Nan Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the Boston suburb of Lexington. Her richly colored snapshots capture a world that is universally human yet highly personal. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a filmic slideshow, presents hundreds of intense, intimate moments from Goldin’s life in New York during the 1970s and ‘80s—the artist in bed with her lover, drag queens kissing in bars, a man suffering from HIV. While Goldin, now recognized as a pioneer of diaristic photography, documents with unflinching candor a society ravaged by AIDS, drug addiction, and abuse, it is the empathy reflected in these images that imbue them with a remarkable lyricism. Unlike the cool detachment of documentary photography, taking pictures for Goldin is “a way of touching someone—a form of tenderness.”
Goldin's 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.”
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 gaysubculture 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”. 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.
She exhibited an updated edition of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at the MOMA until April 16, 2017. The same series is currently featured in an exhibition titled Real Worlds: Brassaï, Arbus, Goldin at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles through September 3, 2018.