When the slideshow of Nan Goldin‘s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency flipped through pictures of her ex Brian, I finally understood why she had photographed him so much.
I’d always had trouble looking at the photos of Brian because I knew he was the one who’d beaten her, made the purplish yellow marks under her eyes, the white of her eye turn the blood red we see in her photograph “Nan One Month After Being Battered,” from 1984.
In a room teeming with others, I had been given the rare opportunity to see The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as a slideshow, its original form, at the Aperture Foundation’s annual fall gala, where Goldin was being honored. As it began, I sat at rapt attention, as if I would be tested on the contents later. I felt like I was back in my college modern photo history course, where I saw Goldin’s work for the first time and thought to myself, “THAT. THAT is what I want to do.” Her work, and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in particular, allowed me to realize that the ideas I had about what I wanted to do with photography — discovering the truth and grit and occasionally the darkness that appear in everyday life — were worth holding onto. Goldin’s images, without glamorization or glorification, comment on the sadness of romantic relationships, the way we squeeze ourselves into pairs that don’t necessarily fit because we fear being alone, and the simultaneous desire for autonomy and intimacy — all through the experiences of her chosen family, the restless, transgressive tribe of friends and lovers she had as a young person living in New York.
That evening, I watched as image after image of Brian ticked past on the screen. Looking at the photos she took of him before the day he beat her, I could tell she had loved him deeply for a long time. She seemed to understand every angle of his face and body, how he positioned a cigarette in his hand or mouth, and how to perfectly capture the details of his existence. How devastating it must have been to feel his fists pummeling her skin. There were no more photos of him after that. But because she documented all the parts of her life, she will always have to remember him, and so do we. Her images — any images we create — are with us forever, and that forever is what we have to deal with when we bring them into the world, whether or not they end up fitting into the lives we want. They are an exercise in understanding the power of our memories, as we give those memories a physical form.
“I used to think that I couldn’t lose anyone or anything if I photographed them enough,” Goldin once wrote for an exhibition. Her friends and lovers are her muses, yes, but they are also the people she fears losing most. As Goldin writes in the introduction to the book of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, “This book is for me, and why I took the pictures, was proof that I lived this and no one could revise it.” Goldin was heavily influenced by the suicide of her sister Barbara, who took her own life at 18, when Nan was 11. Her family went on to act as if the death had never happened, and Goldin’s work is an argument against this type of revisionism. For every bruise, every tear, every dance party or game of Monopoly or heroin needle, there is a memory and there is a photo that corresponds unapologetically.
Goldin first presented the original slideshows to her friends, sometimes in now-legendary New York venues like the Mudd Club and Rafik’s, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She would manage multiple 35mm color slide projectors at a time, and each show was different, ranging in length from 20 minutes to an hour and a half. They were soundtracked by taped music from the likes of the Velvet Underground, Maria Callas, James Brown, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. The songs were set up to tell the story of the photos, though both changed every time.
In 1985, the Ballad slideshow appeared as part of the Whitney Biennial. From there, Goldin was commissioned to present it around the world, in underground clubs and theaters, in galleries and festivals in Europe, revising and reshuffling it many times in the process. Also in 1985, the Aperture Foundation approached Goldin about making the Ballad into a book. From her pool of 800-some-odd images, 126 were selected for the book, which came out in hardcover in 1986 at the price of $39.95 (about $88 in today’s economy). At the Aperture gala this fall, Goldin commented that the book only became significant for her when it went into paperback, when the people in it could actually afford to buy it. Even so, because of that book, generations of people like me were able to experience her images for the first time.
When Goldin first began showing the work, she said it wasn’t taken seriously by a lot of photographers, especially male photographers, and that on several occasions she was booed, told the work wasn’t real photography, or got into fights over it. After the Biennial, though, she began to garner critical recognition: former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman listed it as one of his top 10 films of 1985, calling it “a near definitive portrait of a particular Lower East Side bohemia”; that same year Artforum‘s Lisa Liebmann gave it a rave review. In 1986, New York Times photography critic Andy Grundberg wrote that The Ballad was “an artistic masterwork,” and Max Kozloff gave it positive attention in a 1987 article for Art in America entitled “The Family of Nan.” But Goldin has said it took another seven years, after her work was featured in the landmark 1993 Whitney Biennial, for her to be fully recognized in the mainstream art world.
Today, 30 years later, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is recognized as a seminal, groundbreaking work of documentary photography, highly regarded for its rawness and honesty. For myself, it is also a reminder of what it looks like to dig into your inner life and offer up the contents to an unsuspecting public in an unflinching way. As The Ballad’s book editor, Marvin Heiferman, said recently, Goldin is “a photojournalist of herself.”
Not thinking I would drift into tears while seeing the images in the slideshow live, especially not those of Brian, I hadn’t worn waterproof mascara to the gala. I was terrified there would be streams of black dripping down my face and onto my white jacket as the Bush Tetras hammered out “Too Many Creeps” and Laurie Anderson had her way with a Velvet Underground cover. Watching Brian go by again and again, I realized I’d never made myself as vulnerable as Nan, and I understood why. It comes from a fear of reliving every single moment associated with an image, having physical evidence of once being happy with another human — and then being reminded of the rift in my chest when they were gone. “I am not as brave as you, Nan,” I thought to myself. Maybe one day I will be.