Nan Goldin - Biography and Legacy
Washington, D.C., United States
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 1971-1984 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.
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 1979-1986 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."
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.