Nan Goldin is a pioneer of diaristic photography and a social activist. Her richly colored photographs capture the personal world of her friends with images that look like spontaneous snapshots. Taking pictures for her was “a way of touching someone – a form of tenderness.” She documents a society ravaged by AIDS, abuse, and drug addiction, always presented by her with empathy unlike the detachment found in the work of many documentary photographers.
Goldin first picked up a camera when she was fifteen years old. This was four years after her older sister Barbara committed suicide. Living in a home racked by secrets and tragedy, surrounding the suicide of Barbara, Goldin navigated adulthood in a search for a new family among non-conforming and creative people.
From the beginning, Goldin was interested in portrait photography and used her friends as her subjects. She has returned to these people over the course of her career. Goldin graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1978 where she worked with Cibachrome prints. After graduation, she moved to New York City and documented the city’s drug subculture and the gay life of the late 1970s and 80s.
By the mid-1970s her “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was noticed in critical circles. This is her most famous work. It began as a slideshow of 35-millimeter color slides that showed nightclubbing and intimate moments of her life. Her documentary-style photographs showed lush images of people experiencing love, lust, and loss. In time this work progressed to a 900-picture series and a forty-five-minute multimedia presentation with a musical soundtrack. It was published as an award-winning book and would be exhibited in different incarnations over the next decade.
In 1984, Goldin was beaten by a former boyfriend, and this was documented by her in the self-portrait, “Nan one month after being battered.” In 1988, she entered a detox clinic for her drug abuse problem. She documented her struggles and eventual recovery in a brutal self-examination of self-portraits which were compiled into the 1994 slide show “All by Myself.”
In the mid-1990s Goldin did fashion shoots of her friends for the New York Times Magazine and for the catalog for fashion designer Yukio Kobayashi. In 1994, she published “Tokyo Love,” a series of images of Japanese youths in collaboration with photographer Nobuyoshi Araki.
In 2017, Goldin founded PAIN: Prescription Addiction Intervention Now. Goldin, who was previously addicted to opioids and who survived an overdose, was credited with holding art institutions responsible for accepting money from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures OxyContin. This family was thought to have intentionally fueled the opioid crisis to make themselves incredibly wealthy.
Goldin was arrested on August 28, 2019 during protests outside of Governor Cuomo’s New York office. She and others were calling on the Governor to establish overdose prevention centers. However these centers were not approved by the State Department of Health, which operated under the Governor.
Because of Goldin, London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art no longer accepted Sackler funds and agreed to cut associations with the Sackler family. While PAIN staged its first protest at the Metropolitan Museum in March 2018, the Sackler name still remained on the museums’s walls. In July, Goldin staged a protest at the fountain at the Louvre in Paris to persuade the museum to change the name of its Sackler wing, which consisted of 12 rooms. The Louvre did what she wanted. On Dec. 9, 2021 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York finally removed the Sackler name from its walls for the “seven named exhibition spaces in the museum, including the wing that houses the iconic Temple of Dendur.” This announcement was the culmination of Goldin’s campaign.
Goldin has also recently created luminous landscape photographs that bring up associations with German Romantic artists like Caspar David Friedrich. They are produced alongside her pictures of individuals in household interiors. In 2019, she was commissioned to create new work for the Palace of Versailles exhibition, “Versailles-Visible/Invisible.”
Because of Covid, Goldin, a bisexual, spent her lockdown in her home in Brooklyn with writer Thora Siemsen, a transgender woman. Goldin hadn’t photographed a person for years until she found a “deep connection” with Siemsen. Goldin is “planning a room of photographs of Thora interspersed with new pictures from within my home” for an upcoming show in New York City at Marian Goodman Gallery later this month, January 2022.
Goldin received the French Legion of Honor in 2006 and the Hasselblad Award in 2007 as well as the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal and Honorary Fellowship in 2018. A new documentary, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” shows her fight to hold the Sackler family accountable for hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Her work is in the permanent collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, London’s Tate Modern, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, among others.