Nan Goldin

American Photographer

Born: September 12, 1953
Washington, D.C., United States
My desire is to preserve the sense of people's lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want the people in my pictures to stare back.

Summary of Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin is a contemporary American photographer who became famous in the 1980s for her gritty, intimate, often chaotic images of friends, lovers, and herself in the Boston queer and party scenes of the time. Her most famous body of work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency has become an invaluable record of a creative community soon to be torn apart by the AIDS crisis - with many of the artist's photographs now haunting memorials of friends and lovers lost to the disease.

Since the 1980s Nan Goldin has changed the nature of art and documentary photography. By taking her camera everywhere she goes and shooting intimate photographs of otherwise invisible, underground moments in her community, she has turned photography of everyday people, of parties, of sexual moments, and private events into something important and worthy of attention - exhibiting in major galleries around the world.

In later work, Goldin's photographs are placed alongside images of famous works by Old Masters in the Louvre. Here, she expands her interest in desire, violence, and looking to encompass the Western history of art and image-making, and shows viewers that these interests have always been important to us, whilst also unsettling the languages of desire in paintings by male artists, through her own complex visions of sexuality, gender, and intimacy.


Progression of Art


Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City

In this photograph, Nan Goldin sits with her lover, Brian, on a bed. Goldin is lying down behind him, her head on a pillow and half obscured by her black sweater. She is looking at Brian while he looks down and off at something outside of the frame. He is smoking and the sun highlights his face and shirtless body.

The ambient lighting, seemingly unaware male protagonist, and bedroom setting suggest an intimate, rarely captured moment between lovers - although the presence of the camera; presumably set up with tripod and timer by the artist, or composed by the artist and then photographed by a friend - complicates this simple fa├žade of closeness. The photograph may not be posed in a traditional sense, but it is certainly planned.

The most exciting and unique part of this photograph has to do with the "gaze", or where and how the photograph's subjects are looking. In Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, both Nan, the artist and female protagonist, and the viewer are looking at Brian's naked back. Brian, in turn, looks away from us both. This arrangement of looks establishes an uneasy and unusual power dynamic. The predominance of "the male gaze", an idea first put forward by Laura Mulvey in 1975, usually means that images (including classical nudes, horror films, advertisements) are made of naked women, by men, for other men. In this photograph we immediately empathize with the clothed woman in bed, Nan Goldin, both artist and subject, because we share her gaze towards a naked man.

Nan Goldin's expression, as she gazes at her lover, is an uneasy one that makes the image difficult to look at. Instead of admiration, kindness, softness, Goldin's face is one of longing, distrust, and weariness. This photograph portrays the unequal balance of power in heterosexual relationships and how this power balance plays out in art and images, with a nuance, emotion, and sensitivity that is unparalleled in art and photography.


Nan One Month After Being Battered

Nan One Month After Being Battered is perhaps Goldin's most famous self-portrait, and is a unique and vital contribution to photography, portraiture, and contemporary art in that it draws attention to domestic violence against woman and shows the artist herself as a survivor of this violence - reminding us domestic violence can happen to anyone, and any woman especially. About the photograph, Goldin has said, "I wanted it to be about every man and every relationship and the potential of violence in every relationship."

The artist sits square in the picture frame in front of domestic lace curtains, with the top of her large curly hair cut out of the photograph. Looking straight on, Goldin displays her face, clearly beaten and bruised. Her left eye is barely open, but through a swollen lid we see it, red and glossed over. Goldin wears striking make up, glossy red lipstick, silver earrings, and a pearl necklace. The red lipstick is particularly striking in its color and application, matching the blood red of her injured eye and drawing parallels between stereotypical markers of femininity - such as red lipstick - and the potentiality for violence - as in her black and swollen eye.

The self-portrait is confrontational. Goldin looks straight at the camera, making direct eye contact with the viewer. She wants to be seen, and challenges you to see her as both victim and survivor of domestic violence.

While this portrait, like many of her others, is credited to Goldin, the self-portrait photograph was taken by a friend, though composed by the artist (and subject).

Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


Misty and Jimmy-Paulette in a taxi, New York City

In this portrait, two drag queens sit in the back of a taxi. The background of the portrait looks outside the car's windows, capturing other NYC taxis sharing a busy street. The flash of the camera highlights the subjects' glossy outfits and heavy makeup. Misty, on the left, wears a blue wig with bright, disco ball heart-shaped earrings, her tight black clothing reflecting the overly bright flash. Jimmy-Paulette, on the right, wears a sleek gold wig, her curls falling into her heavily made up face. She looks directly at the camera, her mouth slightly open and is wearing a torn white mesh top and gold bra with the straps falling off her shoulders. Both queens look at the camera with a mixture of boredom and disdain - a far cry from the glamorous personas drag queens put on to perform.

Goldin captures an everyday moment of banality in this close up shot of the back of a taxi. Usually associated with high production, glamour, and performance, Goldin's queens are in the middle of a commute - an unglamorous and easily recognizable part of drag queens' work that is rarely documented or considered. Here, Misty and Jimmy-Paulette are workers on their way to perform - they are people we can empathise with and understand, documented as friends rather than glamorous performers. Furthermore, the image complicates the popular idea that drag queens are just men dressed as women to perform. Who are Misty and Jimmy-Paulette? Are they on their way to or from work? Gender identity here is ambiguous, constructed, and ambivalent.

This photograph is one of 800 images used in Goldin's most famous body of work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which comprises of candid photographs of friends, lovers, and the artist while she was actively involved in queer, party, and drug scenes. The series is shown in several ways: as an artist's book, as a 45-minute projected slideshow, or printed and hung in an exhibition space. In recent years, Goldin has adapted the collection further, adding a soundtrack and additional images to the collection. The decision to continually update The Ballad of Sexual Dependency keeps the work fresh and alive, allowing viewers to come back to the emotional journey over and over again to see it anew.


Self-portrait in my Blue Bathroom, Berlin

In a later self-portrait, Goldin photographs herself in the bathroom. Serving as a backdrop, which is multiplied in the bathroom mirror's reflection, the blue tiles take up most of the image. The geometric shapes are only broken up by Goldin's face sitting in the bottom corner of the mirror. She looks off and out of the frame, her red curls loosely framing her face.

The blue tiles overpower the portrait, engulfing Goldin's disembodied, hovering head. Goldin often photographed people, especially women and young girls, in bathroom mirrors. The artists use of mirrors again plays with expectations of the gaze between photographer, photographic subject, and viewer: here photographer and subject are the same woman, and it's hard to tell if she is looking at herself or something else. As viewers we are not acknowledged, however the subject knows we are watching her.

The bathroom is a place usually associated with privacy, where people, and especially women, and queer people can be both comfortable and safe, while also being a space they can transform themselves into the type of person they want to present to the world or, alternately, the person the world demands them to be. Bringing the camera into the bathroom reinforces Goldin's interest in addressing the unspoken or hidden private moments that build up into identities, appearances, and selves.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago


Valerie Floating in the Sea, Mayreau Island

This portrait photograph captures an ecstatic moment of weightlessness. The subject, Valerie, floats naked in the water, her head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth open, basking in the sun. The image is shot from a low angle just above water level as if we were swimming in the water next to Valerie ourselves. The photograph is in high contrast, seen most explicitly on Valerie's body. While the sun highlights parts of her face and breast, other parts of her body are lost in shadow.

Taken later in her career, this photograph demonstrates Goldin's ability to maintain her personal touch while expanding, both conceptually and formally, the look of her photographs.

The 2000s marked a shift for her, moving her camera outside the domestic realm and into nature.

Along with Valerie Floating, Goldin shot a number of landscape photographs. While visually the colors, lighting, and emphasis on the body resemble her previous photographs, this portrait of Valerie has a lightness to it that many of the other photographs do not - the space around the subject gives the viewer space to breathe and enjoy this moment with both Valerie and Goldin. Much of the artist's work focuses on moments of pleasure, but this portrait seems to be the most unambiguously joyous and calm, even as a dark sky threatens the swimmers in the background.

Caviar20 Gallery, Toronto


Swan-like embrace, Paris

In this diptych, two images are placed side to side. The one of the right is an older photograph Goldin took, with the image on the left a photograph she took of a painting in the Louvre. Goldin was originally prohibited from photographing work in the museum, although in an exhibition in the early 2000s her photographs were placed in the museum amongst classical works of art. She saw a great deal of overlap in the topics and themes that intrigued her and that of the works created centuries before. After the success of her exhibition, the Louvre allowed the artist to walk through the museum and take photographs of anything that caught her eye. Goldin then created a side-by-side comparison, in this work capturing the intertwined bodies in a "swan-like embrace." Speaking about the process, she said, "Desire awoken by images is the project's true starting point. It is about the idea of taking a picture of a sculpture or a painting in an attempt to bring it to life."

The exhibition at the Louvre was titled "Scopophilia," from the Greek term "the pleasure of looking." Scopophilia is a term used by Freud to describe a psychoanalytical malady and picked up on by Laura Mulvey in her essay defining the "male gaze" - where images are produced to entice this particular (assumed to be male) pleasure. As a woman photographer photographing people of all genders and sexualities, Goldin turns this pleasure upside down, expanding it to include the looks and desires of all genders as well, at the same time as reframing classical works in the Louvre's collection in these broader frames of looking and pleasure.

Paired with paintings by Corot, Delacroix, and Rembrandt, Goldin's images highlight her contemporary interest in love, lust, bodies, and relationships depicted in very similar ways from centuries ago. The exhibition thus reveals the universality of these interests throughout time, a quality of Goldin's work that has made it so important and influential in the art world at large.

Mathew Marks Gallery, New York

Biography of Nan Goldin


Nan Goldin was Born in Washington, D.C. and raised by middle-class Jewish parents in the suburbs of Lexington. Goldin's father worked in broadcasting and served as chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. When Goldin was only eleven, her 19-year-old sister, Barbara, committed suicide. In 1965, teenage suicide was a taboo subject and people didn't talk about issues of mental health, especially amongst young people. Even as a child, Goldin realized the role sexual repression, gendered expectations of conduct, and mental illness played in the death of her sister, who had been confused about her sexuality and often got into "trouble with boys", rejecting social expectations of ladylike behaviour. This early realisation influenced Goldin's photographs of friends and lovers who similarly do not fit into society's expectations of who they should be.

A few years after her sister's death, Goldin left home and enrolled at Satya Community School, an alternative high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Here, Goldin lived in a commune, began smoking weed, dating older men, and, in 1968, was introduced to the camera by one of her teachers. Still reeling from the loss of her sister several years earlier, Goldin used the camera to capture her relationships with the people and community she loved as a way to honor and preserve their existence.

Early Training and Work

In her late teens, Goldin moved to Boston with her friend, David Armstrong, an American photographer known for his intimate portraits of men - both lovers and friends - taken in sharp focus. The two lived together in an apartment where Armstrong introduced her to the city's gay and transgender community. She spent several years in Boston; taking amateur photographs of the people she spent time with. With no formal training, Goldin's introduction to photography was through fashion magazines such as Vogue. After some time, Goldin decided to take her work more seriously and enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Here she focussed on taking photos of drag queens who she knew and admired. Goldin said, "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."

Goldin was introduced to fine arts photography while studying for her BFA. Early influences included Andy Warhol's films and portraits by photographer Diane Arbus. Such influences led Goldin to develop her signature, candid style of capturing the "slice-of-life" moments around her. Along with David Armstrong and Mark Morrisroe, the photography style became known as the Boston School of Photography. The movement is cited as taking place between 1971-84 in and around the Boston metropolitan area. Stylistically, the artists are known for their eagerness to capture a myriad of scenes that, when pieced together, create a narrative that captures an intimate vantage point of the creative communities they photograph.

It was during this time that Goldin developed her method of shooting. Instead of setting up curated photo shoots, Goldin took her camera around with her anywhere she went, candidly capturing the environments she was in, her friends, lovers, and chosen family in the comfort of their own spaces.

Mature Period

After graduating from school, Goldin moved to New York City where she began photographing the post-punk and new wave music scene of the 1980s, focusing on the Stonewall-inspired gay subculture that dominated lower-Manhattan. Goldin spent a lot of time around the Bowery, a neighbourhood famous for its hard-drug use in the 1970s and 80s. The photographs she took between 1979-86 eventually became her most famous collection of work - The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The artist book (and eventual exhibition) is an autobiographical document depicting love, drug use, violence, sex, and aggressive relationships during this time in Goldin's life. Goldin took her camera around with her wherever she went, photographing parties at her house, outings at the lake, drag shows, friends using drugs, dancing, having sex, and the aftermath of their debauched nights together.

While the photographs were initially contained to the present moment, Ballad transformed into a way to memorialize her chosen family - the people she loved and surrounded herself with. Many of the subjects in the series were dead by the 1990s, either from drug overdoses or AIDS, including Greer Lankton, an American artist known for creating lifelike sewn dolls of friends and celebrities, and Cookie Mueller, an actress and writer appearing in a number of John Water films.

About the AIDS crisis, Goldin remembers the first time she heard about the disease. On Fire Island with Mueller, Armstrong, and some other friends, the group read a New York Times article calling AIDS the 'gay cancer.' At first, Goldin says, they didn't think much of it. That is until one of their first friends died in 1982, one of Armstrong's lovers. The epidemic was harrowing, and helped get Goldin sober after someone asked Goldin, "How can you be killing yourself when your friends around you are dying?" Soon after, Goldin lost a number of friends to the disease, including Mueller. In 1989 Goldin put together a Cookie portfolio - 15 pictures documenting their friendship. Despite her realization that photographs can't keep people alive, Goldin eventually saw the collection as a way to memorialize their energy in this world. Now, anytime Goldin looks at a collection of her photographs that define her career, she recites a prayer to herself: "Send love to each person that's dead."

Current Work

Since the late 1990s, Goldin expanded her medium beyond just photographs. In 2006, her exhibition, Chasing a Ghost, opened and included the first installation where Goldin included moving pictures, a narrative score, and voiceover. The exhibition highlights Goldin's recent move towards more cinematic-based works. Although Goldin's photographs had begun as underground, DIY documents of 'unsavoury' friends and revellers, the ubiquity of her images later allowed Goldin to enter the world of fashion photography, working for companies like Jimmy Choo, Dior, Scanlan & Theodore, and Bottega Veneta. The move to more commercial work ties back to her early interests in Vogue, one of her only sources into the high-end art world when she was in her teens. Her interest in high fashion also reflects an increased interest in more dramatic, cinematic formats of photography and film. In 2018, the clothing brand Supreme released a collaborative collection that includes jackets, sweatshirts, and t-shirts with a photograph of "Nan as a dominatrix." Goldin's inclusion in high end glossy magazines and fashion campaigns demonstrates how her photographs have influenced art, documentary, and fashion photography - her signature images are everywhere.

As Goldin garnered acceptance in the art world, she began using her high-profile status to address issues that are near to her heart. In a 2017 speech in Brazil, Goldin admitted to an opioid addiction, a disease that has plagued her for most of her adult life and took the lives of countless friends and family. In recovery, Goldin created the campaign 'Prescription Addiction Intervention Now' (PAIN), using social media to protest the Sackler family for their involvement in the opioid crisis in the United States, an epidemic Goldin says is fuelled by the misinformation of big pharmaceutical companies promising their patients wouldn't become addicted to prescribed medication. In 2018, Goldin held a protest in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Sackler Wing. The protest called for museums and other cultural institutions to consider the Sackler Family's (potentially direct and deliberate) role in the opioid crisis, and to no longer accept funding from the foundation. Coming from a time when the government turned a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic, Goldin has known serious loss due to the government's unwillingness to participate in the conversation about addiction.

The Legacy of Nan Goldin

Goldin's biggest contribution in the art world is her tenacious dedication to capturing and displaying the intimacies of her life, no matter how raw. Her photographs are a kind of diary on display. Not only did Goldin give a voice to people who were marginalised- LGBTQIA folks, drag queens, women in abusive relationships, drug addicts- she celebrated their agency, personalities, and place in our world. Goldin's persistence in documenting her friends, lovers, and herself and the praise she has garnered from galleries and museums has shifted our understanding of fine art photography: Portraits are no longer the province of the famous or the rich, nor are they necessarily carefully posed, lit, etc. Goldin's work asserts that a "slice-of-life" can be critical and important to be seen, displayed, and understood as art.

Most famously working through themes of love, gender, domesticity, and sexuality, Goldin used her personal experiences to visualise the political nature of these subjects, especially when subjugated by social taboos and expectations. As such, she paved the way for artists like Ryan McGinley, William Eggleston, Dash Snow, and Wolfgang Tilmans to work through the lens of deeply personal photography as a way to give the viewer access to the universal human experience and contemporary identity politics.

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