Nan Goldin’s photographs are not always easy to face. They show hardship, violence and pain. But they also, and more importantly, show life – the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
Nan Goldin grew up near Boston in the 1950s. The Norman Rockwell image of suburban middle-class life imploded when her older sister committed suicide when Goldin was 11. Her sister wanted to live freely, but the loosening of social mores and the sexual revolution the pill introduced in the 60s hadn’t happened yet. Nan Goldin is a product of the liberation her sister never saw.
She started documenting her friends as a teenager, capturing unfiltered moments of intimacy and vulnerability. She befriended people in the LGBTQ+ community and ended up, a few years later, documenting the desolation the AIDS crisis brought onto her friends.
Most recently, while documenting the opioid crisis that has been ravaging the US, Golding became a vocal opponent to the Sackler family and their company, Purdue, which produced and pushed Oxycontin. She targeted museums and universities that accepted their money and shed light on the ugly side of philanthropy. Her activism bore fruit: in December 2021, the Met Museum in New York removed the Sackler name from its exhibition halls.
Her interest in people on the fringe stemmed from her teenage rebellion and the cultural environment of the time. She saw junkies as romantic figures but eventually cut through the haze and saw them for what they were – tragic figures, people lost to forces stronger and darker than themselves.
She often explained that her photographs are like her own private diary, just one made public. They are her way to celebrate and remember her friends when so many of them have passed away or were never recognized by society. Her work is about memory, first and foremost.
Nan Goldin doesn’t shy away from the pain that sometimes comes with being alive. I remember her show at MoMA and seeing with her (in)famous self-portrait where you see her with a black eye after an argument with her boyfriend. I find the image difficult to look at – the idea of getting punched in the face by the person I love is pretty terrifying for me – but there she stood, upright and strong, flaunting expectations of decorum or victimhood.
Her photographs are very intimate and raise at time question about voyeurism. I don’t think anyone can accuse Nan Goldin of being a voyeur – these are her people, her friends, her tribe. She shares these moments with them, lives their pain and joy.
But what about the people looking at these private moments? What about us, looking at these photographs hanging on a wall of a gallery or museum? Aren’t we voyeurs?
© Nan Goldin
Disclaimer: Aurelie’s Gallery does not represent Nan Goldin, nor claims to do so. My “Photographers I love” series is purely for inspiration and to encourage discussion.