Nan Goldin
American photographer



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Nan Goldin
American photographer
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ajardini's picture

Sr. Editor

Nan Goldin doesn’t try to make pretty pictures. She’s always been interested in the darker side of life. Sex, drugs, and violence often make their way into her photos.  Perhaps the suicide of her older sister influenced her work. 

In any case, she seems to find inspiration in those folks that look as though they’ve experienced some not so shiny and happy things. You might call it hard living. Whether she’s snapping drag queens at the end of a long night, an impoverished drug addict or a victim of domestic abuse, Goldin’s pictures cut right to the core.

ebrowne's picture


Nan Goldin’s life has been a doozy and you can feel it in her art.

One look at her self portrait, Nan One Month After Being Battered, and you’ll catch my drift. Honestly, you probably don’t even have to look at the piece. You just have to read the title and you can figure out that Nan’s seen some nasty stuff in her lifetime. It all started when she was born. Nan is the youngest of four siblings and her parents were functional, but not great. This neglect was fine for Nan because by the time she was four she loved her friends more than her family anyway, but their family situation didn’t go over well with Nan’s sister Barbara.

Barbara started rebelling, you know, throwing knives and breaking windows and stuff. All the normal teenage defiance. In response, her parents had her committed to a psych ward. When Barbara wanted to come home, her mother said that if she did, she would leave. At the age of eighteen, Barbara died by suicide. And on top of that, Nan was seduced by an older man shortly after her sister's death. But not just any older man. A relative who proposed and then later admitted he had actually been in love with the belated Barbara. Yikes. The cards were heavily stacked against Nan from the beginning, and even more so after she ran away from home at the age of fourteen.

Nan bounced around in the foster system and in various communes before she started going to school. It was there that she finally picked up a camera for the first time. And so the rest of her messed up, hardcore history is well-documented. Nan moved to New York City where she lied with a group of drag queens. In New York she photographed people having sex, doing drugs, and engaging in other various tomfooleries. After that she attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and her photography, which was already amazing, got better. But being a woman, she wasn’t given the credit she deserved until much too late. As Hilton Als, at the New Yorker put it, "There’s an unspoken rule in photography, not to mention in art in general, that women are not supposed to be, technically speaking, voyeurs—they’re supposed to be what voyeurs look at.”

So Goldin waited and in the meantime she met a man by the name of Brian. Brian was an ex-marine so Brian knew how to fight, and who did he fight?  Nan. She explains the extent of the abuse: “Brian was dope-sick. We were staying at a pensione, and he started beating me, and he went for my eyes, and later they had to stitch my eye back up, because it was about to fall out of the socket.” He was the one who caused the bruises in her most famous photograph, Nan One Month After Being Battered. She had the sense not to go back to him, but this incident understandably scarred her.

Nan’s photography has documented one of the the most devastating times in New York history. Her photographs cover the AIDS epidemic and the times leading up to it. She explains her motives for her love of photography: “In the process of leaving my family, in re-creating myself, I lost the real memory of my sister. I remember my version of her, of the things she said, of the things she meant to me. But I don’t remember the tangible sense of who she was...what her eyes looked like, what her voice sounded like...I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.” 



  1. Als, Hilton. "Nan Goldin’S Life In Progress." The New Yorker. N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Sept. 2018.
  2. Goldin, Nan et al. The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation, 2012. Web 6 Sept. 2018.
  3. Silverman, Rena. "Nan Goldin Looks Back At Friends And Lovers." Lens Blog. N.p., 2017. Web. 6 Sept. 2018.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Nan Goldin

Nancy "Nan" Goldin (born September 12, 1953) is an American photographer. Her work often explores LGBT bodies, moments of intimacy, the HIV crisis, and the opioid epidemic. Her most notable work is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), which documents the post-Stonewall gay subculture and Goldin's family and friends. She lives and works in New York City, Berlin, and Paris.

Early life

Goldin was born in Washington, D.C. in 1953 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. Goldin had early exposure to tense family relationships, sexuality, and suicide, as her parents often argued about Goldin's older sister Barbara who ultimately committed suicide when Goldin was 11:

This was in 1965, when teenage suicide was a taboo subject. I was very close to my sister and aware of some of the forces that led her to choose suicide. I saw the role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction. Because of the times, the early sixties, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behavior, beyond control. By the time she was eighteen, she saw that her only way to get out was to lie down on the tracks of the commuter train outside of Washington, D.C. It was an act of immense will.

Goldin began to smoke marijuana and date an older man, and by age 13–14, she left home and enrolled at the Satya Community School in Lincoln. A Satya staff member (experimental philosopher Rollo May's daughter) introduced Goldin to the camera in 1968 when she was fifteen years old. Still struggling from her sister's death, Goldin used the camera and photography to cherish her relationships with those she photographed. She also found the camera as a useful political tool, to inform the public about important issues silenced in America. Her early influences included Andy Warhol's early films, Federico Fellini, Jack Smith, French and Italian Vogue, Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Nan Goldin.