I first encountered Nan Goldin’s photography at a sleep-away art camp the summer after my junior year of high school. In an air-conditioned and windowless computer lab, I stared, rapt, as my photography teacher flipped through a slideshow of images from Nan Goldin’s collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture 1986). Goldin wearing nothing but see-through black panties and high-heeled red boots straddles her lover’s hairy belly; a man tattoos a scene of an orange-and-black tiger stalking through palm trees on another man’s lower back; a fully-clothed woman kisses a naked man whose hands are bound with a shiny gray necktie. I felt the images as an aching in my seventeen-year-old chest, a longing to be included in a community that pulsed with such immediacy, intimacy, and desire. It was the same feeling I’d had only days before I left for camp, during a metal concert in the basement of a dilapidated house in Albany, NY, the closest city to my suburb.
My teacher explained that the photographs were snapshots of Goldin’s “chosen family” from when she was in her 20s and 30s, living in Boston and New York City. “These were the people I lived with, these were my friends, these were my family, this was myself,” Goldin said in a 1991 Q&A with Stephen Westfall for BOMB Magazine. “I’d photograph people dancing while I was dancing. Or people having sex while I was having sex. Or people drinking while I was drinking.” Goldin’s direct involvement in The Ballad’s images is reflected in their haphazard construction. They’re often blurry, poorly lit, illuminated by an unnecessary flash that blows out her friends’ faces and puts their messy spaces on display: apartments strewn with dirty clothing, overflowing ashtrays, and crushed beer cans. In The Ballad, Goldin shines light on what generally stays in the dark.
The basement was a dim, dank, concrete box. The band’s lyrics were indecipherable screams and grunts. Each crash of the drums vibrated through my body as I stood with my back against a dirty wall. As the friend of a friend who told me about the show promised, the crowd looked nothing like the squares from my high school. Instead of teenaged baby faces and button-down pastel shirts, I saw people in their 20s who dressed like I did—in black clothes, thick boots, and dark eye makeup. Many had colorful tattoos on their arms that caught the scant light when they lifted cans of beer to their lips.
In the middle of the basement, concertgoers thrashed around with their eyes closed and punched each other at random. I watched them more closely than I watched the band, amazed by these people who expressed anger rather than hiding it. Back at home, my mom and stepdad ignored me when I upset them—I ignored them back.
I followed the pack into a small backyard at set break. In the summer twilight, I envied the freedom with which people kissed, shot-gunned beers, and smoked cigarettes. I stood against the clinking chain-link fence that bordered the scruffy yard and pawed through my purse for a cigarette; I wanted to fit in—at least in appearance. Unlike the adults around me, I was inhibited by a Jewish mother who’d never give me another penny if she knew I smoked, a 10 p.m. curfew, and a clear head to drive the fifteen minutes back to my suburb.
Life at home had been tense for almost a year. I’d been close to my mom and stepdad until the night they came home early and heard me having sex with my then boyfriend, Clark. My mom gave me a pleasure-based sex education, but held strong in her belief that I had to wait until college to have sex. My stepdad was a quiet, funny man from the Midwest who put his hands over his ears and went, “Nahnahnah” at the mention of anything remotely sexual. For months after my transgression, he and I didn’t acknowledge each other out of mutual embarrassment. My mom and I at least said “Good morning,” but withheld any affection or intimacy. A thick ice settled between us.
Goldin’s family, like mine, was middle-class and Jewish. Her parents tried to hide the turmoil of their home life behind traditional gender roles and a well-manicured lawn in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Nancy Goldin, born September 12th, 1953, was the youngest of four children. She was closest to her oldest sibling, Barbara, with whom she shared a love of artistic expression. Their parents favored all the other children over precocious Barbara, which left her struggling for approval and attention. She often acted out at home—throwing knives and smashing windows. During her teenage years, Barbara’s parents had her involuntarily committed to various mental institutions.
In 1965, when Nancy was 11 and Barbara was 18, Barbara took her own life. “I saw the role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction,” Goldin wrote in the short, but poignant introduction to The Ballad’s 127 photographs. “Because of the times, the early sixties, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behavior, beyond control…she saw that her only way to get out was to lie down on the tracks of the commuter train outside of Washington, D.C. It was an act of immense will.” The Ballad is dedicated to Barbara.
In the introduction, Goldin also tells how she was “seduced by an older man” and experienced a sexual awakening in the week after her sister’s death. She sifted through the complex emotions of grief at the same time as she felt obsessive desire and “intense sexual excitement” for the man, who p
romised to marry her. The relationship ended when he told Goldin he’d really been in love with her sister. These events changed her forever; they instilled in her an “awareness of the power of sexuality.”
My first sexual experience also happened young. I was about eight when an older boy in my neighborhood told me he would give me a piece of candy if I put my hand down his pants. My mom rarely let me eat anything containing high fructose corn syrup; I often watched in envy as kids in the lunchroom tore into colorful bags of M&Ms and Skittles. I slid my small hand under the tight elastic of his green-checkered boxers. I felt something warm and squishy. He told me I had to hold it for ten seconds. I closed my eyes and counted to ten.
On my walk home past brick houses and neat flowerbeds, I had a bad feeling in my tummy, but ate the candy anyway. I don’t remember if it was chocolate or fruity, hard or gummy. But I remember burying the wrapper, as if that could make what happened disappear—a child’s logic.
A few weeks later, my mom beckoned me to sit next to her on the floral couch by the big windows in our living room. She gave me my first sex talk—“your clitoris is the part that feels good when you touch it”—and a stack of books about puberty. The black-and-white illustrations of girls’ and boys’ changing bodies caused a warm, wet sensation between my legs. My understanding of why the boy wanted me to touch him collided with the recognition of my own desire to touch myself.
When the static images in my books ceased to satisfy me, I started watching porn every other weekend when I stayed across town with my dad and stepmom. They had a bulky computer on a small desk tucked into the corner of the family room. After they went to bed, I sat in a creaking wooden chair in front of the computer, turned the volume down low, and typed “sex” into a search engine. I was enraptured by the gyrating bodies, the faint moans of pleasure, and the thrill of knowing how much trouble I could get in. I masturbated for hours by bending my thumb and stroking my knuckle against my clit over my underwear. Sometimes I rubbed the skin on my thumbs so raw that I bled.
Watching porn created a cavern of desire inside me where I longed to be a participant and not just a voyeur. Instead of playing Nancy Drew computer games with other 10-year-olds, I was visiting “adult” chatrooms and having cybersex. By 11, the Breast Fairy (as my mom called her) had already bestowed her gifts upon me, and I relished the attention of being eye-fucked by men in the grocery store. Once at this age, I tried to leave my mom’s house in a short skirt and a halter top. She barred my exit: “You look like you want sex. Do you want people to look at you and think about sex?” I wanted to say: Yes, I want sex and I want to look like sex. Instead, I stayed silent and changed clothes. Now, at 23, I understand she was trying to protect me from a world often unkind to young, sexual women. But at the time, her chastising reaction to my revealing outfit taught me to hide the power of my sexuality from her.
In the wake of her sister’s death and her newfound understanding of sexuality, Goldin stopped speaking, retreating into fantasies of becoming a bad girl. “I wanted to get high from a really early age,” Goldin told O’Hagan. “I wanted to be a junkie…I wanted to be as different from my mother as I could and define myself as far as possible from the suburban life I was brought up in.” Goldin was expelled from every school she went to for smoking pot, selling drugs, and “other bullshit.” At 14, she left home.
She lived in foster homes and communes around the Boston area, eventually landing at the Satya Community School whose Montessori philosophies allowed Goldin an unprecedented freedom to express herself. At Satya, Nancy became Nan. When she was 15 and 16, she acted as the school photographer, often taking pictures of David Armstrong and Suzanne Fletcher—future members of her adult chosen family.
Fletcher, with her thin frame, big blue eyes, and unmistakably large nose is featured in The Ballad. She cries, her forehead wrinkled, her nose a shade brighter than her burgundy sweater; she ferociously kisses a man in a room with blue walls, their faces smashed together; she showers in a stall lined with mustard yellow tiles while beads of water cascade off her perky breasts. In several images, Fletcher stares into mirrors. In her pursed lips and eyes keenly focused on her own face, I see a woman wishing that someone would study her as closely as she studies herself.
Mirrors were key when I started sexting in middle school. My new camera phone was a consolation gift from my dad and stepmom before they moved three hours north to be closer to her family. The phone also kept me entertained now that my mom, after having been a single mother since I was an infant, began devoting all of her time to my future stepdad. I’d stand naked in front of a full-length mirror, able to capture the entirety of my post-pubertal body, and snap away. By sending pictures to boys from neighboring schools, I found an outlet for my sexuality that also provided the attention I was missing at home. I knew the risks of sending nudes, but that only intensified the adrenaline rush each time I pressed Send.
Goldin didn’t start taking pictures “seriously” until she was 18, dating a much older man, and photographing a group of drag queens in Boston. Her goal was to get the queens on the cover of Vogue. Goldin lived with the queens and started drinking with them. Around this time, she also began shooting heroin, but then stopped in favor of snorting it—a switch she says saved her life.
In The Ballad’s introduction, Goldin writes that her obsession with recording her day-to-day life in photography stemmed from wanting to remember what happened the nights she partied. As she got older, she realized her motivations ran deeper: “In the process of leaving my family, in recreating myself, I lost the real memory of my sister…I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.” Perhaps Goldin initially fixated on the queens because they, like her, expressed themselves as the women they wanted to be—an opportunity not afforded to Barbara.
When I was 15, I became disillusioned with guys shoving their fingers inside of me without asking, grabbing my breasts so hard they left finger-shaped bruises, and forcing their penises into my mouth. I wanted a sexual relationship, but I wasn’t interested in having someone touch me when I was the best at touching me. Chatrooms were too anonymous to form any lasting connections, and I was too young to sign up for OkCupid. My work-around was to create an alternative Facebook version of myself: Raina Daughtry, a 21-year-old college student who studied literature and writing. I used the Facebook dating app, Hot or Not, to swipe through guys’ pictures and friend them if I wanted to see more.
Raina Daughtry’s profile was composed of photos that I’d taken of myself with a tripod and self-timer around my mom’s house; lounging in my rumpled purple sheets with mussed hair and bare shoulders; crawling on my hands and knees in black lingerie on the turquoise bathroom counter; posing on the kitchen table in black-and-white leopard-print leggings. To make it look like Raina Daughtry had friends, I scrounged Tumblr for pictures of white women with long brown hair (like mine) whose faces were obscured: in crowded bars, in candle-lit restaurants, in the shade on beaches with white sand.
At her peak, Raina Daughtry had over 300 Facebook friends, mostly men in their early 20s who were lonely and seeking companionship. If I liked someone, we Facebook messaged, texted, then sexted. If things went well, we talked on the phone and had phone sex. I built months-long relationships with a handful of these men and at least three told me they loved me. If a guy got too attached and insisted on meeting, I’d delete him on Facebook and block his number to protect my alter-ego. I believed Raina Daughtry was the person I’d be when I moved away for college; I’d just slipped into her skin early.
Goldin, alongside Armstrong, attended college at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. At the SMFA, Goldin worked with a Pentax camera, wide-angle lens, and flash—the equipment she used for The Ballad. She shot rolls and rolls of film, but hated the painstaking process of making prints in the darkroom. “[Armstrong] and I called our work the dust and scratch school,” Goldin said to O’Hagan. “All we cared about was the content. We didn’t give a shit about prints.”
In the summer of 1976, Goldin lived on Cape Cod with Armstrong and his male lover. She didn’t have access to a darkroom, so she shot on slide film, which could be developed and printed for her at a local drug store. She discovered that slide film captured bright colors and skin tones with great accuracy—trademarks of The Ballad. Photographs from that summer pop with color: Armstrong, with his strong jaw and hairless chest, smoking a cigarette and reclining in an orange lounge chair next to a swimming pool; an androgynous woman with short hair partially submerged in a tub, her bright pink nipples in contrast to the cool tones of the murky blue bath water; a man face-down on a blue blanket dotted with red stars, while his lover—whose back is covered in sand—flops on top of him.
Goldin shot almost exclusively on slide film after that summer. While traditional film is developed into a negative, slide film develops into a positive, which can be projected—the original format of The Ballad’s nearly 700 images. In the early 80s, Goldin first showed The Ballad to amuse her friends, then publicly in small venues around New York City. She spent days perfecting the sequence of images for her slideshows, each one unique. Many of the slides are scratched because she frequently handled them while she was high on heroin and cocaine.
Accompanying the slideshow there was always music: sometimes a live band, but more often an eclectic soundtrack of jazz, pop, rock, and soul music by notable artists that included James Brown, Nina Simone, The Persuasions, Smokey Robinson, and The Velvet Underground. Also on the soundtrack was the collection’s titular song, a ballad from The Threepenny Opera. The music brought the slides to life; viewers felt like they’d occupied the same bars, clubs, and apartments as Goldin and her friends.
After a year of virtual relationships, I craved face-to-face intimacy. I also wanted to have real sex. At 16, I started dating Clark, a boy from a neighboring school. I was charmed by how he dyed his hair purple to defy his mother during her campaign to be elected his town’s judge, and the way he played songs on his guitar about taking down “the establishment.” He introduced me to The Velvet Underground and cigarettes. We found love in our shared hatred of suburban conformity.
We dated for a week before we had sex. My mom and stepdad had gone out for the night and left us home after we’d promised to “keep three feet on the floor.” The banana I’d fucked myself with a few days before hadn’t prepared me for the pain of having Clark’s entire body weight behind his thrusting. I focused on making the noises I’d learned in porn, as if vocalizing what sex was supposed to sound like could make it feel good. I was so loud, in fact, that when my mom and stepdad came home early, they heard everything.
My mom banished Clark from our house; he stood in the driveway as he waited for his dad to pick him up. She was pissed that I’d broken her trust, pissed I’d had sex so young. She knew, as I do now, that I wasn’t capable of coping with the emotional repercussions of sex, or advocating for my sexual needs. To save face, I never told anyone how painful I found sex. I told myself it would get better if I kept at it.
But it never did. I often disassociated and watched myself from above: my body limp, his sweaty and pumping. He nicknamed me “Ragdoll Raina.” Sometimes I burned so badly afterward that I sat in his bathroom sink and ran cold water over my vagina.
The most pleasurable part of sex was when he bit my breasts, neck, and chest. The white-hot pain from the collision of his teeth and my flesh moved me into a realm of ecstasy. I also loved how his bites peppered my peachy skin with bruises—a personal sunset that started with deep purples and faded to pinks and putrid greens and jaundiced yellows.
When we weren’t having sex, we were usually fighting. Instead of talking it out, we goaded each other: he told me I was fat, I called him a fag—neither of which was true. Then we wrestled on the scratchy carpet on his basement floor, which always led to sex. We broke up and got back together, on and off like a light switch. Our bulb finally burned out in the weeks before I left for photography camp.
In 1978, Goldin moved into a loft on the Lower East Side and began living nocturnally: working in bars and partying after her shifts. Nearly all the photographs included in The Ballad from this time she took at night, inside, with flash. Flash lends a uniformity to these portraits; her family’s noses and cheeks are illuminated, eyes glossy with bright white dots at the center as if they’re glowing in Goldin’s personal spotlight of affection.
The most haunting image from these Manhattan years (and for me, from the entire collection) is “Nan One Month After Being Battered, 1984.” In the photograph, Goldin stares directly at the camera with green and purple bruises around her eyes, white spots in her pupils. Her right eye is completely red, nearly swollen shut. The violence of the image is contradicted by Goldin’s femininity: her hair cascades down her shoulders in neat black curls, she wears a pearl necklace, and her lips are coated in bright red lipstick. The chronology of photographs suggests Goldin’s lover Brian beat her.
He appears often in The Ballad with his large, wide-set blue eyes, hairy body, and masculine aura. He holds a shotgun and smokes a cigarette in a stained white t-shirt; uses the toilet in a dirty bathroom with exposed brick walls, naked but for a cigarette between his fingers; sits on the edge of a bed and smokes while Goldin reclines behind him and watches—the whole frame cast in shades of orange and yellow.
On their first date, Goldin asked Brian to cop her heroin. After that, the couple fell into their passion and addiction, alternating between fighting and feeling deeply connected. In a 2016 interview with Hilton Als for The New Yorker, Goldin said Brian was “dope-sick” the night he beat her. In The Ballad’s introduction, Goldin writes about how the intense pleasure of sex and romance perpetuate sexual dependency, which leads to unhealthy relationships lasting far longer than they should.
In 1986, a couple of years after Goldin and Brian split, The Ballad was released as a book. In the wake of its publication, Goldin spent all of her time getting high on cocaine and heroin, rarely leaving her loft. “When I crossed the line from use to self-abuse my world became very, very dark,” Goldin told Drusilla Beyfus in a 2009 interview for The Telegraph. She didn’t see the sun for almost two years. When she decided to get clean, Armstrong helped her through her first mornings of sobriety in two decades. She went into a detox facility clutching her camera and a copy of The Ballad, both of which were confiscated upon her arrival.
Less than a week after I went to the basement metal concert, I saw images from The Ballad
in that cold, dark classroom. I didn’t know it was the year of the 25th anniversary of The Ballad’s publication, or that the slideshow was supposed to have music. But I knew I recognized the sexuality, vulnerability, and close physical proximity I’d sought after through porn, chatrooms, Raina Daughtry, and sex with Clark. That Goldin was willing to publically share her most intimate photographs made me feel less ashamed of the wanton desires I’d fulfilled in secret. And having found a community in downtown Albany that resembled Goldin’s in New York and Boston, I knew I’d found a place where I could openly seek the connection and catharsis that I craved.
I spent my summer taking pictures of my friends smoking cigarettes on our leafy campus in Upstate New York, undressing on the shores of Lake Ontario, and sprawling on the twin beds in our echoey dorm rooms. My images didn’t compare to Goldin’s, but I didn’t expect them to—I knew I had to wait to return to Albany and shoot the people I wanted to be my chosen family.
When I got home, I went to every house concert I could, driving downtown in my mom’s Honda and love-tapping cars as I parallel parked on narrow streets. The more I went to Albany, the more people I met, and the more parties they invited me to. In cramped apartments with scratched wood floors I took flash photographs of my new friends: dancing, drinking, flirting, fighting. I often lied to my already-mistrustful mother as to my whereabouts.
Downtown, I made out with tattooed men in apartments strewn with dirty clothes, overflowing ashtrays, and empty beer cans. It was exhilarating to fuck loudly, smoke cigarettes indoors, and leave dishes in the sink. But after a few weeks, the sex was still painful, the plumes of cigarette smoke made my head pound, and the dishes cultivated a foul gray mold. I thought assuming a life that looked like Goldin’s would ameliorate my lifelong craving for something other, something more. But I only felt left out and disappointed. I was a high school student who didn’t understand the exhaustion from long hours working in the service industry to make rent, the need to drink every night, or the hardships of breaking away from home. My photographs never had The Ballad’s magic because I wasn’t fully immersed in the Albany scene. In my distance from it, I’d glamorized sex, addiction, and poverty when Goldin had explicitly presented their realities in The Ballad. At 17, I lacked that awareness and I thought I could force a sense of belonging if I kept going downtown.
One night before I went out, I was in the kitchen editing a photograph on the family laptop: I’m sitting cross-legged in the grass wearing a denim shirt with the arms cut off as I look at a lit cigarette in my hand, nails painted a neon pink. From behind, my mother said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” My stomach dropped. She said she’d never give me money again, or trust me for lying to her. In retrospect, I think I wanted her to catch me, to test the boundaries of her love, to see if breaking a sworn promise would elicit her warmth and concern instead of her ice. When it didn’t, I burst into tears and ran out of the house, putting further distance between us.
Sobbing, I lit a cigarette and walked past landscaped lawns and trees whose leaves were beginning to yellow. Instead of calling one of my new friends to pick me up, I called my dad. Things between us had been strained since he moved away, but he said I could live with him if I was sure I wouldn’t change my mind. I didn’t want to live downtown, work a minimum-wage job, and live in a messy apartment. I didn’t want to put in the herculean effort required to repair a relationship with my mom. I didn’t care about having to change high schools two months into my senior year; I’d been so consumed, first with the online world of Raina Daughtry, then my relationship with Clark, and finally my time downtown, that I’d lost touch with most of my friends from school.
A day later, my dad picked me up in the early morning. With tears and sunshine in my eyes, I heaved black trash bags full of my belongings into the bed of his truck, and headed toward change.
“I look at Ballad and see the dynamics of both love and hate, tenderness and violence, as well as all kinds of ambivalence in relationships,” Goldin wrote in the afterword of the 25th anniversary edition of The Ballad. “In a way, the picture of the heart-shaped bruise could be the symbol of the whole book.” The photograph captures the bottom half of a woman lying on a bed. She’s pulled down her black tights to reveal her marred thigh, glossy with flash. The bruise is heart-shaped, outlined in vivid pink with a sickly yellow interior. The bruise isn’t fresh shades of purple, but faded and lighter: proof that what once hurt can heal.