By Dana Lauria
Photographer Nan Goldin’s photography book, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (“Ballad”), is a visual diary of colored photographs taken between 1979 and 1986 of Goldin’s daily life. She had an obsession with documenting everything exactly how it was. She religiously photographed her friends getting high, having sex, in the midst of mental breakdowns, and in the aftermath of domestic violence. According to its inside cover, the collection “chronicles the struggle for intimacy and understanding between friends, family and lovers…’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.”
“Ballad” is divided into specific sections, such as male and female couples, solitary female or male portraits and so on. When females are shot together, there is often a notable sadness and equal strength, which is amplified when each woman is alone. Males shot together often seem more competitive and less vulnerable than they do by themselves. This highlights the talent of Goldin as a visual translator.
The taboos in Goldin’s work are shocking to those of us who live outside of her reality. She took nudes of her friends while they would bathe, masturbate and make love. Heavy drug use was also a clear part of their existence. These photos work as some of the best pieces in the collection, because Goldin’s subjects were unapologetic in who they were and in what they felt. Goldin captured the reality of those she loved without framing them in an alienating way.
One of the most compelling of Goldin’s friends was Suzanne, whose portraits have been included in “Ballad” a myriad of times. In the photograph “Suzanne with Mona Lisa,” Suzanne is framed to the far left as she stares into a mirror on the far right, and the Mona Lisa painting is hung behind her on a red wall. The image is out of focus, tinting everything in it red, resulting in a still reminiscent of a nightmare. This image is not making a statement, but is instead documenting a mental state. Pages after, Suzanne lays in a yellow-lit hotel room bed, almost in a fetal position. She looks innocent against her unflattering, desolate environment. The next image is of her in bed four years later with veins popping out of her forehead and dark circles under her eyes. Flash was used in this picture, which intensifies Suzanne’s agony, as opposed to the other two photos, which utilize natural light and appear like seething dreams. These photographs, however revealing, do not exploit her. Instead of feeling pity or contempt for Suzanne, I feel empathy.
The definitive image of all of Goldin’s work is her self-portrait titled “Nan one month after being battered.” This photographic climax of “Ballad” is exactly what its title suggests, Goldin’s left eye bruised and the white of it almost completely red with blood. She appears dressed up, wearing jewelry and red lipstick. This photograph serves as a memory of her boyfriend’s violence, and as a testament to Goldin’s will to survive. The absolute strength she had to have to photograph herself battered is evidence of Goldin’s dedication to documenting her truth.
An artwork reveals just as much about its observers as it does about its artist or subject. Goldin’s work forces us to face the parts of human existence that we fear. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” constantly reminds us why being human is worth every battle and every loss.