Why Nan Goldin’s Intimate Portraits of 1980s New York Are Still So Relevant

feared she would die young and at her own hand. Her sister lay down in front of an oncoming train at age 18, when Goldin was just 11 years old. After leaving home a few years later, Goldin settled first in Boston and then the gritty New York of the early 1980s. It was there that she began her multi-decade chronicle of her life, the LGBT community, and the heroin-addicted subculture of the city, not as a wide-eyed outsider but as one of the group. “Drugs set me free,” she has said. “And then they became my prison.” Her intimate images taken through the ’70s and ’80s constitute the Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979–86), a 40-minute slideshow of some 700 photographs, first displayed in downtown spaces to audiences comprised of friends and acquaintances—who often recognized themselves in Goldin’s images.
The work—which has been tweaked slightly from the original—is now projected on MoMA’s second floor, in a solo exhibition. Curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Rajendra Roy, and Lucy Gallun, it also includes historical prints advertising those original showings (sometimes boasting a John Waters double bill or a drag show). Though New York has changed since then, and many of the bodies Goldin captured are lost (to time, to AIDs, to suicide), Ballad continues to evolve, finding new meaning in a present moment where social neglect and violence continue to impact those, particularly in the LGBTQ community, who exist in worlds often unseen by “mainstream” society. “The timeliness of having such a powerful statement about queer identity is placed in a horrifically different context,” says Roy, alluding to the recent shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. “We wish that context didn’t exist, but it speaks to the power of a great work like this—it has the ability to resonate in ways that are unexpected and vital 20 years on and, we’re confident, decades into the future.”
The work itself is transfixing, oscillating between what Goldin called the light and dark of her life. An image of laughing friends dancing in an apartment fades to photographs of heroin needles fades to a fresh heart-shaped bruise on a woman’s leg. Goldin has called the Ballad a diary, and the effortless intimacy established by the photographs suggests the artist’s refusal to wield the camera as a mere accessory to her life. To banish her lens was to banish her entirely, and those she photographed seem to have accepted Goldin’s camera the way one would accept a person: as a friend. The privileges of this relationship manifest palpably. In the images of friends having sex, shooting up, or just laughing, Goldin is allowed to capture people at their most vulnerable.
But access would be nothing without a keen eye. Goldin occasionally turned her camera on bare space (empty rooms, banal objects, messy beds), but she is at her best when photographing people, often quite bare themselves. Men looking at men, men at women, women at women, individuals looking directly at the camera—Goldin can freeze a furtive look across a room or a bed with such vividness that those pictured seem physically bound, sexual tension underlying their gazes.
Goldin’s strong compositions sometimes let us forget the fragility of the bodies within them. But over and over again she shows us that behind the bravado is a body. A photograph of her own beaten face looking unflinchingly at the camera, her pupil swimming in a pool of blood, is among the most famous in the series. Goldin, as she said herself, didn’t capture these photos as an expression of nostalgia. They depict her life, in all its shades, and they assert the humanity of those who lived it with her. For similar reasons, Goldin rejects the idea that Ballad captured people who existed on the margins of society. These individuals, threatened by those in positions of power who viewed them as deviant, existed at the center of her world. Even as Goldin captured smiling queer couples, Ronald Reagan refused to mention AIDs publicly, let alone mobilize a response.
Since then much has changed for the better. But things can change without growing distant. Today, a heroin epidemic rages through much of the country, and we are all too frequently reminded that the lives of LGBTQ people are precarious, and that the very spaces they look to for safety can become targets. In equal measure, we witness the resilience of friendship, solidarity, and people coming together to find joy. Sitting in a dark room watching the photographs of Ballad flit by as the Velvet Underground wails, one feels that the past is as close as it is far away.
Perhaps that is because photographs—Goldin’s included—never cease to develop. Long after the shutter’s click, after the photograph has transferred from negative to film, the image continues to accrue new meanings and lose old ones. We put a great deal of faith in the ability of photographs to act as safe deposit boxes, entrusting them with the precious moments that shouldn’t be left to a mind’s fickle memory alone. But, for better and for worse, a photograph inevitably buckles under the weight of this impossible expectation. “I thought it could save the person somehow,” artist Nan Goldin told Vanity Fair of her photographs. “But without the voice, without the body, without the smell, without the laugh, it doesn’t do much. Well, it keeps a memory, but then it becomes a memory of the picture at some point.”

Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.