The Greats: How Nan Goldin Photographed ‘A Record of Real Life’

Share this story

Having spent her life capturing a divergent group of friends, ranging from drag queens to drug addicts, Nan Goldin’s deeply personal lens realises a sense of truth and respect that few others have achieved.

Words by Hudson Brown

Photography by Nan Goldin

Stemming from a tumultuous upbringing, themes of connection, love and loss all run through Nan Goldin’s immense photographic work. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1953, Goldin was raised in an intellectual household that involved her in politics from a young age. Throughout her childhood, Goldin marched in rallies for civil rights and against foreign conflicts, while her auntie and uncle were imprisoned for being active communists.

These events heavily impacted her direction in life, but the suicide of her sister, Barbara, was undoubtedly the most transformative. With Nan seeing how her sister struggled with teenage norms, she developed a close attachment to outsiders who never found their place within broader society.

Leaving home at the age of 13, Goldin was taken in by foster parents as she attended the alternative Satya Community School. Here, she was first introduced to photography, with the school taking up a grant to provide students with a collection of Polaroid cameras to experiment with. As Goldin discovered the medium helped her socialise and document her encounters, aiding her already intensive diary-keeping, this drive to eternalise her everyday existence has remained throughout her career. 

During her time at Satya, Goldin became close friends with David Armstrong – another photographer who found success with his fashion editorials and his raw depictions of the underground. Together, the pair became stalwarts of their city’s countercultural scenes, including its burgeoning gay and transgender community. Despite having long pictured herself as a painter or filmmaker, Goldin ultimately decided to study photography at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. 

'Jimmy Paulette and Taboo in the bathroom', 1991.
'Sharon w. the Christmas tree', NYC, 1990.

“I knew from a very early age, that what I saw on TV had nothing to do with real life.”

At university, Goldin’s intimate instincts when photographing people were adopted by several other local artists, leading to the formation of a loose collective known as the ‘Boston School’. Featuring like-minded photographers such as Jack Pierson, Philip-Lorca di Corcia and Mark Morrisroe, their focus was on untamed depictions of those living outside mainstream society. With this group critical to our understanding of subcultures that existed in the 70s and 80s, their direct style challenged photography’s often carefully curated nature. 

Although using photography to delve into subcultures and marginalised groups was not a new idea, Goldin’s deeply personal lens brought a fresh perspective to the concept. As most of the characters featured in her images were her close friends, this sense of intimacy, compassion and insight has rarely been replicated.

'Nan and Brian in bed', NYC, 1983.

New York City and ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’

As Goldin’s friendships took her further into the underground, she drew from a range of influences to cement her style. Ranging from those she met at Andy Warhol’s notorious studio hangout to the photography of Larry Clark, Goldin also admired the counterculture publication, East Village Other, and its ‘Slumgoddess’ column. Providing an alternative to the straight-edge Village Voice, these fashion editorials highlighted the punks and hippies who defied the “Miss America aesthetic of overly made-up and girdled women with beehive hairdos.” 

Going in search of the weird and wonderful, Goldin moved to New York City where she became embedded in the city’s thriving punk and no wave scene. Here, she began piecing together her landmark slideshow, and later photobook, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. In typical ad hoc style, this project conveyed Goldin’s personal story from a myriad of hazy lived experiences, ranging from moments of joy in debauched house parties and impromptu weddings to the devastating impact of drug abuse, domestic violence and the AIDS epidemic. “I knew from a very early age, that what I saw on TV had nothing to do with real life,” said Goldin. “So I wanted to make a record of real life. That included having a camera with me at all times.”

Featuring an ever-changing array of 700 images accompanied by 45 minutes’ worth of music, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency serves as a commemoration of those living a counterculture lifestyle. With Goldin adding and subtracting images as she pleases, this fluid project has continuously evolved over the years since it was first presented in New York City’s dive bars and nightclubs. Meanwhile, her influence didn’t go unnoticed by the established art world, with The New York Times reporting: “What Robert Frank’s The Americans was to the 1950s, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is to the 1980s.”

“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough.”

Reflecting the Underground

In the years following the creation of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the series took on a vastly different meaning. From the outset, Goldin’s work displayed a distinctive sense of love and memory, but as AIDS and drug addiction ravaged a number of her friends, many of her projects served as an important epitaph to those departed. As Goldin described: “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.”

Goldin’s images don’t only serve as a document of her friends’ lives, but also as a way of understanding her own. Through happiness, grief and addiction Goldin’s varied self-portraits are an important moment of reflection. For instance, one of her most famous images, Nan one month after being battered, was an unflinching portrayal of domestic abuse. “My work has been about making a record of my life that no one can revise,” said Goldin. “I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. Taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself.”

For Goldin, she has always believed in presenting the unseen and the unsavoury. While some perceive her images as glamorising those who live disconnected, hedonistic lifestyles, her photographs are simply a depiction of life’s realities – for better or worse. Whether it be drug use, sex or domestic violence, directly addressing challenging topics has always been a part of Goldin’s photographic philosophy.

“I think the wrong things are being kept private,” said Goldin. “I think you can actually give people their soul – show them to themselves. Taking a picture of someone is like caressing them.”

'Self-portrait in the mirror', London, 1980.
'Nan one month after being battered', 1984.

I think you can actually give people their soul – show them to themselves.”

How to Capture Images Like Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin not only pioneered a photographic aesthetic, but she helped the wider world see the beauty in everyone. Consider these simple tips to create intimate, honest and respectful images.

CAPTURE FRIENDS & FAMILY

Although photographers such as Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand captured the marginalised beautifully, Goldin’s work stands alone in terms of her familiarity with her subjects. Consider how you can replicate this by capturing everyday experiences with friends and family. “I don’t select people in order to photograph them,” explained Goldin. “I photograph directly from my life. These pictures come out of relationships, not observation.”

SHOOT SPONTANEOUSLY

With photography serving as Goldin’s visual diary, we see how she recorded seemingly everything that occurred around her – from moments of euphoria and tragedy to loneliness. Although composition and lighting are undoubtedly central to creating powerful images, don’t be afraid to act in the moment. As Goldin said, “The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me.”

'Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi', NYC, 1991.

“I want the people in my pictures to stare back.”

LOOK FOR NARRATIVE THREADS

Although Goldin always wanted to be a filmmaker, she quickly realised how a sequence of images can have the same emotional impact as a feature film. When ordering your own images, consider how small narrative threads – as well as colour, scale and moments of quiet – can be used to create a compelling story. “I’m interested in the cumulative images, and how they affect each other, the relationships between them. There is so much more said than by a single image,” said Goldin.

ALWAYS BE RESPECTFUL

With much of Goldin’s work focussed on the vulnerable and marginalised, she has always been primarily concerned with being respectful. Consider how the people presented in her images are never showcased as simple spectacles, but as real people with valuable and complex lives. As Goldin described: “My desire is to preserve the sense of peoples’ lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want the people in my pictures to stare back.”

Share this story

Hudson Brown

Hudson Brown is a Melbourne-based freelance writer when he's not travelling the globe. His words have been featured in the likes of SBS Food, Treadlie Magazine and Paper Sea Quarterly, while he was previously the editorial assistant for small footprint living publication Assemble Papers. He is also a regular contributor to Concrete Playground where he covers the latest art, culture and gastronomic happenings around town.