Nan Goldin Photography: The 'Goldin' Age of Heroin Chic

Nan Goldin Photography: The ‘Goldin’ Age of Heroin Chic

It’s impossible to be unfamiliar with Nan Goldin. Though some may not know her by name, the influence her photography has had on modern pop culture is unarguable because it’s simply everywhere. Kate Moss’ entire modeling career has been thanks to Goldin’s photography, as well as the film High Art, and the popularity of drunken party photos taken by the Cobrasnake. Our society and generation has embraced the hipness and voyeurism of Goldin’s stylistic photography.

Goldin’s craft focused on her own life, an idea that was somewhat innovative when she began taking pictures of her friends in the ’80s. It was certainly something new because Goldin’s friends were gays, transvestites, and drug addicts-some could even qualify as all three. Her first collection of these photographs can be found in her book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, based on her original film with the photos in a collage, put to Eartha Kitt music. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is credited for bringing to light the idea, the fashion, and the cool of heroin chic.

Goldin, a feminist and bisexual, took candid shots of herself and the people in her life in situations most others wouldn’t have thought possible, especially in middle America. But at the time, in New York City, the post-punk and new wave scenes were the aftermath of the Andy Warhol-inspired art and underground party culture. Goldin’s portrayal of urban debauchery included a portrait of herself, bloodied and beaten by her violent ex-boyfriend. Others were stark images of drag queens as they prepared for a night on the town or a pageant performance.

Goldin often photographed her lover, Siobahn, who was usually wearing nothing but a smirk. Sex was a main theme in Goldin’s photography, and the risks she took were portrayed in the 1998 Lisa Cholodenko film High Art, starring Aly Sheedy. The film (a lesbian and cult favorite) is about a disillusioned photographer (Sheedy) who resurrects her career after meeting her downstairs neighbor whom she falls for, before inevitably dying of a drug overdose. The photography in the film has been widely acknowledged as Goldin knockoffs, though Cholodenko says she was more inspired by Diane Arbus than she was by Goldin. Nonetheless, Sheedy’s brooding, self-deprecating friends mirror those pictured in Goldin’s infamous collections.

While High Art touched on the demise of those who embraced the seemingly glamorous life of cocaine and hypersexual promiscuousness, the sad truth is that most of Goldin’s subjects passed away before the ’90s. Goldin has rejected the idea of “heroin chic” and began to change her focus of photography from extremely personal to more public, creating collections of landscapes, skyscrapers, Tokyo, and eventually focusing on family life.

Goldin still produces important pieces of art that pose questions and frame answers. A recent exhibit from 2002, “Nan Goldin: Chasing a Ghost,” includes photos of herself and her sister, who committed suicide at age 18, accompanied by Johnny Cash’s recording of “Hurt.”

Always an avid activist, Goldin inspires important discussions on gender, AIDS, and sexual relationships that contemporary artists have emulated and updated. Goldin has called her photographs “a visual diary,” and is quoted as saying, “These are my friends, these are my family, this is myself. There is no separation between me and what I photograph.”

Fortunately, Goldin is bringing some of her original photographs to the Art Institute of Chicago as part of a group exhibit, “So The Story Goes” which also features work from Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Sally Mann and Larry Sultan. From Sept. 16 through Dec. 3, Goldin’s work will be displayed as part of the collaboration which will “offer viewers a glimpse into [the artists’] private realities, sometimes imparting the names, dates, and places pictured and other times leaving the possible narrative to our own imagining.”