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Nan Goldin on Forging Memories Through Photography

On the occasion of her new exhibition at Marian Goodman, the legendary artist talks about turning photographs into films, and how she keeps the past alive through her portraits.

Cover image: Nan Goldin, My horse, Roma, Valley of the Queens, Luxor, Egypt, 2003 (The image was cropped to fit our banner requirements)

Nan Goldin, Thora’s eye, Brooklyn, NY, 2021

Nan Goldin always wanted to be a filmmaker. She still does: “Maybe I’ll do a costume drama, or a crime story,” she muses. But in a sense, she’s been a filmmaker all along. Goldin first made her mark on the art scene in the mid-1980s with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a slideshow of 700 snapshots documenting pain, love, and loss with a soundtrack varying from Maria Callas to The Velvet Underground. It was Goldin’s way of filmmaking: taking photographs and turning them into a moving image, projecting them and flipping through the slides by hand.

In a new exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery, in New York, “Memory Lost”, Goldin presents three of these slideshow-films, as well as a selection of brand-new prints. The titular slideshow, Memory Lost, is one of Goldin’s newest and the largest in scale since her seminal Ballad. With a score by Mica Levi, the images weave a story of the crippling effects of addiction, including memory blackout. For this latest slideshow—or, rather, short film, as Goldin sees it—she went on an archival excavation, discovering images and memories she didn’t know she had.

Nan Goldin, Empty beach, Coney Island, n.d.
Nan Goldin, The crowd, Paternò, 2004

Several stills from Memory Lost are hung on the gallery walls, with dates and locations far-ranging. The one constant is that many of the images seem damaged or blurred; The Crowd, Paterno captures a crowd so frenetic that it is as if an electric charge is rippling through, the resultant image a snapshot of movement and jagged lines of light.

“They’re accidents. I don’t know if they’re happy, but they’re all accidents,” says Goldin of these photographs. “It was long before there was an app to throw your pictures out of focus. Most of them are analogue; I wasn’t seeing well, or film got destroyed. They’re my accidents, and as such, I think they’re magic.”

Nan Goldin, Lavender Landscape, Buncrana, Ireland, 2002
Nan Goldin, Cross in the Fog, Brides-les-bains, 2002

For a while, Goldin stopped documenting her life and all of the people around her. Instead, she took to the skies, taking pictures of the rich blues and pale pinks of twilights and dawns all over the world. In Blue Hills, Italy, the shades of blue and black all bleed into one another. It doesn’t quite look like a photograph, nor a painting; rather, it has the hazy quality of waking up from a dream, when the world is still blurry.

It was only during the Covid pandemic that Goldin felt compelled to start photographing people again. She focused on a single subject: the writer Thora Siemsen, who moved into her Brooklyn residence for the quarantine period. The resultant images are intimate, ethereal even, with photos of Thora laying across a bed and a halo of light around her.

Nan Goldin, Thora at my vanity, Brooklyn, NY, 2021
Nan Goldin, Electric Gaja, Paris, 2010

For the first time in her career, Goldin tried a new printing technique, dye sublimation prints on aluminum, with the colors radiating off the metal. It was an experiment at first, one that left Goldin uncertain—until she tested it with a photograph of Thora seated at a vanity. Perched on a chair, a nude Thora is surrounded by shadow, the luminosity of her bare skin heightened by the darkness around her: “The darks are so beautiful, so deep, I became completely convinced,” says Goldin. “It’s the depth of the blacks.”

Loss is a prevalent theme in her life and work, as well as the fallibility of memory, whether from the ravaging effects of time or of drug addiction. For Goldin, preserving memory is the ultimate goal, using photography as a medium to suspend moments in amber. In her book accompanying The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Goldin wrote: “We all tell stories which are versions of history—memorized, encapsulated, repeatable, and safe. Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life. Memory allows an endless flow of connections. Stories can be rewritten, memory can’t.”

Nan Goldin, Twilight in Dordogne, France, 1979
Nan Goldin, My horse, Roma, Valley of the Queens, Luxor, Egypt, 2003

There’s an immortality bestowed upon those who are photographed; “Most of the people in [The Other Side] are dead,” says Goldin, and yet they are vibrantly alive in these photos. The Other Side, another slideshow in the exhibit, is a tribute to Goldin’s transgender friends, many of whom she lived with and photographed from the 1970s until 2010. It’s the first time the slideshow has been viewed in over a decade, and it’s been given a new treatment. (“To me, they’re films,” says Goldin of her slideshows. “But the beauty of them is that you can constantly re-edit them and update them, which you can’t with film.”)

The exhibit is punctuated by references to the opioid crisis, a personal note of Goldin who has spoken openly about her battles with drug addiction. The opioid epidemic is estimated to have claimed over 500,000 lives, numbers comparable to the H.I.V. epidemic which killed many of Goldin’s friends in The Other Side. In 2018, she told the New York Times: “In the ‘80s I lost a whole community and to my mind there’s a generation missing. So are we going to watch now while another generation is being wiped out?”

Memory Lost has a slide dedicating it to P.A.I.N., or “Prescription Addiction Intervention Now”, a group founded by Goldin that fights for progressive drug policy reform and harm-reduction-based-healthcare. It has also affected change within the art world: in 2019, P.A.I.N. succeeded in getting the Louvre and the National Portrait Gallery, among others, to end their affiliations with the Sackler Family, owner of the pharmaceutical companies Purdue Pharma and Mundipharmaand, refuse their donations, as the Sackler’s are largely regarded as responsible for the epidemic through their production and distribution of OxyCotin.

 Nan Goldin, The sky on the twilight of Philippine’s suicide, Winterthur, Switzerland, 1997

Despite all the beauty in Goldin’s work, there is an overwhelming sense of sadness, the magnitude of her losses laid bare. “I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again,” she wrote in Ballad. “I always thought that if I photographed anyone or anything enough, I would never lose the person, I would never lose the memory, I would never lose the place. But the pictures show me how much I’ve lost.”

By Christina Cacouris

Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.

“Nan Goldin, Memory Lost” is on view at the Marian Goodman Gallery, in New York, until 12 June 2021. More information here.

Nan Goldin, Seascape at sunset, Camogli, Italy, 2000
Nan Goldin, Sunset like hair, Sète, France 2003

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