“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.” – Nan Goldin
Now a celebrated American artist, Nan Goldin first broke into the art scene in 1986 with “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, a deeply personal visual diary narrating the struggle for intimacy and understanding between her friends, family and lovers. Originally presented as a slideshow accompanied by the music of the Velvet Underground, James Brown, Nina Simone, Charles Aznavour and others, the diary was first created simply to entertain Nan’s friends – many of whom were part of the hard-drugs subculture in New York’s Lower East Side. Desirous of life – they partied, got high, fought, had sex, contracted AIDS and, ironically, faded away.
Currently on display at the MoMA, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is being presented in its original 35mm format, along with photographs from the museum’s collection that also appear as images in the slideshow. Opening the installation is a selection of materials from the artist’s archive, including posters and flyers announcing early iterations of the work.
A frank depiction of love and loss
The project was first publicly shown at New York’s Whitney Biennial in 1985 and was published as a photo book the following year. Being in the midst of a maelstrom while trying to keep herself afloat, Nan Goldin used photography to create a physical sense of memory, her work becoming an invocation of a time and place though permeated with a deep sense of loss. Titled after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera”, Goldin’s Ballad is a downtown opera itself.
Over the past 25 years, the impact of the book exists not only in photography, but also within a social context. Helping to raise awareness around subjects such as homosexuality and AIDS, the work is now revered as a contemporary classic.
Goldin’s open, frank style of narration and dense colour make the viewer go beyond the surface of the photograph to encounter a subterranean intensity. Through a deeply honest and personal record of her life and the lives of Nan’s friends, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” reveals Goldin’s personal odyssey, as well as a universal understanding of the human enigmas accompanying our lives – passion, struggle, autonomy, dependency, love and loss.
“I survive by taking pictures.” – Goldin
The traumatic background behind Nan’s Ballad
Photography, as Nan Goldin has often attested, has not only illuminated her life but also saved her soul. “Every time I go through something scary or traumatic,” she once said, “I survive by taking pictures.” The traumatic experiences came early in her life. Born Nancy Goldin into a middle-class Jewish family in Lexington, a suburb of Boston, she was the youngest of four children, with two brothers and a sister. Goldin was very close to her sister, Barbara, who from an early age rebelled against the respectability of American middle class. She would witness her sister’s growing anger and pain until Barbara committed suicide at the age of 18.
When Goldin moved to New York at the end of the seventies she began making photographs of those in her immediate environment, creating a body of work that later would become “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. With an intense relationship between photographer and subject, Goldin would even refer to her subjects as her “family”. “Bonded not by blood, but by a similar morality, the need to live fully and for the moment,” Goldin wrote later. In discovering and admiring this surrogate family, Goldin was also acknowledging her sister, who, as she once put it, “was born at the wrong time and had no tribe, no other people like her.”
Nan Goldin’s story of urban life on the edge was the swan song of a turbulent and poignant time in New York’s history that reached its peak in the early ’80s. The artist’s work captures an essential element of humanity that is transcendent of all struggles: the need to connect.
“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” by Nan Goldin is on display at the MoMA, New York, until 12 February 2017