The young Nan Goldin caught Stephen Shore’s series American Surfaces when it was shown at New York’s Light Gallery in 1973, and it apparently made quite an impression. The account of his trips across the United States, presented as a grid of standard Kodak prints, with its casual, spontaneous focus on private rather than public concerns suggested a realm of possibilities. Another point of reference for her later work would seem to be Larry Clark’s Tulsa, a book published in 1971. Clark scored a notable succès de scandale with his downbeat, revealing (in more ways than one) photographs of youth commune in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The photographer showed a world of sex and drug abuse, when serious drug-taking seemed to rate higher than casual sex on the activities list. He lived with the kids and did everything they did. It was a true photo-diary, and view from the inside, and Tulsa became one one of the most talked about and important photobooks of the 1970’s, making Clark photography’s resident ‘bad boy’.
With publication of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in 1986, it looked as if Nan Goldin was bidding to become photography’s ‘bad girl’, although beside Clark - who had raised the stakes by serving a stretch in prison and published the notorious Teenage Lust (1983) - Goldin was tame stuff indeed. But, like Clark, Goldin depicted a bohemian world of squats and shared apartments, and international coterie of youth born out of the punk movement, in which drugs and liberated view of sex flourished. However, there were important differences in the work, and these were explained not just by the fact that Clark worked gritty in black and white and Goldin in seductive colour. The books differed completely in their view of women and of gender relations generally.
Goldin’s life - and that means her work - was shaped by the suicide of her sister Barbara Holly Goldin, in 1965, when Nan was fourteen. Deeply disturbed by this event, Goldin moves in with a series of foster families and enrolled in an alternative schools called Satya Community School, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. There she met two important friends, David Armstrong and Suzanne Fletcher, and began to photograph with them, firstly at Satya and then at the Boston School of Fine Arts.
Goldin, Armstrong and Fletcher used photography both to record their lives and reinvent them, rather in the manner of Cindy Sherman. Dressing-up and role playing were important components of their photographic experiments. Armstrong had also introduced Goldin to the Boston drag scene, and this - a transgressive sub-culture embedded within ‘normal’ society - as well as the blurring of gender differences that drag and cross-dressing entail became primary themes in Goldin’s work.
In 1978, she moved to New York, and her life went into overdrive, a round of parties, drugs and alcohol, sex and relationships. Despite the pace, she documented anything and everything, the good and the bad, even beatings from boyfriends, because the excessive use of drugs and alcohol meant that abusive relationships were common among her circle of friends. She became involved in the thriving New York punk-rock scene, and began to show her photography in the form of slide show. This slide show, which she carefully arranged with musical soundtrack, was presented in clubs like Tin Pan Alley, a venue that provided work space and gallery for young artists involved in the scene.
As Goldin evolved as an artist and became more confident in her work, the slide show also evolved, gaining the title The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. At the instigation of photo- impressario Mavin Heiferman, and with the help of the distinguished photo-editor Mark Holborn, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was published in book form by Aperture in 1986. A mass of material from the slide show was edited down and grouped in thematic sections - women alone and together, men alone and together, children, marriage, sex, death.
As these divisions indicate, the book is about relationships - about Goldin’s relationships with her friends and lovers certainly, but also about the nurturing yet often corrosive nature of human relationships generally. That makes The Ballad a more complex work than, say, Clark’s Tulsa or Teenage Lust. Goldin looks beyond the sleazy glamour of the sex and drugs to examine such issues as the limitations of society’s prescribed roles for the genders and the conflicted, often violent (emotionally and physically) aspects of sexual relationships. Behind the vibrant and seductive colour of her imagery, her view is clearly profoundly pessimistic.Yet, as someone who lost a sister and felt that deeply, she still admits the need to form relationships:
I often fear that men and women are irrevocably strangers to each other, irreconcilably unsuited, almost as if they were from different planets. But there is an intense need for coupling in spite of it all. Even if relationships are destructive, people cling together.
Throughout The Ballad, Goldin subverts stereotyped gender roles. Men are shown vulnerable as well as tough, women tough as well as vulnerable. And she often photographs like a predatory voyeur - employing the searing intensity of flash, for instance - although the results are far from voyeuristic. She is remarkably non-judgmental about her subjects, even those who have beaten her up, and the aspect of her work makes The Ballad one of the most generous and open-minded examinations of the thorny relationships between the sexes. Her imagery deals with issues of gender representation quite as well as any of the more theoretical post-modernists, and it resonates more than most because it has authentic ring of lived experience. ‘You can only speak with true empathy about what you have experienced’, she has written.
Unlike some photographers working in the ‘diaristic’ mode and using the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ she does not deny its origins, and clearly has a great ambition for it.
My work originally came out of the snapshots 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.
The last sentence is a good definition of photographs generally.
Although Goldin has said that The Ballad is ‘my family, my history’, it soars beyond that circumscribed horizon, unlike many of the imitations it has spawned. But her work - like that of Diane Arbus, with whom she can be usefully compared - does not revolve simply around personal relationships. It continually demonstrates how personal relationships determine social relationships and then societal relationships. Like Arbus, Nan Goldin surefootedly negotiates the tightrope between the personal and the public, confession and art, the snapshot and the documentary. That is the true value and potential of the ‘diaristic’ mode at its best. Like the best photography, it holds up a mirror to its time
This text is written by Gerry Badger taken from the book
The Genius of Photography, 2007