Nan Goldin’s “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” Showcases the Artist’s Defiant Activism

Elyssa Goodman
Mar 13, 2023 3:10PM

Nan Goldin in the bathroom with roommate in the 1970s. Courtesy of NEON.

Laura Poitras’s Academy Award–nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022) about photographer Nan Goldin is a powerful and thoughtfully constructed film. Focusing on Goldin’s work with the activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), it allows viewers to continue appreciating the ongoing rebellion and inspiration of this singular artist.

Poitras—whose documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizenfour (2014), won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2015—seamlessly and intelligently tells the story of Goldin’s life through her work with PAIN. As the group attempts to take down the Sackler family for their knowing involvement in the opioid crisis, we learn this is certainly not Goldin’s first act of social defiance.

Goldin saw the way conformity and revisionism affected her sister Barbara in the early 1960s, as their family repeatedly institutionalized her when she rebelled, forcing her out of sight. This familial toxicity ultimately led to her teenage sister’s heartwrenching suicide. Throughout Goldin’s own life, she has carried her sister’s sense of rebellion, pushing against norms and forcing space for truths too many are too scared to tell. Her reasons for activism, for defiance, all unravel, giving both her work with PAIN and her artistic practice an even deeper meaning and intensity.

Nan Goldin, Self portrait with scratched back after sex, London, 1978. Courtesy of Nan Goldin.


Goldin sought to prevent others, including herself, from facing the prejudices her sister faced. During her time in art school at Tufts University, Goldin photographed the queer men and transgender women she lived with, because she “wanted the queens to be on the cover of Vogue,” as she says in the film. “My roommates, they were running away from America and they found each other. They didn’t think, ‘We’re pioneers or rebels,’ they just were. It was about living out what they needed to live out, in spite of the reaction from the outside world.” Through her images in this body of work and subsequent ones, it feels as though Goldin was able to give her sister another life by documenting those who lived with an abandon, even a fraught one, that Barbara never got to have.

In 1989, when Goldin noticed that those in the public sphere were not openly talking about AIDS despite the rapidly increasing deaths around her, she curated the group exhibition “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” to amplify the voices of those affected. The show caused an uproar, and the National Endowment of the Arts pulled its funding. Hearing of this, the renowned composer and conductor Leonard Berstein rejected his National Medal for the Arts. “It was about the loss of a community and trying to keep people’s legacy alive,” Goldin says of the exhibition in the film. Indeed, Goldin and the show made sure people couldn’t look away.

Nan Goldin holding hands with her sister Barbara in the 1950s. Courtesy of NEON.

With these experiences of bearing witness blended together, it’s more than clear why Goldin would embark on a journey with PAIN as a survivor of the opioid crisis herself. “You grow up being told, ‘That didn’t happen. You didn’t see that. You didn’t hear that.’ And what do you do? How do you believe yourself? How do you trust yourself? How do you continue to trust yourself? And then how do you show the world that you did experience that, that you did hear that?” Goldin asks in the documentary. “That’s the reason I take pictures.”

Poitras astutely features Goldin’s photographs as the backdrop for much of the film’s storytelling. In doing so, she acknowledges both their role as illustrative autobiographical footage of Goldin’s life and their history in the slideshows that would form the basis of Goldin’s famed “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” series (1980–86). Originally shown in downtown New York clubs with a musical soundtrack of the artist’s choosing, the slideshows were one of the first ways she exhibited her work. In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, we get to revisit the photographs in another form, as Goldin’s voice now becomes the music.

One of the most powerful stories she tells in the documentary involves her former lover Brian, whom she photographed extensively. As their relationship came to a close, he became the malefactor behind Goldin’s compelling image Nan one month after being battered (1984). When Goldin—eyes shattered—fled Brian’s abuse, he torched her possessions. Her “Ballad” slideshow was not among the scorched debris, to Goldin’s relief, and now the art world’s at large.

“The greatest luck of my life is that I left the slideshow at the loft where I’d shown it,” she says in the film. Then, Goldin’s and Poitras’s voices join together: “Because he would have destroyed it.” It’s mere seconds of the film, but their voices in unison are a potent reminder that, in this experience of intimate partner violence, Goldin is not alone. When so much of the artist’s life has been dedicated to finding community and solidarity with loved ones, it’s powerful to know Poitras stands with Goldin the way so many women have before.

Throughout All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, we witness how anger, rage, sadness, love, and justice can come together in art and activism to combat stigma and erasure—to rebel, to literally and figuratively preserve life. Early on in the film, Goldin shares that she learned how conformity and denial can destroy people, and in turn, she made it her life’s work to do the opposite. “My sister was a victim of all that, but she knew how to fight back,” she says. “Her rebellion was the starting point for my own.”

Elyssa Goodman