket. Following this, the worst period of abuse, Goldin stitched her own eye back up and the self-portrait, “Nan one month after being battered”, followed in 1984. The abuse also entered the emotional space when Brian burned many of Goldin’s journals.

Q IS FOR (DRAG) QUEENS

Goldin has been documenting America’s gay and transsexual communities since before her first solo show in Boston in 1973. It was the drag queens she fell in love with, and while many of them hated the way that photographers like Diane Arbus portrayed them – some might say exploited – Goldin represented her contemporaries in a respectful and honest light. Her book The Other Side is testament to this. As one of the first photographers to suggest the need for gender fluidity in her work, Goldin accepted the drag queens that made up her New York family as a third gender. When it comes to herself, Goldin is pansexual. In an interview with Sleek magazine in 2012 she said, “I’m bisexual so I can’t really come out as gay. When I’m gay, I’m very gay. And when I’m with men then, you know, I’m with men. I don’t fall in love with people because of their gender.”

R IS FOR RECORDING THE AIDS ERA

While much of Goldin’s work unintentionally romanticises drug use, it also portrays the darkness, death, abuse, pain and survival associated with it. As Goldin wrote in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, “I want the people in my pictures to stare back. I want to show exactly what my world looks like, without glamorisation, without glorification. This is not a bleak world but one in which there is an awareness of pain, a quality of introspection.” Released in 2003 after a seven year hiatus, Goldin’s book The Devil’s Playground is a particularly significant example of this. From her own abusive relationship fuelled by drug use and the moment she personally crossed the line from use and abuse, to the deaths of some of her nearest and dearest friends as a result of the 1980s Aids epidemic that ran through New York’s gay community. The book captures the pain endured by those who weren’t afraid to practice and endure the consequences of their American freedom. Goldin has even been known to talk about survivor’s guilt in interviews. As she told The New Yorker last year “I felt so guilty in ’91, when I tested negative. I was disappointed that I was negative, and most people don’t understand that”.

S IS FOR SELF PORTRAITS

Aside from the harrowing image “Nan one month after being battered”, many of Goldin’s portraits are an extremely personal and somewhat intrusive snapshot of her life. It’s the images before her break-up with Brian that speak volumes. Taken in 1983, “Nan and Brian in bed” sees the duo resting in a New York apartment after having sex. While Brian looks at the wall while smoking a cigarette with his back to his lover, Nan is lying in the bed wearing a silk dressing gown staring at Brian longingly – a symbol of two lovers in a dying relationship. Another earlier image that illustrates Goldin’s personal affairs is “Nan and Dickie in the York Motel, New Jersey” (1980). Showing Goldin naked, being embraced from behind by a fully clothed, older, balding man, the image is painful to look at, like a dark secret. Goldin also showcased a series of never before seen portraits in an exhibition at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery, titled Nine Self-Portraits in 2014.

“During her older years, she realised that there was no one-fits-all mould for a relationship, that sexual attraction and love could be different things, and that marriage could result in violence, pain and re-marriage”

T IS FOR THE VELVET UNDERGROUND

Filled with shots capturing the lawless bohemianism of her peer group, Goldin’s 1996 book I’ll Be Your Mirror, chronicles two decades of her life, from her time in Boston through to her move to New York. I’ll Be Your Mirror is also the name of a documentary Goldin made in collaboration with the BBC before being released in 1996. The short film directed by Edmund Coulthard chronicles her life and career to date, while painting a portrait of the generation Goldin is best associated with. As Goldin told Sleek magazine in 2012, “Everybody, including Lou Reed, thinks that the name came from the Velvet Underground song. Lou Reed even wanted to meet and give me permission to use it. But actually, the name came from a letter someone had written me saying that the picture I had taken of them was like a mirror to their soul.”

U IS FOR USING HER VOICE

As an in-demand speaker and lecturer, while Goldin is now able to discuss her work in great detail, it was in 2007 that she told the Tate, “I would learn about my work from what other people said about it”. Aside from lecturing in educational institutions, Goldin has also used her voice as a photographer to raise awareness about, and change, perceptions of disease. Her 2010 collage titled Positive Grid, originally exhibited in Berlin at an exhibition at The Berlinische Galerie, that demonstrates this. Featuring 16 images of Nan’s subjects in a grid, of which all were HIV positive, Goldin’s work offers a different perspective to the image of HIV and AIDS widespread in the media in the 80s and 90s.

V IS FOR VOODOO PHOTOGRAPHY

Goldin’s most recent work seen in Diving For Pearls, the book she released this year, revisits her personal oeuvre from the last 40 years. Featuring 400 photographs, many are new images alongside a series of previously unpublished works. In this book Goldin invites us to admire the beauty of unintentional photographic fuck-ups made with an analogue camera, – think double and triple exposures, or clip marks on the negatives. Named Diving For Pearls in memory of Armstrong who used to say that getting a good picture was like diving for pearls, Goldin closes the book with the statement, “Will voodoo ever work on digital photography?” While so many of Goldin’s images exist with photographic mistakes, her work would not be the same had it been done digitally.

W IS FOR WORLDWIDE

Speaking about her work in a video for the Tate in 2007, while it was not her last interview, Goldin says it was the last time she would talk about her work because she was "sick of being compartmentalised as a New York artist when there is no reality in that". Expressing her frustration and hurt about such comments Goldin continues, “I am so tired of being continuously put there". While it’s a common misconception that her work does now move out of New York City, her work is in fact global. From her collaborative work with Nobuyoshi Araki on Tokyo Love and her time spent photographing gay and trans communities in Bangkok and Manila, to her extensive body of work taken in Berlin (where she lived for a time with Brian), Zurich and Boston – to peg Goldin as just a NY photographer is undermining her worth and her relentless work ethic as a creative.

X IS FOR E-X-PERIENCING THE LIGHT

Following the two years she spent in rehab at the end of the 80s, Goldin undertook her first work without drugs. Coming out of the darkness both literally and metaphorically, this change paved the way for a new chapter in her work. Taking a more introspective, quieter approach to her art, Goldin’s work from this point onwards has a differed energy thanks to a newfound focus and sense of clarity. With both darkness and light present, the medium of photography proved redemptive for Goldin on her road to recovery.

Y IS FOR YOUTH

In 2014, Goldin released a book titled Eden and After, in which the photographs centred on children. Featuring hundreds of photographs, taken by a woman with no children herself, the subject matter in Eden and After comes as a surprise given her previous work, however, the themes remain similar. Capturing the short-lived magic of childhood and the freedom that comes with it, along with the idea of transformation, the images in the book range from photographs of Goldin’s friends with their children, to those of little ones dressing up, playing games and riding on rocking horses. She has been known to say that children remind her of her first muses: drag queens.

Z IS FOR ZURICH HOTEL ROOM

Goldin's blurred shots of interiors became almost autobiographical for the photographer, or something of a vehicle through which she could reveal more about herself, or disclose more about her personal journey through life. Works like "Hotel Room, Zurich" taken in 1988 and "My Room in Halfway House, Belmont Ma" taken in 1996 are examples of this. While the settings vary from an abandoned attic-like room, to a European hotel, each image captures a moment in time, and the unconventional yet intimate shots have became intriguing memoirs of Goldin's life for her audience.

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