We all have skeletons. As a writer my innermost thoughts and secrets are shared with the pages of my journal. As a photographer, Nan Goldin chose to put her private photo album on public display. Although Nan was raised as a member of an upper-middle-class Jewish family, she became a city girl with no problem. New York City served as the backdrop for the majority of Nan’s photographic journey. Oh, what an interesting journey it was.
Following graduation from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Bostson/Tufts University, Nan made her move to the big apple. Previously introduced to Boston’s gay and transsexual community by friend David Armstrong, Nan chose to document the new-wave music scene as well as the gay subculture of late 1970s and early 1980s New York. With this chosen focus, it was only fair to include the Bowery area of Manhattan. As an area know for its hardcore drug use and the world famous CBGB nightclub, it was inevitable for Nan to be exposed to the brazen world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. No matter how unashamed and uninhibited the Bowrey scene was Nan was always anxious to snap a photo of what was often unseen.
The moments Nan captured of this underground community from 1979 to 1986 were compiled into her most famous work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The snapshot aesthetic images narrate everyday occurrences on the underground scene. Drug use, violence, and sex reigned supreme and Nan didn’t blacklist anything. She gave it to you straight, no chaser.
“My work originally came from the snapshot aesthetic . . . Snapshots are taken out of love and to remember people, places, and shared times. They’re about creating a history by recording a history.”
Domestic violence, drug use, and sex became central themes of Nan’s work because it was commonplace in her life and the lives of those closest to her. Nan’s own drug and alcohol abuse landed her in a detoxification clinic. Seclusion in the clinic allowed Nan to self-reflect and re-group. Most of her self-portraits were taken within the clinic walls.
“I believe one should create from what one knows and speak about one’s tribe . . .You can only speak with true understanding and empathy about what you’ve experienced.”
The realness of Nan’s work hit her hard after the camera was put down and photos developed. Most of the people documented in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency were dead by the 1990s. Drug overdoses and AIDS were the leading killers. It really struck a never with Nan because all of her subjects were friends or family members.
“My work changes as I change. I feel an artist’s work has to change, otherwise you become a replication of yourself.”
Nan’s intimate and raw photography document the life and times of a group of friends living it up in a sex and drug crazed 1980s New York City. It’s eerie because the lives of Nan and her pals don’t differ much from the lives of 20-somethings today. For Nan, work and life were intertwined. A host drag queens, drug addicts, lovers, and friends made her life what it was. They had the same influence of her art. No matter how grimey the streets were, Nan sure found a way to make them beautiful.
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