Anyone with a passion for photography can recall the works that made them fall in love with the medium. For me, it was The Ballad of Sexual Dependency by Nan Goldin.
Taken between 1974 and 2004, Ballad features intimate snapshots of Goldin’s friends, lovers, and herself—compiled long before documenting one’s own life was a popular or even acceptable way to express oneself. I first saw it in college, after my first great heartbreak. The portraits, which show couples entwined in embraces and photographs of Goldin’s bruised face after she was beaten by her boyfriend, visualized something of my own yearning for the man who had betrayed me. And even though I had not been physically abused, the image of Goldin’s suffering reflected some of the delicious pleasure I derived from the pain he’d caused me.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the first photography book I ever bought and is the only one that has followed me from apartment to apartment throughout my adult life.
A selection of 690 images from the series is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art and will remain on view through April 16. The show is presented in its original format: a sequence of 35mm slides projected one at a time, accompanied by a soundtrack that includes Maria Callas and the Velvet Underground. As curator Marvin Heiferman told The New Yorker in 2016, it was clear that the series was extraordinary from the very first time he saw it in an early iteration in 1978, but his boss back then, legendary dealer Antoinette Castelli, was afraid to show the photos. “She worried that they would upset people, that Ellsworth Kelly wouldn’t like them,” Heiferman recalled.
The images are raw and shocking, even for 2017 viewers. They depict people having sex, shooting up, and surrendering to abandon. One photo shows the legendary downtown doyenne Cookie Mueller in an open coffin after succumbing to AIDS in 1989. But the most shocking (and human) are of Goldin after being battered by Brian, the office worker and ex-Marine featured in many of her most intimate pictures. The photographer met Brian while she was tending bar near Times Square, and together, they gave into drugs. Dope sick in Berlin in 1984, Brian beat Goldin within an inch of her life. “We were staying at a pensione, and he started beating me, and he went for my eyes, and later they had to stitch my eye back up because it was about to fall out of the socket,” she told The New Yorker‘s Hilton Als. “He burned my journals, and the sick thing was that there were people around who knew us and who wouldn’t help me. He wrote ‘Jewish-American Princess’ in lipstick on the mirror.”
During a time when women were considered the objects of photographs rather than the auteurs creating them, Goldin was both. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” she has said. “The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”
The youngest daughter in a middle-class Jewish family from Silver Springs, Maryland, Goldin left home soon after her older sister, Barbara, committed suicide in 1965. Barbara suffered from fits of rage and spent much of her adolescence in mental institutions. Goldin escaped the family that had kept her sister separate; she was desperate to remember her.
In a way, the photographs she took during the years it took to complete The Ballad of Sexual Dependency can be read as an attempt to remember life exactly as it happened. It was also a way to create the family Goldin never had. The project offered a constancy that could never be taken away from her.
Even if you’ve seen them, these images will surprise you. They’ll also remain with you long after you’ve left the museum.