Nan Goldin likes to say that photography saved her life. In turn, she strives to pass this salvation on to others—through both her art and her activism. “Somebody told me recently that my work averted their suicide,” she wrote in 2021 for a new edition of her groundbreaking 1986 photo book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. “If I can help one person survive, that’s the ultimate purpose of my work.”
Nancy Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1953, the youngest of four children in a middle-class Jewish family. She adored her older sister, Barbara, but Barbara struggled, living in and out of mental institutions for years, and died by suicide at 18, lying down on railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train when Goldin was 11.
Earlier this year, Goldin was featured in a celebrated new documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, directed by Laura Poitras, that has since been nominated for an Academy Award. Read on to learn about Goldin’s life, work, and activism beyond the film.
At 14, afraid she would suffer the same fate as her sister, Goldin ran away from home. She discovered photography while living in foster homes in the Boston area. At school she met David Armstrong, the first person she photographed and the one who started calling her Nan. They moved together into a row house in Boston with four other roommates, and as Armstrong started performing in drag, Goldin became enamored of the drag queens and their lives, seeing them as a “third gender that made more sense that the other two,” as she explained in her 1995 documentary, I’ll Be Your Mirror. She wanted to be a fashion photographer and dreamed of putting the queens on the cover of Vogue.
Goldin had her first solo show in 1973 at Project, Inc. in Boston. The following year she and Armstrong enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (as did Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Mark Morrisroe, who would go on to successful careers of their own); after graduating she moved with a group of friends first to Provincetown, Massachusetts, and then to New York. Goldin had found her “extended family.” With her sister still at the forefront of her mind, she “became obsessed with never losing the memory of anyone again,” she said in I’ll Be Your Mirror. It was this that drove her to constantly photograph members of what she called her tribe.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency
Goldin’s most famous photographic series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979–1986) began not as a book but as a 45-minute slideshow with more than 700 images and a backing soundtrack by the likes of the Velvet Underground, James Brown, Nina Simone, and Charles Aznavour. Goldin had started making slideshows to share her pictures with the friends who were her subjects (and who sometimes had playful competitions to see who appeared in the most pictures). She edited and re-edited her slideshows constantly, and as she kept showing revised versions at bars, nightclubs, and art spaces, her audience grew.
In 1985 The Ballad slideshow was selected for inclusion in the Whitney Biennial. The following year, Goldin worked with curator Marvin Heiferman (who’d helped produce her slideshows for public viewing) to edit and compress The Ballad into a 127-image Aperture photo book of the same name. In a review in the New York Times, art critic Andy Grundberg wrote, “What Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ was to the 1950s, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is to the 1980s. . . . Goldin, at the age of 33, has created an artistic masterwork that tells us not only about the attitudes of her generation, but also about the times in which we live.”
In the text for her book, Goldin described The Ballad as a “visual diary” to share with the world. But whereas Robert Frank’s concerns were largely documentary, she was adamant that her pictures “come out of relationships, not observation,” and she included many self-portraits. (A more apt comparison may be to Larry Clark, whose autobiographical 1971 photo book, Tulsa, Goldin has cited as an inspiration.) Goldin wrote in The Ballad, “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.”
Friends and Lovers
While The Ballad celebrates the lives of the people around Goldin, it is also, as the title suggests, about the “struggle between autonomy and dependency,” both emotional and physical—sometimes with substances, but mostly with other people, whether friends or lovers. “Love can be an addiction,” she wrote.
In her snapshots of people at parties, in bars, lounging around, having sex, on the beach, and riding trains in New York, Provincetown, and Berlin, Goldin pinpointed and captured the joy and the pain of those who populated her life, many of whom were queer, drug users, or otherwise nonconforming to “traditional” norms. (Goldin herself was a sex worker during this time, she revealed recently.) The same people appear again and again—Armstrong, Greer Lankton, Cookie Mueller, Suzanne Fletcher, Sharon Niesp, and someone identified only as Brian, a longtime boyfriend of Goldin’s.
Dependency and Abuse
Probably the most famous photograph from The Ballad is a self-portrait showing Goldin’s face badly bruised, one of her eyes almost sealed shut. The caption reads, “Nan after being battered, 1984.” Her boyfriend Brian had read her diaries and gotten so angry that he beat her almost to the point of blindness. The image serves as the ultimate example of photography as a means of both survival and catharsis. She’d taken the photograph to remind herself to never go back to him.
Just as Goldin’s career was taking off, she fell deeper and deeper into drug addiction. “The party was over but I couldn’t stop,” she said in I’ll Be Your Mirror. “I stayed shut up in my loft snorting drugs, going months without seeing daylight.” She entered a rehab clinic outside Boston and got sober in 1988. When she returned to New York, she found that many of her friends had contracted AIDS.
Activism and Work in the 1990s
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Ballad would take on new meaning as a portrayal of a closeknit queer community right before the wave of destruction that was the AIDS epidemic. “I used to think I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost,” Goldin said in I’ll Be Your Mirror. “It wasn’t until the first year of my sobriety that I confronted the reality as I watched a number of my friends die. I photographed some of them while they were ill to try to keep them alive and to leave traces of their lives. It was then I realized how little photography could preserve.”
In 1989 Goldin curated the first art exhibition in New York about AIDS, “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.” Mounted at Artists Space, it included work by Armstrong, diCorcia, Lankton, Morrisroe, Peter Hujar, Vittorio Scarpati, Kiki Smith, and David Wojnarowicz. “I am often filled with rage at my sense of powerlessness in the face of this plague,” Goldin wrote in one of the show catalogue’s essays. “I want to empower others by providing them a forum to voice their grief and anger in the hope that this public ritual of mourning can be cathartic in the process of recovery, both for those among us who are ill and those survivors who are left behind.”
Hujar and Morrisroe had already died of AIDS before the exhibition opened, as had Scarpati, Cookie Mueller’s husband. At the end of her essay, Goldin included a photo she’d taken of a grieving Mueller in front of her husband’s open casket. Mueller, too, would die of AIDS just a month after Goldin wrote the essay. Wojnarowicz would succumb to the disease in 1992. (Adding insult to injury, the National Endowment for the Arts initially withdrew its funding of the exhibition due to its “political” nature, but reinstated it as long as the money wasn’t used for the catalogue, where the “political” language appeared.)
In the 1990s, as The Ballad slideshow toured museums worldwide, Goldin gathered her photos of Mueller and created a portfolio and exhibition dedicated to her. She started photographing empty rooms, landscapes, and skylines. She collected a decade’s worth of her photographs of drag queens for a book and exhibition titled The Other Side. She and Armstrong created a two-person show and accompanying book called A Double Life. In 1994 she collaborated with Nobuyoshi Araki on Tokyo Love, a project photographing young people in Tokyo’s underground cultures. In 1996, her mid-career retrospective, I’ll Be Your Mirror, opened at the Whitney before touring Europe.
In 2000 Goldin went into rehab at Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, taking photos of the skyline outside her window in the series “57 Days in Roosevelt Hospital.” These pictures would become a part of her 2003 book “The Devil’s Playground.”
Other notable internationally touring exhibitions (and accompanying books) from the time include “Le Feu Follet” (2001) and “Chasing a Ghost” (2006). The latter, featuring a three-screen projection titled “Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls,” explored the life of—and Goldin’s own memory of—her sister Barbara with a musical score that harked back to the Ballad slideshows.
In 2007 Goldin won the prestigious Hasselblad Award. In 2010 the Louvre commissioned a slideshow and exhibition; Goldin titled it Scopophilia and intermixed her own images with those of historical works in the museum’s collections (from figures in Greek mythology to Rembrandt, Delacroix, and beyond)—drawing direct connections between depictions of desire, sexuality, gender, and violence over thousands of years.
Goldin’s new work around this time featured more couples, households, and children. In 2014 she published Eden and After, a collection of more than 30 years of her photos of children, mostly those of her friends. Goldin said children, with their unique perspectives on the world, reminded her of drag queens. The same year, Goldin was prescribed OxyContin after having surgery on her hand. She quickly became addicted.
Goldin struggled with her addiction for three years, at one point almost dying from an overdose of fentanyl. When she emerged after regaining her sobriety in 2017, she once again found that the world around her had changed. This time the epidemic was opioid addiction, the aftereffect of the widespread overprescription of powerful pain-relieving drugs like the OxyContin that had been her downfall.
In the January 2018 issue of Artforum, Goldin published a heartbreaking account of her addiction to OxyContin and, as many had already done, blamed the Sackler family (“whose name I knew from museums and galleries” and whose company, Purdue Pharma, produced OxyContin) for the epidemic and subsequent death of hundreds of thousands of people.
In the same essay, Goldin announced the formation of a new group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Largely inspired by the AIDS coalition ACT UP, its aim was to hold the Sackler family accountable. “To get their ear we will target their philanthropy,” Goldin wrote. “They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.”
P.A.I.N.’s first action took place in March 2018, when Goldin led a group of protesters into the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they unfurled large red banners reading “400,000 Dead” and “Shame on Sackler,” threw empty prescription bottles labeled “Prescribed to you by the Sackler Family” into the fountain, and staged a die-in.
In the span of the next year, Goldin and P.A.I.N. staged similar actions at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., Arthur M. Sackler Museum on the Harvard University campus, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, whose education center was named for the Sacklers. This last action included dropping fake prescriptions from the various levels of the museum’s honeycomb interior, which led it to be seen as an artwork in and of itself.
Certainly aided by a widespread respect for Goldin and her work in the art world, these protests started working. In February 2019, Goldin threatened to withdraw from a planned retrospective of her work at London’s National Portrait Gallery if the museum accepted a £1 million gift from the Sacklers. A month later, it became the first museum to give up a Sackler grant. Two days later, the Tate said it would no longer accept Sackler money either.
Many museums have since either refused Sackler donations, removed the name from their walls, or both, including the Met, Guggenheim, British Museum, Serpentine Galleries, Louvre, National Gallery in London, South London Gallery, and, most recently, the Victoria and Albert Museum. Goldin is now using P.A.I.N. to advocate for better addiction treatment and harm reduction through overdose prevention centers.
Pandemic to Now
In 2019 Goldin met a young writer named Thora Siemsen, and the two quickly forged a strong friendship—so much so that they decided to quarantine together during the COVID lockdown. Siemsen became Goldin’s new muse, inspiring her to get back into photographing people.
In 2022, Goldin was awarded the Käthe Kollwitz Prize for her contributions to contemporary photography. A retrospective exhibition, “This Will Not End Well,” is touring European museums for the next couple of years, with an accompanying book coming in 2023. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the new documentary directed by Laura Poitras, covers Goldin’s life and work, with a focus on her P.A.I.N. activism. It won the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival.
Goldin currently lives in New York, Berlin, and Paris.