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 promised 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 experienc