All the Beauty and the Tenderness of Nan Goldin

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

How audacious was it of me to use my cracked iPhone 13 to snap photos of Nan Goldin — and in the intimacy of her home, no less. But somehow, the preeminent photographer let me snap away during our recent interview at her New York apartment, though she was rightfully wary.

I took a low-lit photo of her playing with one of her cats; another of her seated at the edge of her bed, smiling shyly at the camera with a collection of Peter Hujars in the background. I took some more shots in her workroom and living room, full of art, books, awards, and memorabilia from her illustrious, multi-decade career.

Goldin rose to renown in the 1980s as a chronicler, witness, and participant in LGBTQ+ communities in Boston, New York, Berlin, and elsewhere. She lived through the harrowing heights of the AIDS epidemic, losing many friends and lovers along the way. Her autobiographical, metamorphic slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (first exhibited in the 1985 Whitney Biennial) is a record of these times. Around 2018, after emerging from a life-threatening OxyContin addiction, she embarked on a crusade against the Sackler family, makers of the lethally addictive drug through Purdue Pharma. After years of protest with her activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), she managed to pressure major museums worldwide — among them the Metropolitan and Guggenheim Museums in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum and Serpentine Galleries in London, and the Louvre Museum in Paris — into refusing the Sacklers’ artwashing gifts and removing their names from their walls. Those chapters of Goldin’s life are captured in her slideshow Memory Lost (2019–2021) and in Laura Poitras’s 2022 award-winning documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

At her Brooklyn residence, I met a fun and youthful Goldin who was generous with her time and wisdom. The following are edited highlights from our conversation.

Oh, and you won’t see any of the iPhone photos I described earlier. Nan hated them.

* * *

Hyperallergic: What are you working on these days?

Nan Goldin: I’m working on a new piece for a show in September that I have no idea what it is. I’m gonna let the material tell me what it’s about. That’s how I do it. And there’s another piece that I shot in the Louvre years ago about Stendhal syndrome and the collapse in the face of too much beauty.

H: Watching your film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed taught me a lot I didn’t know about your life, but it was also a reminder of what a good photographer you are. What are your eyes looking for these days? Are they looking for anything at all?

NG: I look for what I find beautiful. I look for … what touches me. And then I figure out if they’re good images or not.

The thing about the ’80s, when I think about it, is just that nobody else was taking pictures all the time. It’s not that I was particularly a good photographer, it’s just that nobody else was around taking pictures.

H: Especially in drag communities in Boston in the 1970s and New York in the ’80s. How did you gain those subjects’ trust?

NG: They weren’t subjects. They were my friends. I was living with them.

H: Didn’t being the person with the camera make you an outsider?

NG: I guess, on some level. But there was a symbiotic relationship. I loved them so much, and I worshipped them. Maybe I was an outsider in the sense that I looked up to them so much, but I wasn’t there to photograph. I was there first, and the photographs came after.

H: That’s why they’re so good.

NG: Because all I looked for then was the beauty and the tenderness. Other people came in and wanted to photograph “drag queens.” The people I photographed weren’t any of that to me; they were my friends and I thought they were the most beautiful people in the world.

I used to take the film to develop at the drugstore and get those little two-by-five snapshots. They would go through them, and if they didn’t like them, they’d rip them up. And they’d make piles to see who had the most pictures of them. So I guess I was their photographer, but they weren’t my subjects.

H: There’s something about your work that expands the heart. This compassion you describe must be inherently tied to your artistic intuition. Are there things you only know if you photograph or film?

NG: Oh yeah, absolutely. The work teaches me. There are even ghosts in my pictures. I like the magic. I like the pictures that are fucked up and aren’t good photographs but reveal something beneath the surface. Photographing puts me in touch with things.

I’m also deeply curious, most days, and I find that’s a trait that’s lost. I don’t go to the internet to learn about people. It doesn’t occur to me to Google anyone. I learn about them when they’re in my face.

But I’m not so interested in photography anymore.

H: You’re not? That should be the headline.

NG: I never was a huge fan of photography. I’ve grown to like and respect it more now, but I always wanted to be a filmmaker.

Photography is limited. Slideshows like Memory Lost are my way of making films. That’s the most important piece to me, along with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. I make those slideshows from thousands of pictures in my archive. Now I’m also making a film.

H: So your future is still ahead of you.

NG: Exactly.

H: You’re only 70. That’s young.

NG: No, it’s not. In what world is it young? [laughing]

H: In today’s world. Don’t know if you’ve checked the internet lately, but 70 is the new 50, or something.

NG: I owe it to acupuncture and pilates … and my innocence.

H: You have a lot of young fans. Got any tips for them on how to find their courage?

NG: I’d tell them to get off their phones. The real world still exists. I’d tell them to live their sexuality. My friends paved the way for them. And I would tell them to find something to fight for. My fight now is for freedom for Palestine. 

H: You’ve got that underlying current of dark humor in your personality, but eternal optimism above it.

NG: There’s optimism?

H: I mean strength, and optimism that change is possible.

NG: Today I’m not so in touch with that, but I guess it’s true, or I wouldn’t keep going, right?

At my age, suddenly you face mortality. I live in an attic apartment with my cats, and I go to the park and feed the birds. I’m a perfect cliché. I’m so proud of it. I can’t believe it, but here I am, and it’s great.

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