Why Is Nan Goldin Considered a Trailblazer in Modern Photography?

Over the past five decades, famous photographer Nan Goldin has been dismantling the old rules of the art world and creating new ones.

Apr 11, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

nan goldin trailblazer modern photography


The legendary American photographer Nan Goldin never attempted to fit into mainstream society. She created her own family, her own ways of expression, and her own artworks regardless of the external demands. Decades later, her unique aesthetic vision influenced generations of photographers and revolutionized visual language. Here is what makes Nan Goldin a trailblazer in the world of modern photography.


Nan Goldin: Voyeur Turned Participant

goldin twisting photo
Twisting at My Birthday Party, New York City, by Nan Goldin, 1980. Source: MOCA, Los Angeles


The unique artistic style of Nan Goldin undoubtedly emerged from her troubled early years. She grew up as the youngest child in a respectable Jewish family based in Massachusetts. She never felt comfortable within the limits and restraints imposed on her by the outside world in this setting. The turning point was the suicide of her elder sister Barbara whom Goldin adored. After several years spent in psychiatric institutions expressing signs of homosexuality, Barbara decided to lie down on the tracks of a commuter train. Their parents never explained anything to the children, yet the truth was out there. It was then that Nan realized she needed to find a way of keeping her loved ones close to her, whether in life or death. Photography became the perfect medium for doing that.


Soon after the tragedy, the future artist ran away from home. Goldin started selling drugs at the age of thirteen. By her late teens, she became heavily addicted to heroin. She lived with friends, attended a hippie high school with a free curriculum, and gradually gathered around groups of like-minded creative minds. They were outcasts just like her, at odds with the normative world.


nan goldin protest
Nan Golding protesting. Source: Frieze


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Since her earliest photographic experiments, she aimed to capture the beauty of her found family, their personalities, and their shared moments. Among her friends were drug addicts, homeless artists, drag performers, and unemployed actors. All these people often appeared in the works of other photographers who intended to capture the depravity of youth, the non-normative lifestyles, or the unusual preferences, essentially juxtaposing these marginalized people with the normal world.


Nan Goldin was different right from the start—she was never a voyeuristic camerawoman invited to someone’s party. She was the equally welcomed guest, if not the host. The most compelling part of her oeuvre is the deep love and mutual respect between Goldin and her models that always seem visible in her works.


Her Lifestyle Defines Her Methods

nan goldin susan photo
Bea, Ivy, and Susan in the Corner, The Other Side, Boston, 1972, by Nan Goldin, 1972. Source: Marian Goodman Gallery


Although Nan Goldin received formal art education which came significantly after her art practice had already started, she never allowed theory to interfere with her vision of the process. Goldin’s oeuvre came from her lifestyle and her needs, as did her photographic style and artistic methods.


One of the markers of Goldin’s emotional involvement in her works is the use of light. All works


preceding the late 1980s featured artificial light or a total lack of it and were always shot at nighttime. This concept was far removed from a deliberate artistic decision—Nan Goldin’s lifestyle simply did not allow her to see daylight. For many of her friends, particularly drag queens, going out during the daytime was too dangerous. The whole drug-fueled bohemian surrogate family lived, partied, and wrote its history at night.


The change came to Goldin’s life after rehab. While recovering from her heroin addiction, Goldin literally and figuratively saw the light of day and was mesmerized by its varieties and undertones. Spending almost all her conscious life in the darkness, she had no idea of how complex sunlight could be. The rehab brought more than addiction recovery—it brought new artistic methods and possibilities.


She Puts Her Theory into Practice

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


Upon leaving rehab, Goldin faced a world that was even more hostile than the one before. The late 1980s saw the full swing of the AIDS crisis that would kill more than 40 million people by 2022. The artist and her chosen family, with their rampant drug use and unprotected sex, were among the prime targets of the disease. Over the span of several years, Nan Goldin lost so many friends that she herself felt guilty after testing negative. The same friends who were dancing, partying, and laughing in her old photographs were now lying sick in hospitals or being dressed for their funerals adorned with flowers and surrounded by crying survivors. These images created a powerful and heart-wrenching narrative that went beyond personal grief. It was also a sobering look at the indifference of those in power who did nothing to save their lives.


Goldin’s activism goes far beyond artistic means. She is the founder of an activist group P.A.I.N. – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now which demands global pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for the ongoing opioid crisis. According to independent research, millions of people develop addiction to prescribed painkillers, while the companies refuse to share information about possible risks and side effects of their medication. So far, the biggest achievement of P.A.I.N. is forcing several cultural institutions to sever all financial ties with the Sackler dynasty, the manufacturer and distributor of one of the most addictive drugs on the market.


Nan Goldin Turned Her Life Into Art

goldin trixie photo
Trixie on the Cot, NYC, by Nan Goldin, 1979. Source: Guggenheim Museum, New York


The concept of transforming one’s life into a work of art is quite romantic. This notion frequently surfaces in the biographies of art collectors and socialites who immersed themselves in opulence, surrounded by the most expensive objects, the trendiest artists, and the most scandalous celebrities. They idealized their lifestyles filled with champagne and caviar in literature and painting, crafting narratives that evoke envy through tales of luxury, excess, and freedom.


In her works, Nan Goldin essentially did the same. The only difference was that her life was far from a glamorous fantasy of privilege. Nonetheless, she decided that her life was also worth documenting. This approach raised enough concerns inside the respectable art world, which accused Goldin of promoting drug use and self-destructive lifestyles. She survived several attacks in public and numerous incidents from angry visitors attempting to destroy her works. The attackers were mostly men. The artist believes the reason behind the violent outcry was the inherent sexism present in the photographic world. Just like many progressive art spheres in the 1980s, the world of photography was dominated almost exclusively by men who barely tolerated talented women. Goldin’s photographic account of her life was a long-awaited alternative to the omnipresent male gaze.


Over the years, the influence of Nan Goldin reached astonishing heights. Generations of young photographers adopted her raw, uncompromising style to tell their own stories, while the great masters like Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans named her as the principal influence in their art.


Outsider Turned Leader: Success Story and Questionable Connections

goldin kimono photo
Self-Portrait in Kimono with Brian, NYC, by Nan Goldin, 1983. Source: Metal Magazine


Ironically, her snapshot aesthetic and raw imagery made their way to popular culture. Their popularity is reflected in fashion campaigns and celebrity photoshoots. Goldin hardly finds this amusing, however. She is completely indifferent to pop culture but not in a snobbish manner. Mainstream media have never had a place for people like Nan Goldin before and she is very cautious in entrusting her feelings and messages to the general public. Great popularity leads to a great misinterpretation and for an artist like Goldin, getting her message right is pivotal. Many speculations and theories are thrown around her oeuvre daily, and Goldin finds some of them deeply offensive.


Some fans of Goldin’s work believe that the photographer shaped the present-day aesthetic of a generic Instagram post with its snapshot style, seemingly honest narratives, and use of music and poetry as captions. Some even link the format of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency—Goldin’s revolutionary work in the form of a visual diary—to contemporary oversharing on social media and faux intimacy created in one’s feed. If you agree with these points, you have all the right to do so, but please never tell that to Nan Goldin’s face.


Nan Goldin Hates Social Media with Passion 

nan goldin ava photo
Ava Twirling, NYC, by Nan Goldin, 2007. Source: Sprovieri Gallery


Goldin feels uncomfortable in the environment of omnipresent social media. For her, the world became oversaturated with images that are mostly empty and meaningless, so the sheer force of visual communication has diluted too much. She has an Instagram account which she mostly uses to share photos of her new tattoos and old photographs from her private collection.


According to the artist, the overwhelming and unnecessary amount of images has blurred the line between photographs of life and actual life. Her biggest concern is the loss of ability to look and see—not in a superficial way, but in a way that allows the public to appreciate the qualities and the reasons for the existence of artistic images. In that sense, the immeasurable popularity of Nan Goldin and the monstrous number of shares and reposts of her work seem somewhat ironic and intriguing.

Author Image

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.