Photographing Intimacy. Nan Goldin’s Queer Family

In Nan Goldin’s photographic projects there is a common line that deals with the theme of memory, intimacy, friendship and freedom of customs. Her photographs are memories of her private life, which have become art as a result of her decision to exhibit them:

“It’s the diary I want people to read […] It’s widely believed that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the party crasher. But […] this is my party. This is my family, my story.”

Intimate and affectionate, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency consists of a projection of photographs that has changed over the years. The central themes are innocence, risk, indifference, involvement and passion. His work changes the nature of photography itself from the act of a voyeur to that of a witness; a witness physically participates in the scene and then reports it, while the voyeur tries to see without being seen.

The protagonists are the photographer’s friends: the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, her husband Vittorio Scarpati, who both died of AIDS within a few months of each other, Trixie, who looks like a little girl, smoking with a distraught face and a flowery dress, Brian the violent man to whom she is irresistibly attracted, Susan, on the train and in the bathroom, and then the moments when they have fun, make love, fight, take drugs, die. Rather than taking his camera out onto the streets and documenting what he finds, Goldin takes his photos inside, in the flats of his social circle and in public gathering places.

Against a white wall, a drag queen is posing seductively and provocatively in front of the camera. A pair of eye-catching hoop earrings stand out among the curly hair. A fur boa twists around the boy’s twisting body, creating a contrast between the smooth, glabrous skin and the hairy material. Above his head, we notice a reproduction of Andy Warhol’s famous seriography. In this photograph, the concept of femininity as mask and representation, now current in feminist theory, has been depicted and rendered in a personal form by a Goldin in her early twenties.

Nan Goldin, Ivy with Marilyn, Boston (1973).

It is often said that Goldin uses popular snapshots as the source of his work; although this conception reflects the intimacy of his work, it overlooks the radicalism of his project. Most snapshot contexts do not include scenes of people injecting drugs, standing on the toilet, dressing up, having sex, yet these are the central moments in Goldin’s work.

Nan Goldin, Self-Portrait, one month after being beaten up (1984)

One wonders what sexual dependency is that the artist talks about. The key photograph in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the traumatic Self-Portrait, one month after being beaten up (1984). In the introduction she warns the reader that this is the pivotal event in her sexual addiction, a moment when she tried to end her destructive relationship for good. In the picture, her face full of wounds and bruises fills the frame. Her left eye is still full of blood. Her glossy red lips offer a seemingly ironic contrast: the traditional attractiveness of femininity alongside the all-too-common consequences of male violence.

“Whether she wants it or not, she does not escape her fate: sexual slavery is the strongest”, recites, with a sense of inevitability, the ballad of the same name from Bertolt Brecht’s Three penny Opera, which inspired the photographer. What remains beyond her self-portrait with a swollen face, after having been violently beaten by her lover, or beyond the photograph of a body with a heart-shaped bruise stamped on its thigh? There remains an addiction to what seems to be perpetually alive in its imperfection. All the images are moments of this awareness. There is no mismatch between form and reality. Nan Goldin thus becomes a witness, not only for her own experience, but for that of women in American culture. The testimony becomes a tool for the artist to capture a personal moment and invest it with a broader meaning.

Giovanni Troìa


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