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Leering at the photographs mounted upon the seedy walls of a back-alley bar in the Times Square of 1977 is present-day Nan Goldin, grimly assessing the work of her younger self. “They call that art? I coulda done that,” she mutters to the barkeep, Vincent Martino. This may sound like some twisted scenario from The Twilight Zone, but its actually a scene from an episode of HBO’s critically-acclaimed account of the pornography industry’s rise through the seventies and eighties, called The Deuce.
Having the famous photographer appear on an episode of the HBO drama was something of a pipe dream for the show’s co-creator, David Simon, who’s also the mastermind behind The Wire. On Twitter, he explained that Goldin’s images of 1970s Times Square heavily inspired everything on the show — from the costume department to storyboarding.
What do you have to do to get the great Nan Goldin to do a big fat meta-cameo on your television drama? You have to study her photographs of 1970s Times Square and inject the raw DNA into your film sets, your wardrobe department, your hair and makeup trailer, your story & themes. pic.twitter.com/9NLPtEmUPc
— David Simon (@AoDespair) October 1, 2018
The photograph used for the scene is “Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours, New York City” from Goldin’s important series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979–1986), an autobiographical documentation of the city’s countercultural heyday of heroin on the Bowery and sex workers in Times Square — then deridingly called The Deuce. The particular photo used in the episode, however, is more subdued; it depicts the artist caught in the embrace of Buzz while seated upon an upholstered black leather booth. The man looks toward Goldin while she glanced at the floor.
Speaking about the alluring power of her subjects, Goldin once remarked, “My work was all about homage, because I thought they were the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.” This was certainly not her character’s take in the HBO episode, in which her character briefly chats with Martino (James Franco) about the people depicted in “Buzz and Nan.” He says the picture is moving and authentic, but she’s unconvinced.
The Deuce’s creators went above and beyond to enshrine Goldin within the lore of the show. In addition to her meta-cameo, she’s also represented by the character Vivian (Adelind Horan) whose fictional exhibition is the subject of the real photographer’s milquetoast critiques. Elsewhere in the episode, friends describe Vivian as having “an eye for the marginalized.” She spends the remainder of the episode taking photos of disco dancers before sneaking off to sleep with the aforementioned bartender.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is itself a reference to a similarly named song from Bertolt Brecht’s scathing socio-sexual indictment of criminality and class, “The Threepenny Opera.” If Goldin’s photographs explore those same dynamics within the bygone bohemia of New York, then The Deuce represents a retroactive attempt to make senes of how the body politics of yesterday have created the porn and sex industries we know today. The artist’s presence on the HBO program merely gestures to the significance of her work on how we think about and depict the dynamics of sexuality.