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Nan Goldin

American Photographer

Nan Goldin Photo
Born: September 12, 1953
Washington, D.C., United States
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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.
Nan Goldin

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.

Key Ideas

Biography of Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin Photo

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.

Important Art by Nan Goldin

Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City (1983)

Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City (1983)

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 (1984)

Nan One Month After Being Battered (1984)

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).

Misty and Jimmy-Paulette in a taxi, New York City (1991)

Misty and Jimmy-Paulette in a taxi, New York City (1991)

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.

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Content compiled and written by Alden Burke

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Nan Goldin Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alden Burke
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 02 Aug 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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