6 Themes That Define Nan Goldin’s Photography

Nan Goldin’s photography is a window to the artist’s life, ruthless in its sincerity and filled with empathy and compassion.

May 3, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

nan goldin photography themes


Nan Goldin’s sincere and often explicit style of photography is mesmerizing and polarizing, revealing the deeply personal and disclosed facets of the American society of the past decades. During her long and fruitful career, Goldin has shared stories of her own loss and heartbreak, along with many harrowing accounts of illness and addiction. Read on to learn more about the key topics of Nan Goldin’s art.


Who Is Nan Goldin?

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Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours, New York City, by Nan Goldin, 1980. Source: MoMA, New York


Nan Goldin is a famous American photographer mostly known for her snapshot-style photographs grouped into consecutive narratives. Her works tell stories about her friends, often stepping into the territory of political commentary through personal issues. For her, photography was the way to maintain relationships and document the lives that were never accepted by the mainstream. Official American culture never had a place for people like Goldin, so she occupied it on her own terms.


Goldin’s childhood was far from picture-perfect suburbian prosperity. Oppressive parenting style was doubled by restrictive 1950s morals. Goldin’s older sister died by suicide and the future artist left home. At the age of only thirteen, Goldin started selling drugs on a playground and, by her late teens, she became addicted to heroin. She lived with hippies and squatters, forming artistic communes with those rejected by the mainstream normative society. She started to show her work through projected slides accompanied by music and poetry to her friends, most of whom were also her models. Gradually, the immense artistic quality of Goldin’s work leaked to the outside world, making her one of the most sought-after contemporary photographers. Here are 6 themes that dominate her artistic work.


6. Otherness

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Jimmy Paulette after the parade, NYC, 1991, by Nan Goldin, 1991. Source: Tate, London


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The concept of the Other is important in art, literature, and politics. Otherness remains in inherent opposition to one’s self and serves as a tool for self-recognition, structuring the world, and, in some cases, finding an external enemy to blame. Nan Goldin’s work, focused on marginalized communities, AIDS patients, drag queens, drug users and homeless bohemians is the epitome of Otherness if regarded from the perspective of a normative member of society.


Documenting Otherness was hardly a new idea, even in Goldin’s time. Photographer Diane Arbus created portraits of drag performers and gender-nonconforming people in the 1960s, yet there was something radically different in her work. In the images of Arbus and her colleagues, Others are presented as curiosities, with photographers desperately trying to find normative language for non-normative subjects. New York drag queens hated Arbus’ works with passion, but they were mostly delighted to see themselves in Nan Goldin’s photographs. The difference was in the author’s relation to their subjects. Goldin was neither a spectator nor a passerby but a part of this community of Others. Instead of imposing Otherness on her subjects, she imposed it on herself, never dissociating from her models through the camera lens.


5. The Boundaries of Gender

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Christmas at The Other Side, Boston, 1972, by Nan Goldin, 1972. Source: Musee Magazine


Exploration of gender is one of Goldin’s favorite topics. It emerges over and over in her work. In her late teens, her friend and fellow photographer David Armstrong introduced her to Boston’s drag queens. She quickly became part of the family, living with them, attending their performances, and documenting their daily lives.


Goldin believes that drag queens are neither men nor women but an entirely different gender. Unlike many other photographers, she refused to let binary standards dictate her treatment of the subject. Her Boston and New York drag queens are ambiguous, different, and hypnotizing in their unusual and non-normative beauty.


Another exploration of gender boundaries by Goldin had a surprising source. Her book Eden & After focuses on children, mostly exploring their pure emotions and sheer indifference to societal constraints like gender norms, colors, makeup, or fashion. For her, children’s refusal to play by the rules is the absolute and inherent norm that later gets ruined by society.


4. Chosen Family

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The Hug by Nan Goldin, 1980. Source: MoMA, New York


Nan Goldin never takes photographs of strangers or people that she doesn’t like. A portrait by Nan Goldin is a letter of acceptance into the big and diverse Goldin family, which the artist constructed on her own. After leaving her biological family as a teenager, Goldin managed to find a sense of community in the company of other social outcasts around her. Self-proclaimed artists, sex workers, drag performers, and all sorts of bohemian youth gathered together in one big commune, living and working together and attending each other’s makeshift shows. Nan Goldin’s friends often say that she has a unique gift of highlighting others’ personalities, daring people around her to be themselves to the fullest possible extent.


Part of Goldin’s appeal is that her works are full of love and empathy, especially when they feature people who are in physical pain or emotional distress. Despite the sometimes shocking subject matter of her images, Nan Goldin has a strict work ethic. She never publishes photographs without her models’ approval and she never forces them to endure anything they are not comfortable with. Perhaps Goldin’s work ethic came from her deep admiration and personal connection to the subjects.


3. Trauma

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Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, by Nan Goldin, 2004. Source: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


Many of the topics and situations explored by Nan Goldin focus on the aftermath of trauma and the ways of coping with it. Abusive relationships, domestic violence, physical scars, and mental breakdowns are all present in her work, but her photographs never cross the line of putting shock value over empathy. They may be shocking to some—namely, to respectable gallerygoers—but they never lack compassion and love.


One of the most heartbreaking pieces by Goldin is her video titled Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls. The video is a heartbreaking tribute to Goldin’s elder sister Barbara, who was institutionalized for refusing to conform to the gender norms of her time. Barbara died by suicide at the age of eighteen, and this tragedy finally brought the already barely functioning family to a collapse. Goldin’s memory of her sister is scarce, yet she understood and shared her feeling of being trapped in a restrictive and hostile environment. Apart from Barbara’s life and death, the video documents Goldin’s path out of drug addiction and depression in a psychiatric hospital.


2. Activism

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A still from the film All The Beauty and the Bloodshed documenting Goldin’s battle against the Sackler family and the pharmaceutical industry, 2022. Source: Saporta Report


The narratives constructed by Goldin often transgress the limits of the personal towards the political. Over the years, she has covered the AIDS crisis and drug addiction epidemic and raised money to help Ukrainian artists affected by the war. One of the latest battles won by Nan Goldin is her take on the pharmaceutic industry—namely the influential Sackler family.


After her wrist surgery in the mid-2010s, Goldin was prescribed a painkiller OxyContin. The addiction came almost instantly, with Godin taking as many as twenty pills a day instead of the prescribed three. In 2016, the artist ended up in rehab after an overdose. As she found out, OxyContin was a highly addictive opioid created and distributed by Purdue Pharma, a company owned by the Sackler family. The company knew about the highly addictive effect of the medicine yet nonetheless advertised and sold it without warning the patients. Some experts call OxyContin the most addictive substance in the history of the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, since 1999, more than 200,000 people in the USA have died due to overdoses and side effects of OxyContin.


Aside from their pharmaceutical business, the Sackler family is famous for their philanthropic work. The cultural institutions financed by the dynasty include the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in London, and Tate Modern. Goldin and her activist organization P.A.I.N (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) staged protests in Sackler-funded institutions. While several institutions agreed to severe financial ties with the clan, drug distribution was hardly affected. Purdue Pharma simply moved the distribution from the American market to developing countries. Goldin’s ongoing battle against the pharmaceutical industry was documented in the 2022 documentary film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.


1. Nan Goldin and the Passing of Time

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Cookie at Vittorio’s Casket, New York City, September 16th, by Nan Goldin, 1989. Source: Fotomuseum Winterthur


Over the decades of her career, Nan Goldin lost countless friends. As the artist said, initially she believed taking many pictures of them would help her feel like her friend would never fully leave her. But as many of them passed away from drug-related conditions, AIDS, or other causes, the photographs became a sobering reminder of how much she actually lost.


Goldin’s work documents fleeting moments and the passage of time. Most of her subjects appear in her works over and over again. Some turned from unresting partygoers to happy parents, some lost their ethereal androgynous beauty to addiction. Others simply did not survive the decades of their youth. In her work, Goldin is equally a narrator and an actor, never excluding herself from the picture but letting her characters tell their stories.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.