Who Is Nan Goldin?

Pioneering photographer Nan Goldin documents friendship, love, desire, violence, and alternative lifestyles with an unflinching honesty.

Mar 19, 2023By Stefanie Graf, MA in progress, BA in Art History

nan goldin artist activist intimate photographs


Nan Goldin’s photographs often show subjects from the artist’s personal life. The artist depicts shocking intimate scenes and explores different subcultures. Photography became a way to deal with traumatic experiences for Goldin. After battling an addiction to OxyContin, the artist became an activist and founded the organization called P.A.I.N. Here is an introduction to Nan Goldin’s life, her best-known photographs, and her work as an activist.


Nan Goldin’s Early Life and Work

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Self-Portrait on the train, Germany by Nan Goldin, 1992, via Tate, London


Nan Goldin was born in 1953 in Washington D.C. as the youngest of four children. She grew up in a middle-class family. As a child, she was very close to her sister Barbara, who committed suicide when Goldin was eleven. According to the artist, teenage suicide was a taboo subject at the time. Nan saw her sister’s sexuality and its repression as one of the reasons for her troubles with mental health. The artist described the early 1960s as a time when sexual and angry women were considered frightening and out of control.


When she was asked if using drugs was a way of coping with her sister’s suicide, Goldin said that she wanted to get high and be a junkie since she was very young and that her sister’s death had nothing to do with it. Nan also wanted to be seen as different from her mother and distance herself as much as she could from the suburban women of her childhood.


Goldin left home when she was 13 or 14 years old. She lived in foster homes and went to the Satya Community School where she also started taking photographs. When the school received Polaroid cameras, Goldin was among the first students who received one. So, she became the school photographer.

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Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC by Nan Goldin, 1991, via Tate, London


In 1972, Nan Goldin got to know a group of drag queens. She photographed them and became fascinated with their beauty. She said that she wanted to pay homage to them and show how beautiful they were. Goldin also said that she never saw her subjects as men dressing up as women, but as something entirely different, a third gender that made more
sense than either of the other two. This fascination was revived in the 1990s when Nan met a group of drag queens in New York. The work Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC is part of a series that depicts different drag queens from New York, Paris, and Berlin.


In 1974, Goldin began studying art at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She moved to New York in 1978 where she rented a loft which according to essayist Darryl Pinckney became a spot for dangerously rampant parties. In the 1980s, she took many photos for her best-known series called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.


The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

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Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City by Nan Goldin, 1980, via MoMA, New York


Nan Goldin’s series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency depicts intimate situations from the artist’s life. We see her friends, the abusive and sexual aspects of relationships, and topics concerning love, sex, and drug addiction. According to Goldin, she wanted to capture her life without either glamorizing or glorifying it.


The series was named after The Ballad of Sexual Obsession from Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera (1931). Goldin continued to add photographs to the series over time. The series was originally shown as a slide show in New York nightclubs and bars accompanied by rock, opera, blues, and reggae music. Goldin decided to show them as slides since she couldn’t afford to make prints. However, the slides were later shown in galleries and in 1986 the photos from the series were published as a book.


The Ballad of Sexual Dependency contributed to Nan Goldin’s career as a photographer. Some photographs from the series were part of the Whitney Biennial in 1985, while others were shown at film festivals in cities like Edinburgh and Berlin festivals during the 1980s.


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Nan one month after being battered by Nan Goldin, 1984, via Tate, London


As the name of the series suggests, the photographs deal with dependency in relationships focusing on heterosexual couples. Goldin expressed her idea that men and women are strangers who, despite being so unsuited for each other because of their irreconcilable differences, have a need to form relationships with each other. Her famous work Nan one month after being battered is a testament to the destructive power of an abusive relationship. It shows Goldin with a swollen, bloodshot eye and bruised face.


The disturbing image was made one month after Goldin left Berlin and went back to the United States. Her partner Brian, with whom Goldin was involved for several years, beat her so severely that she almost went blind. She described their relationship as passionate, addictive, sexually obsessive, and dependent. When she got back to the United States, Nan made it to a hospital with the support of a friend and they were able to treat her eye.


Tokyo Love, Childhood, and Landscapes: Nan Goldin’s Later Work

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Takaho After Kissing, Tokyo by Nan Goldin, 1994, via Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston


Nan Goldin’s later works encompass themes similar to her earlier series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as well as entirely different subject matters including parenthood, childhood, landscapes, and AIDS. Through her collaboration with a fellow photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, Goldin published a book called Tokyo Love: Spring Fever 1994. The artist visited Tokyo in 1992 and was fascinated by the city and its people, so she started taking pictures of strangers she saw on the street. This was something she had never done before.


The young people living in Tokyo reminded Goldin of her own youth and friends before the harrowing effects of AIDS and drug addiction happened. The Tokyo photographs often focus on romantic relationships and fluid sexuality. Takaho After Kissing, Tokyo, for example, shows a young man with smudged red lipstick, which as the title suggests was the result of a passionate kiss.


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Io and her mother Rebecca, Washington Square Hotel, NYC by Nan Goldin, 1995, via PHAIDON


In 2014, Nan Goldin published the book Eden and After which encompasses roughly 300 photographs she took over 25 years. The book depicts a childhood from its earliest stages to early puberty. Close friends of Goldin have always been a recurring subject in the artist’s work. Eden and After is not an exception. Many images show her friends and their children. The work Io and her mother Rebecca shows the photographer and actress Rebecca Wright and her child Io Tillett Wright. Goldin became the godmother of Io, who identified as a boy from an early age. He became a writer, photographer, and actor who founded the street art magazine Overspray.


Nan Goldin’s Work As An Activist 

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Nan Goldin and activists from the PAIN and Truth Pharm, via The Art Newspaper


In 2017, Nan Goldin founded the organization called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). The organization addresses the opioid overdose crisis in America and targets the Sackler family and their involvement in the making and distribution of OxyContin. P.A.I.N. urges museums to remove their Sackler signage and decline their funding. Goldin also advocates for using the profits made from OxyContin to help victims. P.A.I.N. members have organized several protests at different museums.


Goldin herself was addicted to OxyContin. In 2014, she was prescribed the drug by a doctor in Berlin because of tendonitis in her left wrist. Goldin took the medication as prescribed, but she quickly became addicted. At first, she took 40 mg which she felt was too strong for her. After some time, however, she took as much as 450 mg daily. Goldin came back to New York and when doctors would not prescribe the opioid to her, she went to the black market. Goldin was addicted to OxyContin for three or four years. She spent most of that time in her house. Later in life, she used other drugs and overdosed on heroin and fentanyl.


After her overdose, she waited for a year to go to rehab because she was afraid of the withdrawal symptoms. Eventually, she got sober and read three articles that encouraged her to found P.A.I.N. These articles were: The Family That Built an Empire of Pain (2017) by Patrick Radden Keefe, The Addicts Next Door (2017) by Margaret Talbot, and The Secretive Family Making Billions From the Opioid Crisis (2017) by Christopher Glazek.

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By Stefanie GrafMA in progress, BA in Art HistoryStefanie is completing her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Vienna, Austria. She will commence her master’s degree next semester. She has a passion for modern and contemporary art, architecture, and art theory. Interested in researching and reading about the impact art has on the viewer and on society, Stefanie believes that art can change, question and shape the way we think and live.