NAN GOLDIN by Steven Westfall

Nov 7, 2012 6:58PM

From:  BOMB 37/Fall 1991

Steven Westfall: Do you think that photography can instruct in some way?

Nan Goldin: I don’t know. That depends on how it’s used. It can reveal. It can help one understand one’s self and one’s life and the world. The pictures of Cookie [Mueller] are coming out in a book. I’ve been working on it since the show at Pace-MacGill. And I’ve been approached by about four different people to do a new book lately, But I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do.

SW: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency...

NG: Returns…

SW: Continues. What gave you the title?

NG: It was from a Kurt Weill song. It’s not an exact translation but a compilation of different translations. It’s what I came up with.

SW: I constructed this myth about you as someone who came to photography the way you pick up a Brownie Instamatic and just start shooting. There was an aura of haphazard urgency to the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, that seemed intensely un-art-like. I’m curious about how you got started taking pictures.

NG: I left home when I was 13 or 14 and lived in communes and went to one of those free schools in the ‘60s based on Summerhill in Massachusetts called Setya, which means the existence of the knowledge of truth. Rollo May’s daughter was one of the teachers at Setya and she got a grant from Polaroid. I became the school photographer and that’s how I started. I was about fifteen or sixteen. When I was eighteen, I started living with this man who was in his thirties in downtown Boston and I fell in with these drag queens. I started living with them and photographing them. That’s when I started taking pictures seriously. At that point I had no photography education. I was very affected by early Warhol films and by Fellini. When I was at that hippy free school, I went to the movies every day because there were no classes really and in Boston, the film scene was really vital then. I saw Jack Smith’s films, I saw just incredible stuff. And French and Italian Vogue were my influences. I was very influenced by Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. I wanted to be a fashion photographer. I was living with these queens and I wanted to put them on the cover of Vogue. That was my big aspiration. I used to take the film to the drug store to get it processed. Then I decided to take a studio photography course, so I could learn to use a studio camera. I went to one class and I couldn’t deal with the technology. So I started taking classes with this man, Henry Hornstein. The first time he ever saw my work, he said, “Do you know the work of Larry Clark?” And he showed me Larry Clark’s work. He showed me Diane Arbus’s work. He showed me Weegee and August Sander.

SW: So you saw Larry’s work, the same time you saw Diane Arbus’s work?

NG: My reference to photography was fashion photography. So I had no real relationship to art photography at all.