Nan Goldin’s famous slideshow at MoMA
Ryan in the tub, Provincetown, Mass. 1976
Growing up, everyone has that hip friend. You know the one I’m talking about. The worldly girl who sneaks you your first cigarette one afternoon in the bathroom next to the cafeteria. The guy who has his own car while you still depend on your mom to pick you up from the movies. The kid who has the coolest clothes and has seen the most obscure movies and listens to bands you have never even heard of.
My hip friend made me brilliant punk rock mix tapes and introduced me to the work of photographers Larry Clark and Nan Goldin. Theirs are photographs filled with sex and drugs and guns, whiskey, fights, and nudity, and an indescribable yet palpable sense of affection for the people on the other side of the lens. They are a candid look at a world most of us will never see. Looking at these photographs, I never wanted to be friends with these people, but nevertheless I found myself unable to judge them.
Nan and Brian in bed, New York City 1983
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is one of the most enduring works in recent photographic history. What began in 1979 as slideshows for her friends turned into hundreds and hundreds of photos, a visual diary that is still being written today, 30 years later, as well as a book, first published by Aperture in 1986 and still being printed. The version of the slideshow acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 2004 contains 690 slides and is 43 minutes long. Though ongoing and including photographs taken all over the world, the heart of the Ballad lies in 1980s New York, a time and place where Goldin and her core group of friends were young and looked for all the world as though they owned it.
Before visiting MoMA last week, I had only ever seen the Ballad in book form. I did not know in advance that it was on view, but, with a limited amount of time before the museum was set to close, I immediately forsook the exhibitions I had come to MoMA to see in favor of Goldin’s slideshow. Photographs I have loved for years were presented with photographs I had never seen, and stories I thought I knew well were rendered far more complicated than I had ever imagined. The Ballad opens with photographs of couples, before quickly segueing into a series of photographs of women, many of whom are undressed and alone, set to the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll be Your Mirror.” In one of the more literal turns that the Ballad’s soundtrack (which includes James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s World,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and two more songs by the Velvet Underground) takes, a number of the photographs are of women looking at themselves in mirrors.
Nan after being battered, 1984
And then we are off to the races. The slideshow is organized by theme and not chronology, so photographs taken only moments apart may appear at opposite ends of the slideshow. There are the aforementioned pictures of women and couples, groups of photographs of people smoking, photographs of men flexing their muscles, photographs of children, photographs of empty beds, photographs of people shooting heroin. On one hand, these groupings call to mind the sameness of Goldin’s days—another trip to the beach, another house party, another copulating pair remarkably unconcerned that there is a photographer in the room. On the other hand, there is a beauty in the rhythm Goldin creates, and it is a shock when the show ends and you realize that the better part of an hour has gone by.
Many of the same faces crop up again and again throughout the course of the Ballad. As the slides click past (or the pages of the book turn), we get to know Goldin’s friends, including writer and actress Cookie Mueller, childhood pal Suzanne Fletcher, and former boyfriend Brian Burchill. And then there is Nan herself: Nan looking into the mirror; Nan in bed with various lovers; Nan with tears running down her face; Nan with a bright-red dye job; Nan with two black eyes. These glimpses of the photographer remind us that she is more than an anthropologist. This is her life we are looking at, and behind every image there is something at stake.
“Variety” booth, New York City 1983
By the 1990s, many of the characters that populated the New York Goldin knew and loved in the 80s were dead and gone. AIDS ravaged the downtown landscape, and Goldin found herself a historian for a time that she had not expected to end. In an afterword written in 1996, ten years after the book version of the Ballad was first published, Goldin wrote,
AIDS changed everything. The people I feel knew me the best, who understood me, the people who carried my history, the people I grew up with and I was planning to get old with are gone… I don’t believe photography stops time…I still believe pictures can preserve life rather than kill life. The pictures in the Ballad haven’t changed. But Cookie is dead, Kenny is dead, Mark is dead, Max is dead, Vittorio is dead. So for me, the book is now a volume of loss, while still a ballad of love.
Shortly before I turned 18, I moved to New York, setting up shop in an NYU dorm room just blocks from the Lower East Side bars and apartments where much of the Ballad is set. I came to this city chasing not Goldin’s overall experience (I have never had much of a stomach for drugs or violence or death), but the romance of drag shows and Velvet Underground songs played late at night in run-down apartments. For a while I even shot slides myself, projecting them once a week so my friends could see themselves as I saw them. Ultimately, what I fell in love with was my own New York, filled with long walks in Brooklyn and Sunday morning brunches, but I will always carry Goldin’s New York with me.
No matter how old I get, Goldin will remain that hip friend, older and cooler and a little dangerous.
Cookie and Vittorio’s Wedding, New York City 1986
Heart-shaped bruise, New York City 1980
Suzanne crying, New York City 1985
Hey, Slow Century is dead these days, but lots of people are still reading this article, which is pretty neat. I’ve considered updating this (I’ve seen Nan Goldin speak since I wrote this piece three years ago—she was wonderful!), but have decided to keep it the way it is for posterity. I’m still writing at my own blog, itsjanna.tumblr.com and posting my own photographs at jannaireland.com. Thanks for reading.
-Janna Ireland 3/27/12