Nakedness and Generosity: Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Alex Haydn-Williams 4 November 2019
Image credit: Flickr

[CW: description of domestic violence]

As it spread from living rooms, to underground clubs, to Chelsea galleries, and eventually to the hallowed walls of the Museum of Modern Art, Nan Goldin’s vulnerable masterpiece The Ballad of Sexual Dependency injected a shot of adrenaline straight into the veins of the tepid New York art scene.

In a photography culture of serious men taking serious black and white photographs of serious subjects seriously, Goldin’s slideshow of technically imperfect snapshots of life among her makeshift family of bohemian friends was a burst of colour and intimacy.

It’s the Ballad’s intimacy that strikes you most: not a single image is staged; not a single image has any hint of artifice. Goldin takes pictures that capture love and vulnerability in equal measure. The amount of flesh on show perhaps isn’t surprising for a piece with ‘Sexual Dependency’ in the title; what is surprising is the sensitivity that Goldin looks at her friends with as they shag, cry and party their way through the Eighties.

And she is looking at them: watching the Ballad’s tender, erotic bedroom scenes, you’re always aware of the presence of a third person — the photographer — in the room. In the hands of different, male photographer — David Bailey, say — this would seem voyeuristic. But Goldin, who is both fascinated by and entirely comfortable with sexuality, shows us people who might love one another, might hate one another, might not even know one another, but who, in this immortalised moment, are in the throes of connection, interface, and exchange.

John Berger said that to be nude, in the western tradition, was ‘to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself’. Much rarer, seen in only twenty or so pictures across the entire canon, to be ‘naked’ was to be entirely oneself. If Berger’s counting is correct, the Ballad contains more truly ‘naked’ people than centuries and centuries of oil painting. The subjects of Titian, Bronzino, Van Dyck and Ingres never actually do anything, other than display themselves for examination by the male gaze. But in the Ballad they lie alone, masturbate, cry, grasp, fumble, improvise. In front of Goldin’s camera, it’s finally possible to be naked, not exposed.

The slideshow was made on the margins in a tiny historical space between the rise of queer, bohemian New York and the AIDS crisis. Yet, although these pictures are all specific to a single context, they speak to something fundamental about American identity in the Reagan years, more obliquely than Robert Frank’s The Americans but with no less perception or power. Where Frank, a self-defined outsider, gave us people as stereotypes, Golden gives us stereotypes as people. The teenage friends sitting at a drive-in — the apogee of Americana — don’t become symbols of the faded American dream. Goldin’s innate generosity keeps them as teenage friends, lazily draping themselves across the bonnet; bored, languorous, human.

Image Credit: Flickr

The Ballad’s specificity, in fact, makes it universal. Five minutes sat watching teaches you more about how to love, and have sex, in a truly positive way than any sexual education lesson. Another of Goldin’s universal fascinations — brooding, hard-edged masculinity — is explored and exposed in the images of Brian, her partner at the time. He sits looking hard at the camera like a James Dean impressionist, embraces Nan possessively, throws his head back and smokes performatively; always hard, always hard to define. We try to understand him, and fail. Brian’s face runs like a thread through the slideshow, building, sadly and inevitably, to the best-known image from the Ballad, the defiantly stark Nan One Month After Being Battered. It shows Goldin, bruised horrendously after Brian assaulted her in Berlin. He was attempting to blind her. He burned her diaries. By turning the camera round to document what violence that hard, toxic stare could lead to, she defies him and his control. He tried to remove her ability to document and define her own life. Goldin, with an endlessly important daub of red lipstick, shows us that neither he, nor anyone else, will ever be able to do that. She is writing — and photographing — her own story. She is reclaiming herself.

For its universality, generosity and sheer aesthetic beauty, the Ballad deserves to be considered one of the defining masterpieces of American photography, and Goldin one of America’s greatest modern artists.

She is not taking banal snapshots, as the gallerists who for years rejected her work proclaimed. She’s reinventing the cold, voyeuristic, distant medium of photography, turning it into a process capable of not just evoking, but creating love. As Goldin herself put in her superb introduction to the book version of the Ballad:

‘The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex. The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me. … My desire is to preserve the sense of people’s lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want to show exactly what my world looks like, without glamorization, without glorification.’

The scope of Goldin’s introduction isn’t limited to just photography: it’s a manifesto for a more loving way to live. Cambridge can be a tough, lonely place if you let it. Goldin, with characteristic generosity, gives us a way to survive: spend your life with people you love. Take photos of people you love, with love. Or if you’re not a photographer — just tell them what they mean to you. In the words of a Velvet Underground song that soundtracks the slideshow, and gave its name to a recent Goldin retrospective: be their mirror, reflect what they are, in case they don’t know.

Self portrait by Nan Goldin. Image credit: Flickr

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