Truth: Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

13th January 2019

In this assignment I saw a division between ‘photographic truth’ and ‘photographic fiction’ within self-portraiture. With this in mind I recommend you look into the following artists: 

‘Truth’: Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – not all self-portraits in the literal sense but does include some plus the work as a whole functions as an in depth self portrait of a time in Goldin’s life. Jo Spence – The Tate website is as good as any for an overview of what Spence’s primary concerns were. 

‘Fiction’: Xena Babushkina – Wedding (you can see some of them here Gillian Wearing – ‘Album’ – The most straightforward way of seeing some of the work appears to be via google… 

Tutor David Wyatt

The above quote was taken my tutors feedback on the second assignment under the suggested reading/ viewing section. This post will be exploring the categories, truth and fiction within self-portraiture.


‘Truth’: Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – not all self-portraits in the literal sense but does include some plus the work as a whole functions as an in depth self portrait of a time in Goldin’s life.

Tutor David Wyatt

A description of the work that has been produced in book format, both image and quote have been taken from Amazon, the link is here.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a visual diary chronicling the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family, and lovers―collectively described by Goldin as her “tribe.” Her work describes a world that is visceral, charged, and seething with life. First published in 1986, this reissue recognizes the persistent relevance and freshness of Nan Goldin’s cutting-edge photography. Her lush color photography and candid style demand that the viewer go beyond the surface to encounter a profound intensity. As Goldin writes: “Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life.” Through an accurate and detailed record of her life, Ballad reveals Goldin’s personal odyssey as well as a more universal understanding of the different languages men and women speak, and the struggle between autonomy and dependency. Over the past twenty-five years, the influence of Ballad on photography and other aesthetic realms has continually grown, making the work a contemporary classic. Nan Goldin’s story of urban life on the fringe was the swan song of an era that reached its peak in the early eighties. Yet it has captured an important element of humanity that is transcendent: a need to connect. This new edition of Ballad has been printed using new scans and separations created by master-separator Robert Hennessey from Goldin’s original transparencies, rendering them with unparalleled sumptuousness and impact.

Amazon description (is this the book introduction?)


  • Ballad of Sexual Dependency is at once a diary and a soap opera, an unerring portrait of a particular East Village bohemia and a sexual taxonomy for the ’80s. –The Village Voice
  • Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a beggar’s opera of recent times. Here were real thieves and unexpected heroes, and a sense that some things in life might still be worth a brawl. – Artforum
  • What Robert Frank’s The Americans was to the 1950s, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is to the 1980s Goldin has created an artistic masterwork that tells us not only about the attitudes of her generation, but also about the times in which we live. -Andy Grundberg, The New York Times
  • Seen through her lens, the characters in her drama seem to become fully and inevitably themselves, with their personalities and physical appearance integrally linked. –The New York Times
  • In part a love poem to the bohemian life style of young people in New York City, it is also a melancholy meditation on the joys and terrors of romantic relationships, both straight and gay. –The New York Times
  • It is no exaggeration to describe Nan Goldin’s monumental slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, as one of the most important photographic works of recent years. –The New York Times

Below is an introduction to Goldin’s work which was on show in MoMA, June 11, 2016–April 16, 2017.

If you follow the link below to MoMA’s webpage, there is a slide show of 44 works from the exhibition installation.

Comprising almost 700 snapshot-like portraits sequenced against an evocative music soundtrack, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a deeply personal narrative, formed out of the artist’s own experiences around Boston, New York, Berlin, and elsewhere in the late 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. Titled after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Goldin’s Ballad is itself a kind of downtown opera; its protagonists—including the artist herself—are captured in intimate moments of love and loss. They experience ecstasy and pain through sex and drug use; they revel at dance clubs and bond with their children at home; and they suffer from domestic violence and the ravages of AIDS. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote. “The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.” The Ballad developed through multiple improvised live performances, for which Goldin ran through the slides by hand and friends helped prepare the soundtrack—from Maria Callas to The Velvet Underground—for an audience not unlike the subjects of the pictures. The Ballad is presented in its original 35mm format, along with photographs that also appear as images in the slide show. Introducing the installation is a selection of materials from the artist’s archive, including posters and flyers announcing early iterations of The Ballad. Museum of Modern Art, USA

Edited by Marvin Heiferman, Mark Holborn and Suzanne Fletcher, 1986, 2012, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – Nan Goldin. Italy, Aperture Foundation.

Front cover: Nan and Brian I. Bed, New York City. 2012. Ballad of Sexual Dependency – Nan Goldin

The front cover sets the stage for Nan Goldin’s photographs within her book, ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.’ There are 127 photographs in the book that document the life of Goldin and her friends, the images challenge notions of sexuality among couples and look at themes such as domestic violence, drugs, masturbation, gay, lesbian and heterosexual free love and sex.

The revised edition that I have bought ‘… has been printed using new scans and separations created by master-separator Robert Hennessey from Goldin’s original transparencies, rendering them with unparalleled sumptuousness and impact.’

The images were taken in bedrooms, bars, pension hotels, brothels, cars and beaches. The areas were Provinctown, Boston, New York, Berlin and Mexico. These are all places where Goldin had lived since the age of 14yrs when she had left home.

The book begins with 4 sides of text, an autobiography written by Goldin and explains that The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a visual diary that she allows people to see, it is public, her written diaries are private. She talks about the work, family, relationships and the role of gender within society. She touches sensitive subjects such as domestic violence, sex, and the death of her sister Barbara and the effects it had and still has on her.

The dedication is to her sister Barbara as well. At 18 years old, Barbara was institutionalised for mild displays of overt sexuality. She left the mental hospital, lay down on the train tracks and took her own life. Goldin writes at this time, a week later, she was seduced by an older man so at a period of grieving she was at the same time obsessed by her own desire.

The dedication to her sister on page 9

The photographs within the book are not organised chronologically like a diary would be but there is a little format of the women being presented first, then the men and then groups, although they are broken up with images of couples.

The photographs themselves are raw, and honest, Goldin reproduces life in photograph format, they are true memories. Although some images have been presented singly on the right side of the open book, those that have been paired have been chosen with care. We have some pairings that promote the dynamic colours that Goldin captures, others using leading lines to compliment the flow of the viewers eye. Example of pairing can be seen below.

Key to above page pairing:

  1. Page 24, Sandra in the mirror, New York City 1985 and page 25, Suzanne in the green bathroom, Pergamon Museum, East Berlin 1984 – Both mirror bathroom scenes and both images have striking leading lines and shapes.
  2. Page 36, Kathe in the tub, West Berlin 1984 and page 37, Ryan in the tub, Provincetown, Mass 1976. Both images in the bathroom with leading lines and shapes.
  3. Page 120, Phillipe M. and Rise on their wedding day, New York City 1978 and page 121, Philippe H. and Suzanne kissing at Euthanasia, New York City 1981 – Both images have Phillipe M. within them and Both have angled bodies leaning towards the left.
  4. Page 124, David with Butch crying at theTin Pan Alley, New York City 1981 and page 125, Buzz and Nan at the After-hours, New York City 1980. The composition of the figures within the images are leaning outwards towards the edge of the book.
  5. Page 142, Mexican couple a week before their second divorce, Progreso, Yucatan, Mexico 1981 and page 143, Skeletons coupling, New York City 1983. Images show couples in doorways and both have more of a play with the idea of old age and death.
  6. Page 12, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Coney Island Wax Museum 1981 and The Parents at a French restaurant, Cambridge, Mass 1985. Here the photographs have played on the idea of sophistication and a distinguished couple.
  7. Page 128, Mary and David hugging, New York City 1980 and page 129 The Hug, New York City 1980. here the theme is simply hugging.
  8. Page 134, Roommates in bed, New York City 1980 and page 135 Skinhead having sex, London 1978. Both in bedrooms showing sexual intimacy however the layout of the smaller image followed by the larger cropped image is powerful
  9. Page 22, Self-portrait in blue bathroom, London 1980 and page23, Suzanne with Mona Lisa, Mexico City 1981. Both have one specific colour tint and show reflections in mirrors.

The book concludes with a two sided afterward by Goldin which is dated February 2012 and then a side of acknowledgments.

Within the after ward Goldin states, “And so I decided as a young girl I was going to leave a record of my life and experience that no one could rewrite or deny.” I know where this thought comes from. For Goldin being brought up and living in a family that rewrites the truths, denies things have ever happened and blanks out happenings the only truth is left with you in your memories. For me, my recording of the abuse and feelings that I have endured over the years is a way of making those things visible for people to see. My thoughts, memories and feeling come out, although my latest abuser strongly denies anything even happened, although I have witnesses too many of the incidents I suffered through him. Our artwork and photographs become a form of documentation although for me I am now having to hear how people believe lies even though they’re are visual and auditory witnesses to some of my verbal and physical abuse.

Goldin writes in the afterword about how people use Photoshop and other ways to manipulate the truth, the realness of the world around them. She has said that she does not and has never done this, all her work is real.

I remain one of the few photographers who doesn’t use technologies such as Photoshop as a means of manipulation after I have taken my photographs… Now it is distressing: no one any longer believes that a photograph is real.

Nan Goldin page 145 Afterword, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 2012

My photography is mixed, some with Photoshop and others are ‘real’ photographs, flaws and all. However, the manipulated images are in my creative photography works, from which my recording of life images are separated.

All in all this book has been a very interested visual feast. One that has made me question life and the practice of real photography and also one that has inspired me to research Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency further. Some of the research can be seen below.

Museum of Contemporary Art

Below is my transcript of the above video. Nan Goldin talks about her life in the 80’s. and the making of ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.’

The interview was very honest and provided so many insights into Goldin’s early life, her friends, her lovers and her reasons behind her photography and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

I have found the honesty in her work refreshing, she said within the interview that she would not alter the shots in anyway, “For me it was a sin to move a beer bottle out of the way because it had to be exactly what it was.”

“I didn’t care about good photography, I cared about complete honesty,”

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, MoCA education video

This is how I work as well, I call it ‘Raw Truth’ what you see is what you get. What is the point in documenting something as it is but you have to make the image perfect? Life isn’t perfect, it is full of mess and mayhem, mixes of textures and colours, greys and darks, it should be captured in real time – as it is! All of this perfectionism is making people in the world see things incorrectly, perfectionism is masking over the crap as with the filters so you do not see the real person but, in many cases, an unrealistic likeness.

The interview is worth watching and listening to. It brings the work into the correct perspective and the concept is made clearer. Goldin said in the video that:

First of all there is a mis-understanding that my work is about marginalised people. And we were never marginalised because we were the world, we didn’t care what straight people thought of us. We had no time for them, they didn’t show up in our radar, so we weren’t marganised from anything. We were many, many people living a similar life style and there were some political beliefs behind it for some people, but it was some what transgressive against normal society, but it was not about outcasts or marginalised people.

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, MoCA education video

During the interview Goldin also mentioned three photographers, “… Harry Callahan, Edward Western were the kind of God’s of photography.” These two photographers I have looked up the work of. I will research Western’s work further as it is so striking. Western’s works that I have seen are still life and they are very similar to Karl Blossfeldt’s, very detailed close up shots of vegetation with black backgrounds.

However the third photographer that she mentions is Larry Clark, “Larry Clark’s book that was published in the 70’s called ‘Tulsa’ and, that had a huge influence on me because he was shooting and publishing work from his own life, And there weren’t people doing that at that time.”

2000, Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press
First published in 1971, this remarkable, controversial photo-essay caputres the lives of midwestern youth during the turbulence of the 1960s as it documents in haunting black-and-white images a youth culture caught up in a world of violence, drugs, sexual abuse, and social upheaval. Simultaneous.
(image and text

I have bought the book, ‘Tulsa’ and will review it for the blog.

The work by Goldin has been very interesting to hear about in her own words from the video above and to see the works within the video and on the internet.

I have found out from my research that she wasn’t able to cope with the falseness of her life where her family revised the truth of things that had happened.

It has inspired me to push my boundaries even further, as I have said before, we all poo, we all have individual bodies, so I shouldn’t feel daunted, worried or embarrassed by photographing or drawing mine in the name of producing conceptual art.

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