For three reasons, Nan Goldin is the odd one out in this short series of artists who lived with HIV and AIDS. She’s a woman; she’s still alive and she’s not HIV positive but there’s probably nobody on the planet who has a better understanding of how the virus killed and still kills on the margins of society.
She was there when it all began, lived through the worst years of the plague and lost countless friends in the process. She must wonder how she escaped infection but was not immune to personal trauma, having nearly died of drug abuse herself. Like many others, she was both a witness and a partaker but the difference is that through photography, she documented those times in such a way that nobody could ever again seek to glamourize or romanticise what it was to live and die with AIDS There was and is no photoshop in her work; she photographed what she saw and faked nothing.
She was born in 1953 and grew up in a nice area of Boston, Massachusetts. From all accounts, she didn’t have a happy childhood, highlighted by the fact that her older sister lay down in front of a commuter train, after supposed struggles with sex addiction. Nan was 14 at the time and unsurprisingly, was deeply affected by the trauma: so much so that she ran away from home, began to drink and do drugs, as well as becoming sexually active. It led to several stays in foster homes but she got a lucky break when she was sent to the Satya Community School. This was an alternative educational system, where the education was child-centred. One teacher gave her a camera and from that point on, she found a meaningful way for her to interact with new people. She even called it ‘a form of safe sex’. It seemed the camera became the safety barrier between herself and the people she was mixing with but one which allowed her to record her life and preserve memories.
Given what she was to go on to do, it was certainly that defining moment that so many artists experience but are often unaware of at the time.
“I knew from a very early age, that what I saw on TV had nothing to do with real life. So I wanted to make a record of real life. That included having a camera with me at all times.”
After the Satya School, she moved into Boston and joined a photography programme at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Chance meant that her two roommates were young drag queens and they introduced her to Boston’s gay life in its many forms. The basis of her future photographic portfolio lay there. She photographed both her roommates and those in their circles and clichéd as it may sound, found a family that was no more dysfunctional than her own.
It was her ability to produce images of both intimate moments in their lives as well as the public personas and on-stage fantasies that fine-tuned her growth as a documentary maker unlike any other. Between 1969 and 1974, she created a sequence of ‘family’ pictures called the ‘Boston Years’. Mostly in black and white, they show a style that was both old-style Hollywood and gritty realism and formed the basis of the powerful work that was to come.
Ironically enough, during the 80s, this group of people that had restored Goldin’s equilibrium was diminishing fast and succumbing to social diseases like alcoholism, drug use and suicide but also HIV and Aids. Nan Goldin, recorded their demise with unusual honesty. She was compassionate but able to avoid cliché. The images from this period were honest to the point of painful and totally non-judgemental. Whether they were living on the edge, having sex or dying as a result, Goldin carried on recording their lives in such a way that it became both a portrait of life on society’s margins and an important historical record.
Her photos were confrontational, not to every one’s taste and often criticised as being technically naïve but it was never her aim to satisfy critics. She just wanted to record life in her circles as she saw it.
Many of her photographs were shot in what seemed like strange lighting conditions and appeared grainy or blurred, which led to criticisms of amateurism but that was the point. That meant that the images were spontaneous and anything but studio-arranged and gave them a sort of atmosphere that made the viewer feel they were there in the room with the subject at that moment in time.
“I take pictures no matter what the light is. If I want to take a picture, I don’t care if there is light or no light. If I want to take a picture, I take it no matter what.”
In the ten years between 1978 and 1988, Goldin established her growing reputation with a project called, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (a title taken from a song in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera). It was a book and a slide installation comprising in excess of 800 images, which she constantly edited and updated over fifteen years. That very editing meant it was never dated and always current and it gave her cult status on the edges of the art scene. It pulled no punches and documents a whole spectrum of human interactions and was backed by a soundtrack including reggae, opera and rock music.
“The Ballad is about the problems of coupling, how difficult it is, and this is more about the joy. It shows problems, but also the way people work those problems out. And also the difference between a first relationship when you're 20, and a more mature relationship when you're 35 or 40.”
She referred to her work as “the diary I let people read” which may sound pretentious but because of the nature of her photography that’s exactly what it was. She was portraying her friends and her circle in such a way that every picture left the viewer having an insight into not only the people but their lives and these lives were far away from the American dream but smack in the heart of the Aids and drug epidemics that were beginning to impinge on the nation’s consciousness. Most of the people in the ‘Ballad’ were dead by the 1990s, either from Aids or drug overdose and that’s why her work became more of a historical documentation than a series of snapshots.
“AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS…I was in denial that people were going to die. I thought people could beat it. And then people started dying.”
By the second half of the eighties, Goldin was herself on a journey through drug addiction. This and the ending of her long-term relationship with a guy called Brian who probably was responsible for the battering shown in the photo here and the deaths of so many friends and acquaintances in her ‘tribe’, heavily influenced her work and gave it a grim focus.
Particularly important to her was the decline and death of her friend, Cookie Mueller, of whom she created the Cookie Mueller Portfolio between 1976 and 1990.
She puts that episode best in her own words:
“When I went to see Cookie in Provincetown, after I got out of the halfway house, she had lost her voice. Her laughter and her verbal wit had been so much of her personality. The fact that she couldn’t talk, the fact that she couldn’t walk without a cane was so devastating that I was calling every doctor, screaming at the impotence I felt. At that point, I was like a child thinking that doctors will still make you well, and not believing that there was nothing they could do. That’s when the rage became an obsession with me…It was only in ’89, after Cookie died and I put together the Cookie portfolio - - 15 pictures taken over 13 years, with a text about our relationship - - that I realized photographing couldn’t keep people alive. Even though I never consciously set out to create pictures that would help humanize AIDS, I realized they could affect others.”
On the same day that Cookie died, she curated a big show at the New York Artists Space called, ‘Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing’. This show was generated and driven by the AODS community itself and led to national controversy. The government took away its grant but in protest, there were nevertheless 15,000 people at the opening. More importantly for our HIV/AIDS history is that both ‘Visual AIDS and the Red Ribbon movement emerged from this show, plus the ‘Day with(out) Art’ which happened every December thereafter. Personal losses from both AIDS and drugs had both changed her life and in a sense, saved it. She woke up to the risks she was running herself and went into detox.
“Somebody had said to me, ‘How can you be killing yourself when your friends around you are dying?’ And that woke me up.”
She was determined to address the scandal of AIDS via photography and art and therefore through her own skill set and that was undoubtedly inspired by personal anguish, loss and a sense of injustice. She became part of a group of people, including ‘Act Up’ that were determined that AIDS shouldn’t be swept under any official carpet and together they were able to effect change.
“My photography, in the end, didn’t do enough. It didn’t save Cookie. But over time, my photographs, and other photography about people with AIDS, has helped. It has definitely given a more human face to statistics. We need to keep putting images out there. But not ones that are digitally manipulated like almost everyone is doing now. We need to have reality instead of this believable-fiction crap that’s become so popular.”
Although she had been there before, (first in 1984) she moved to Berlin for three years, at the invitation and offer of a residency by DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) in 1991. Maybe feeling claustrophobic in New York, thanks to so many heavy emotional experiences and basically needing a break, she took to life in Berlin like a duck to water. Her photographic subjects were much the same as they had been in her earlier years and she documented the lives of squatters, transvestites, gays and lesbians in the subcultural margins of the city. She also realised that in Europe, other photographers and artists had emerged who had clearly taken inspiration from her own style and were producing gritty, confrontational representations of life without touch-ups and manipulation. It was a bohemian freedom that really appealed to Nan Goldin and her own work became more affirmative in its representations of the lifestyles that fascinated her. Less depictions of misery and more celebration of variety and diversity.
She also took to photographing children:
“I don't photograph adults so much anymore. I don't have a child and, psychologically, my focus on them is a lot about me wishing that I did. But I am a godmother to friends' children around the world – in Berlin, New York, Sweden and Italy. I don't remember much ever feeling like a child, so maybe photographing them triggers memories. They are wild and magical, as if from another planet. And they haven't been socially conditioned yet, so they can scream and express how they feel publicly. Sometimes I envy them. When I am in a group of people, the children and I find each other's eyes, and end up laughing at the same, unspoken thing.”
However, this did lead to some controversy. A 2010 Berlin exhibition included two images of her own young god daughters dancing naked. There was a fuss in most countries but the Germans refused to censor them. Owned by Elton John they were even seized by British police and he was accused of owning paedophile pornography. The fact that no genitals are shown reflects the times we live in, where reactions to art with a hint of paedophilia can verge on the hysterical.
"If people think that's pornography, they're really sick," Goldin said.
These days, Nan Goldin lives in both Paris and New York. A severe hand injury after a fall has affected her ability to do what she really wants but she’s still in demand, still works and exhibits and is able to enjoy a life style she maybe couldn’t have dreamed of in the bad years of drug addiction and plague. She may not be short of a buck or two but that hasn’t really changed either her style or her approach to life and that signifies a person who understands how dreadful life can be and appreciates the advantages of lucky breaks.
Her importance to LGBT society and HIV/Aids communities in particular cannot be underestimated. Bill Clinton once accused her of inventing ‘heroin chic’ but she worked from direct personal experience and documented the lives and deaths of people at the centre of a storm in such a way that we can only be grateful she was able to do so. Perhaps you have to have lived her life in order to be able to show it, warts and all, in a historically accurate and truthful manner. Her photographs of friendship, desire, relationships, isolation, loss, grief and self-awareness are reflections of what our community has experienced in the face of devastating attacks. They are emotional blinks of an eye, shot in the light in which they happened. You could call them ‘grunge’ before grunge became a popular cultural fashion but her ‘grunge’ was life as it was and not life as the ad-men later created to earn dollars.
She is a sexual person but don’t pin labels on her. If anyone understands the sexual spectrum and if anyone deserves to be an honorary person living with HIV because of her astounding knowledge and understanding of what that means, it is Nan Goldin
“I’m bisexual so I can’t really come out as gay. When I’m gay I’m very gay. And when I’m with men then, you know, I’m with men. I don’t fall in love with people because of their gender. Its funny, two of the leaders of Act Up, a man and a woman, were having a long-term affair, and they didn’t want anyone to know. It was not accepted to be bisexual at that time.”
Finally, the following two YouTube videos are two parts of an interview with Nan Goldin initiated by William Klein in 2000. They fill in all the gaps an article like this one leaves out and make fascinating viewing if you want to know more about Nan Goldin the woman and artist.