See “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” Thirty Years After It Was First Unveiled

Photo: Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City. 1983. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 15 1/2 x 23 3/16″ (39.4 x 58.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker.

American photographer Nan Goldin (b. 1953) arrived in New York City in 1978, after graduating the School of Museum Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University. She became immersed in the post-Stonewall gay subculture that flourished in the days before AIDS, documenting the hardcore drug scene on the Bowery, which she documented from 1979–1986.

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Goldin organized her work from this era in a visual diary she titled “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” chronicling the intimate struggles of her friends, family, and lovers. The project was originally designed as a slideshow exhibition set to the music of the Velvet Underground, James Brown, Nina Simone, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, among others; a year later, the it was published as an artist’s book, catapulting Goldin to worldwide prominence.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan One Month After Being Battered. 1984. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Nan One Month After Being Battered. 1984. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote. “The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”

Now, The Museum of Modern Art, New York presents Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, on view now through February 12, 2017. The exhibition is comprised of almost 700 snapshot-like portraits sequenced against an evocative music soundtrack, presented in its original 35mm format, along with photographs from the Museum’s collection that also appear as images in the slide show.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). C.Z. and Max on the Beach, Truro, Massachusetts. 1976. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 23 1/8 x 15 1/2″ (58.7 x 39.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). C.Z. and Max on the Beach, Truro, Massachusetts. 1976. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2006, 23 1/8 x 15 1/2″ (58.7 x 39.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Jon L. Stryker.

Titled after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is an intense drama of operatic scale. Its protagonists (including Goldin herself) are photographed in deep, intimate moments of love and loss, joy and pain. With the veils stripped away, all that remains is the raw, sensate experience of life as manifest by sex and drugs, parties and families, violence and death.

There is a gritty, gutsy glamour in Goldin’s photographs that reveals the way in which she used the camera to document life. She wrote, “Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life.”

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Trixie on the Cot, New York City. 1979. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Marian and James H. Cohen in memory of their son Michael Harrison Cohen.

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). Trixie on the Cot, New York City. 1979. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 15 1/2 x 23 1/8″ (39.4 x 58.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Marian and James H. Cohen in memory of their son Michael Harrison Cohen.

The Ballad of Sexual Depedency reveals the way in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as the cumulative effect of the images is an overwhelming experience, much like life itself. She developed the slideshow through multiple improvised live performances, running the slides by hand while her friends helped prepare the soundtrack.

The result is one that is equal parts specific and universal, for in the comings and goings of her tribe, Goldin touches upon the universal themes that many find themselves embroiled in, the strange lines between love and hate, autonomy and dependency, freedom and addiction, youth and experience. And in the end, it is simply a matter of salvation, as Goldin observes, “Yes, photography saved my life. Every time I go through something scary, traumatic, I survive by taking pictures.”

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). The Hug, New York City. 1980. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 23 1/8 x 15 1/2″ (58.7 x 39.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953). The Hug, New York City. 1980. Silver dye bleach print, printed 2008, 23 1/8 x 15 1/2″ (58.7 x 39.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase

All photos: © 2016 Nan Goldin.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.