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Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin American photographer

American photographer
Nan Goldin
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro American photographer
A.K.A. Nancy Goldin, Nancy "Nan" Goldin
Is Photographer
From United States of America
Type Arts
Gender female
Birth 12 September 1953, Washington, D.C., District of Columbia, U.S.A.
Age: 66 years
Residence Washington, D.C., Lexington
Nan Goldin
The details


Nancy "Nan" Goldin (born September 12, 1953) is an American photographer. She lives and works in New York City, Berlin, and Paris. Her work usually features LGBT-related themes, images or public figures.

Life and work

The Hug, NYC, 1980, cibachrome, by Goldin.

Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the Boston suburb of Lexington, to middle-class Jewish parents. Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting, and served as the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. After attending the nearby Lexington High School, Goldin left home at 13-14. She enrolled at the Satya Community School in Lincoln, where a teacher, philosopher Rollo May’s daughter, introduced her to the camera in 1968. Goldin was then fifteen years old. Goldin’s need to photograph and express herself to the world stemmed from her older sister Barbara’s suicide when she was only 11 years old. Struggling from such a horrific loss, Goldin went through a stage of using drugs to cope, until she fell in love with the camera, which changed her life forever. It was through her photography that Goldin found meaning, and she cherished her relationships with those she photographed. She also found the camera as a useful political tool, in order to inform the public about important issues silenced in America (O'Hagan, Sean. "Nan Goldin: 'I Wanted to Get High from a Really Early Age'") Her early influences were Andy Warhol's early films, Federico Fellini, Jack Smith, French and Italian Vogue, Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton.

Her first solo show, held in Boston in 1973, was based on her photographic journeys among the city's gay and transsexual communities, to which she had been introduced by her friend David Armstrong. While living in downtown Boston at age 18, Goldin “fell in with the drag queens,” living with them and photographing them. Unlike some photographers who were interested in psychoanalyzing or exposing the queens, Goldin admired and respected their sexuality. Goldin said, “My desire was to show them as a third gender, as another sexual option, a gender option. And to show them with a lot of respect and love, to kind of glorify them because I really admire people who can recreate themselves and manifest their fantasies publicly. I think it’s brave”. Goldin admitted to being romantically in love with a queen during this period of her life in a Q&A with “BOMB,” “I remember going through a psychology book trying to find something about it when I was nineteen. There was one little chapter about it in an abnormal psych book that made it sound so… I don’t know what they ascribed it to, but it was so bizarre. And that’s where I was at that time in my life. I lived with them; it was my whole focus. Everything I did -- that’s who I was all the time. And that’s who I wanted to be”. Goldin describes her life as being completely immersed in the queens’. However, after she went to the school of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, her professors told her to go back and photograph queens again, Goldin admitted her work was not the same as when she had lived with them. Goldin graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University in 1977/1978, where she had worked mostly with Cibachrome prints. Her work from this period is associated with the Boston School of photography.

Following graduation, Goldin moved to New York City. She began documenting the post-punk new-wave music scene, along with the city's vibrant, post-Stonewall gay subculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was drawn especially to the hard-drug subculture of the Bowery neighborhood; these photographs, taken between 1979 and 1986, form her famous work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency — a title taken from a song in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. Published with help from Marvin Heiferman, Mark Holborn, and Suzanne Fletcher, these snapshot aesthetic images depict drug use, violent, aggressive couples and autobiographical moments. In her foreword to the book she describes it as a “diary [she] lets people read” of people she referred to as her “tribe”. Part of Ballad was driven by the need to remember her extended family. Photography was a way for her to hold onto her friends, she hoped. The photographs show a transition through Goldin’s travels and her life. Most of her Ballad subjects were dead by the 1990s, lost either to drug overdose or AIDS; this tally included close friends and often-photographed subjects Greer Lankton and Cookie Mueller. In 2003, The New York Times nodded to the work's impact, explaining Goldin had "forged a genre, with photography as influential as any in the last twenty years." In addition to Ballad, she combined her Bowery pictures in two other series: I'll Be Your Mirror (from a song on The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico album) and All By Myself.

Goldin's work is most often presented in the form of a slideshow, and has been shown at film festivals; her most famous being a 45-minute show in which 800 pictures are displayed. The main themes of her early pictures are love, gender, domesticity, and sexuality; these frames are usually shot with available light. She has affectionately documented women looking in mirrors, girls in bathrooms and barrooms, drag queens, sexual acts, and the culture of obsession and dependency. The images are viewed like a private journal made public. In the book Auto-Focus, her photographs are described as a way to “learn the stories and intimate details of those closest to her”. It speaks of her uncompromising manner and style when photographing acts such as drug use, sex, violence, arguments, and traveling. It references one of Goldin’s famous photographs 'Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984' as an iconic image which she uses to reclaim her identity and her life.

Goldin's work since 1995 has included a wide array of subject matter: collaborative book projects with Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki; New York City skylines; uncanny landscapes (notably of people in water); her lover, Siobhan; and babies, parenthood and family life.

In 2000, her hand was injured and she currently retains less ability to turn it than in the past.

Christmas at the Other Side, Boston, 1972, by Goldin.

In 2006, her exhibition, Chasing a Ghost, opened in New York. It was the first installation by her to include moving pictures, a fully narrative score, and voiceover, and included the three-screen slide and video presentation Sisters, Saints, & Sybils which has been described as disturbing. The work involved her sister Barbara's suicide and how she coped through production of numerous images and narratives. Her works are developing more and more into cinemaesque features, exemplifying her gravitation towards working with films.

Goldin has undertaken commercial fashion photography – for Australian label Scanlan & Theodore's spring/summer 2010 campaign, shot with model Erin Wasson; for Italian luxury label Bottega Veneta's spring/summer 2010 campaign with models Sean O'Pry and Anya Kazakova, evoking memories of her Ballad of Sexual Dependency; for shoemaker Jimmy Choo in 2011 with model Linda Vojtova; and for Dior in 2013, 1000 LIVES, featuring Robert Pattinson.


Some critics have accused Goldin of making heroin use appear glamorous and of pioneering a grunge style that later became popularized by youth fashion magazines such as The Face and I-D. However, in a 2002 interview with The Observer, Goldin herself called the use of "heroin chic" to sell clothes and perfumes "reprehensible and evil." Goldin admits to having a romanticized image of drug culture at a young age, but she soon saw the error in this ideal: “I had a totally romantic notion of being a junkie. I wanted to be one.” Goldin’s substance usage stopped after she became intrigued with the idea of memory in her work, “When people talk about the immediacy in my work, that’s what its about: this need to remember and record every single thing” Goldin's interest in drugs stemmed from a sort of rebellion against parental guidance that parallels her decision to run away from home at a young age, "I wanted to get high from a really early age. I wanted to be a junkie. That's what intrigues me. Part was the Velvet Underground and the Beats and all that stuff. But, really, I wanted to be as different from my mother as I could and define myself as far as possible from the suburban life I was brought up in."

Goldin denies the role of voyeur; she is instead a queer insider sharing the same experiences as her subjects: “I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.” She insists her subjects have veto power over what she exhibits. In Fantastic Tales Liz Kotz criticizes Goldin's claim that she is just as much a part of what she is photographing rather than exploiting her subjects. Goldin’s insistence on intimacy between artist and subject is an attempt to relegitimize the codes and conventions of social documentary, presumably by ridding them of their problematic enmeshment with the histories of social surveillance and coercion, says Kotz. [Her] insider status does nothing to alter the way her pictures convert her audience into voyeurs.


An exhibition of Goldin's work was censored in Brazil, two months before opening, due to its sexually explicit nature. The main reason was that some of the photographs contained sexual acts performed near children. In Brazil, there is a law that prohibits the image of minors associated with pornography.

The sponsor of the exhibition, a cellphone company, claimed to be unaware of the content of Goldin's work and that there was a conflict between the work and its educational project. The curator of the Rio de Janeiro Museum of Modern Art changed the schedule in order to accommodate, in February 2012, the Goldin exhibition in Brazil.


Diane Arbus

Both Goldin and Diane Arbus celebrate those who live marginal lives. Stills from Variety are compared to Arbus’ magazine work; the Variety series portray “the rich collision of music, club life, and art production of the Lower East Side pre and post AIDS period”. Both artists ask to reexamine artists' intentionality.

Michelangelo Antonioni

One of the reasons Goldin began photographing was Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). The sexuality and glamour of the film exerted a “huge effect” on her. Referring to images shown in Ballad, "the beaten down and beaten up personages, with their gritty, disheveled miens, which populate these early pictures, often photographed in the dark and dank, ramshackle interiors, relate physically and emotionally to the alienated and marginal character types that attracted Antonioni"

Larry Clark

The youths in Larry Clark's Tulsa (1971) presented a striking contrast to any wholesome, down-home stereotype of the heartland that captured the collective American imagination. He turned the camera on himself and his lowlife amphetamine-shooting board of hanger-ons. Goldin would adopt Clark’s approach to image-making.



  • 2006: French Legion of Honor.
  • 2007: Hasselblad Award.
  • 2012: 53rd Edward MacDowell Medal, MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH.


  • Tate, London
  • The Jewish Museum

Portrayal in film

The photographs by the character Lucy Berliner, played by actress Ally Sheedy in the 1998 film High Art, were based on those by Goldin.

The photographs shown in the film, Working Girls (1986) as taken by the lead character "Molly," were actually those of Goldin.


Books by Goldin

  • The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture, 1986. ISBN 978-0-89381-236-2.
  • Cookie Mueller (exhibition catalogue). New York: Pace/MacGill Gallery, 1991.
  • The Other Side. Perseus Distribution Services, 1993. ISBN 1-881616-03-7.
  • Vakat. Cologne: Walter Konig, 1993.
  • Desire by Numbers. San Francisco: Artspace, 1994.
  • A double life. Zurich: Scalo, 1994.
  • Tokyo Love. Tokyo: Hon don do, 1994.
  • The Golden Years (exhibition catalogue). Paris: Yvon Lambert, 1995.
  • I'll Be Your Mirror (exhibition catalogue). Zurich: Scalo, 1996. ISBN 978-3-931141-33-2.
  • Love Streams (exhibition catalogue). Paris: Yvon Lambert, 1997.
  • Emotions and Relations (exhibition catalogue). Cologne: Taschen, 1998.
  • Ten Years After: Naples 1986-1996. Zurich: Scalo, 1998. ISBN 978-3-931141-79-0.
  • Couples and Loneliness. Tokyo: Korinsha, 1998.
  • Nan Goldin: Recent Photographs. Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1999.
  • Nan Goldin. 55, London: Phaidon, 2001. ISBN 978-0-7148-4073-4.
  • Devils Playground. London: Phaidon, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7148-4223-3.
  • Soeurs, Saintes et Sibylles. Editions du Regard, 2005. ISBN 978-2-84105-179-3.
  • The Beautiful Smile. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007. ISBN 978-3-86521-539-0.
  • Variety: Photographs by Nan Goldin. Skira Rizzoli, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8478-3255-2.
  • Eden and After. London: Phaidon, 2014. ISBN 978-0714865775.

Books with contributions by Goldin

  • Emotions & Relations. Foto Series. Taschen, 1998. With David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. ISBN 978-3822875070.
  • So the Story Goes: Photographs by Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Larry Sultan. Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0300114119.
  • Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. By Susan Bright. London: Thames & Hudson, 2010. ISBN 978-0500543894. Includes three contributions by Goldin.

Selected solo exhibitions

  • 1987: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, screening. Rencontres d'Arles.
  • 1987: Nan Goldin, exhibition. Rencontres d'Arles.
  • 1996: I'll be Your Mirror, retrospectives, Whitney Museum of American Art, and traveled to Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; Kunsthalle Wien; and National Museum, Prague.
  • 1997: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, exhibition and screening, Théâtre Antique. Rencontres d'Arles.
  • 2001: Le Feu Follet, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and traveled to Whitechapel Gallery, London; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Fundação de Serralves, Porto, Portugal; Castello di Rivoli, Turin; and Ujazdów Castle, Warsaw.
  • 2009: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, exhibition and screening, Guest of honour at Rencontres d'Arles
  • 2017: Weekend Plans, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

Exhibitions curated by Goldin

  • 1991: From Desire: A Queer Diary, Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY
  • Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, November 16, 1989 – January 6, 1990. New York artists responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis, with work by David Armstrong, Tom Chesley, Dorit Cypris, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Jane Dickson, Darrel Ellis, Allen Frame, Peter Hujar, Greer Lankton, Siobhan Liddel, James Nares, Perico Pastor, Margo Pelletier, Clarence Elie Rivera, Vittorio Scarpati, Jo Shane, Kiki Smith, Janet Stein, Stephen Tashjian, Shellburne Thurber, Ken Tisa, David Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz’s essay “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell” in the Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing exhibition ignited the controversy of this exhibition, by criticizing conservative policymakers for legislation that Wojnarowicz believed would increase the spread of the disease by discouraging safe sex education. Additionally, it speaks about the efficacy of making the private public. Both artists’ politics derive from the model of “outing" which was essential to the gay rights movement: empowerment begins through self-disclosure and the personal becomes political. Both artists use private relations to disrupt oppressive rules of behaviour of bourgeois society even as they fear that such private revelations will lock their subjects into frozen identities.
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