Nan Goldin’s photographic work is “about” many things—sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, death, love beauty. Her early photographs, which popularized the harsh light and hasty composition of the snapshot aesthetic, were mostly portraits of her friends. Her first solo show in Boston in 1973 consisted of photos of the gay and transsexual community in the city; in the ‘80s, she made a name for herself in New York with photos of the drug culture in which she lived. Through it all, though, her work has been primarily “about” one thing: the truth. She kept nothing to herself, photographing people exactly as they were, attaching no pretense or promise to the images she made of her friends and associates. “I didn’t care about "good" photography,” Goldin once said of her own work. “I cared about complete honesty.”
And that honesty is what made her body of work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency the widely famous and important series that it is today. Ballad, which takes its title from “The Threepenny Opera” by Bertolt Brecht, debuted in 1985 as a slideshow and was released as an artist’s book in 1986. The work consists of photographs taken between 1979 and 1986 of Goldin’s life and surroundings—the “no-wave” art scene, the post-Stonewall LGBT community, and the heroin culture of the New York neighborhoods where she lived and spent time during those years. The slideshow presentation of the series of more than 700 photographs was set to the music of choice of its subjects: Nina Simone, James Brown, the Velvet Underground, and more. The photos, according to the Guardian, showed Goldin’s friends “as they partied, got high, fought and had sex.”
There is joy in the photos in Ballad: people are shown living the lives they want to live, and loving each other through them. But there is a darker side to the photos, one that lesser photographers may have shied away from, and one that Goldin’s insistence on honesty drew her to powerfully. Most of the people in the photographs in Ballad died in the 1990s, and Goldin’s photos capture the portents of that when they show a group of people being slowly destroyed by heroin, domestic violence, and the AIDS epidemic. As a retrospective look at these people, Ballad takes on a new and more somber meaning.
“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote about her work. “The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.” While at its inception, Ballad was made for and shown to Goldin’s friends and many of the subjects of its own photographs, it now serves as a memorial. The slideshow that Goldin ran by hand on a slide projector several times for her friends before it premiered at the 1985 Whitney Biennial has become a book that honors, mourns, and memorializes the people who sat for Goldin’s camera and watched the work develop.
To Goldin, though, the work has never been anything more or less than exactly what it is: images of her life. “I was one of the first people, at least in the Western world, to photograph my entourage and say that it was as valid as photographing any exotic tribe you don’t know,” she told a Telegraph reporter. “We were the world to each other. We were not marginalized people as everyone writes of us… It was our world. We came from a different planet.”
In the years since that work, Goldin has continued to explore slideshows and a diary approach to photograph, as well as video and filmmaking, landscape, and fashion photography. Her work is diverse and widely acclaimed and written about, but the thread that runs through it all in Goldin’s commitment to staying true to herself, her subjects, and her art: “I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history.”