Art History Lab

Nan Goldin: Intimate Portraiture and Activism Through Art

Nan Goldin: The Power of Intimate Portraiture

Nan Goldin is a visionary artist known for her thought-provoking and deeply personal photographic works. Her photographs often depict the LGBTQ+ community, showcasing moments of raw intimacy that are rarely seen in mainstream media.

With her unique approach to portraiture, Goldin’s work highlights the humanity and beauty in individuals that are often overlooked or misunderstood.

Childhood and Early Life

Barbara Goldin’s suicide when Nan was just eleven years old, led to her experimentation with marijuana at the age of thirteen. She sought solace in older men and dropped out of high school.

However, her fascination with the arts led her to take pictures with a Polaroid camera of the people around her.

Early Photography and Political Intentions

Goldin’s passion for photography started at the Satya Community School where she took pictures of her peers as a way of exposing the nonconforming subgroups. Her earlier political intent was to change the stigma around what was seen as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal.’

Intimate Portraiture and LGBTQ+ Communities

Goldin’s work found a new perspective when she became part of the LGBTQ+ community in the late 1970s in New York City.

Her photographs are an honest and personal representation of this community, creating an intimate documentation of their everyday lives. Goldin’s portraits are meant to capture the moments of human fragility and strengths that may go overlooked in the everyday media.

Her work illustrates the humanity that underlies these relationships, and she often captures a haunting and emotional gaze to the camera.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Moments of Intimacy

Goldin’s work in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency showcases her intimate photographs of the post-punk, new-wave music scene in the late 1970s and the ’80s. With these photos, Goldin documents pivotal moments in her life and the lives of her closest friends.

She highlights the beauty in diverse relationships and peoples regardless of their past. Her photos are strikingly intimate and capture the truth of these relationships.


Nan Goldin’s unique approach to portraiture has garnered her international acclaim as an artist. With her deeply personal photographic works, she highlights the humanity and beauty of individuals who are often overlooked or misunderstood.

This artist offers a unique perspective into the LGBTQ+ community and the lives of those who inhabit it. Her work is profound and powerful, and it continues to inspire and move audiences around the world.

Nan Goldin: Activism Through Art

Nan Goldin’s artistic creations go far beyond her intimate portraits of the LGBTQ+ community. Her activism through art and photography has been her driving force for years.

With her work, she creates awareness about opioid addiction and prescription drug abuse, and her campaigns and protests against arts institutions have also brought attention to important issues. Additionally, three significant photographs stand out testament to her photographic style and personal life.

Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.)

In 2017, Goldin founded the activist group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now P.A.I.N. to fight against opioid addiction and raise public awareness of the Sackler family’s role in fueling the crisis. The Sacklers are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the drug company that produces the potent painkiller OxyContin.

Goldin’s work with P.A.I.N. includes demonstrations in museums and public spaces across the United States, demanding that institutions reject funding from the Sackler family, who have profited from OxyContin, despite its devastating effects on communities. Nan Goldin also uses her art to highlight the effects of addiction.

In her video installation “Siren”, Goldin documents the dying moments of a friend due to fentanyl overdose. The video installation is harrowing, and her activism aims at ensuring the opioid crisis and its impact on vast communities is exposed and combated.

Protests and Campaigns

Goldin’s activism has also focused on museums and galleries. In 2018, she staged a protest at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she and a group of P.A.I.N. members threw pill bottles labeled OxyContin into a courtyard.

A year later, she led another demonstration against the Guggenheim Museum, staging a die-in to protest against the Sackler family’s involvement in the art world. Goldin’s efforts have not been limited to New York City, though.

She has taken her demonstrations and campaigns to major institutions worldwide, including the Louvre in Paris and the National Portrait Gallery in London. Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City (1983)

This photograph exemplifies Nan Goldin’s style of portraiture.

In it, Nan and her lover Brian are curled up in bed, eyes closed, seemingly engulfed in peaceful slumber. The image is incredibly intimate, revealing their love for each other while simultaneously conveying a sense of longing and resignation.

The sun is setting, offering a sense of closure and finality. The photograph is both beautiful and melancholy, showcasing Goldin’s ability to use moments of intimacy to convey larger themes and emotions.

Nan one month after being battered (1984)

In this self-portrait, taken after she was brutally beaten by her then-boyfriend, Goldin stands before the camera, looking glamorous and fierce. Her lip is busted, and her face bears the marks of the assault she suffered.

She refuses to be defined by the trauma, instead of using it as a source of strength. The image is both a testament to personal resilience and a call for action, reinforcing the need to speak out against domestic violence.

Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC (1991)

This portrait provides an insight into Goldin’s character’s through her representation of drag queens Misty and Jimmy Paulette. In the middle of the New York City Pride March, the pair sits in the back of a taxi, their faces up close to the camera, and their eyes locked on the viewer’s gaze.

The photograph provides a fascinating insight into drag culture and the acceptance of non-conforming identities in the LGBTQ+ community.


Nan Goldin’s activism through her art is just as powerful as her intimate portraiture. From her campaigns against opioid addiction to her protests in museums, it is clear that her work means more than just capturing beautiful moments.

She uses her art and her activism to raise awareness, challenging social injustice and highlighting the powers that be who enable and profit from such issues. Furthermore, her continued creative output is a testament to the influence activism can have in art.

Nan Goldin: Recommended Reading

To better understand Nan Goldin’s work, it’s essential to delve beyond her photographs and look into what influenced her as an artist. These recommended reads offer insight into Goldin’s life and work, providing a more profound appreciation of her photography.

The Devil’s Playground (2003)

The Devil’s Playground is a collection of personal stories and recollections by Nan Goldin about her chosen family of artists and drag queens in the 1970s and ’80s. The collection is autobiographical, and it highlights the relationships, violence, drug abuse, and AIDS that would define her life and that of her community.

Unlike the photographs, Goldin in this work uses writing to communicate vividly and honestly about her experiences and the people who surrounded her. The Devil’s Playground is a powerful book that contextualizes the work of one of our greatest modern artists.

Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (2012)

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a seminal body of photographs by Nan Goldin, originally produced in the early 1980s. The book is an intimate visual journal of photographs that encapsulate a subculture of artists and young people living in a post punk and new wave era.

The photos within demonstrate Goldin’s love for her chosen family and shared lifestyle. Goldin documents these subcultures, providing a glimpse into her world, the challenges she faced, and the beauty she encountered.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is considered one of the most influential photographic collections of the late twentieth century. Ballads: Aperture 239 (2020)

Ballads is an exclusive interview with Nan Goldin that features over fifty photographs and visual and written reminiscences.

The interview highlights Goldin’s influences, her work and her motivations, touching on her muses and subcultures. The book is a collection of intimate moments that showcase her ability to communicate the beauty and ugliness of society through her art.

Goldin speaks of intimacy, love, hurt, despair, and music- each a consistent theme throughout her art. The book’s juxtaposition of written and photographic material provides a broader understanding of Goldin’s artistic sensibilities.


Nan Goldin’s photography demands close attention and introspection. Her work often touches on some of the more vulnerable moments in life, whether it’s documenting moments of intimacy or broader themes such as the opioid epidemic.

However, to gain a deeper appreciation of her photography, examining the literature surrounding Goldin is essential. Such readings offer a glimpse into an artist’s life and influences, providing an intimate link between the artist and the audience.

Indeed, these three pieces are an insightful and compelling exploration of Nan Goldin’s art, life, and times. Nan Goldin is a visionary artist known for her thought-provoking and deeply personal photographic works.

Her unique approach to portraiture highlights the beauty and humanity in individuals that are often overlooked or misunderstood. Goldin’s activism through art and photography has also been her driving force for years, creating awareness about opioid addiction and prescription drug abuse, and bringing attention to important issues through protests and campaigns.

Her recommended readings complement her work, providing valuable insight into her life, art, and times. Nan Goldin’s contribution is profound and powerful, influencing creative output and activism, emphasizing the need for greater awareness and understanding of issues affecting marginal communities.

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