In the 1970s, Manhattan’s Lower East Side became the neo-frontier of an adventurous avant garde. Attracted by the cheap rents and dilapidated housing, grass-roots art collectives and club promoters moved in and began staging ad hoc art and music events. Before long this deprived area became synonymous with radical experimentation and transgression. One photographer who witnessed this explosion of creativity was Nan Goldin. Her documentation of the time is now seen as a swansong to this heady era.
Goldin was born into a middle-class family; her father worked as an economist. When Goldin was 11 years old, her older sister committed suicide. This cataclysmic event has often been linked to Goldin’s obsessive desire to document her personal history. The first photographs she took were empathetic portrayals of drag queens, their daily lives and their social circles. After studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Goldin moved to the Lower East Side, where she continued to use her camera to chronicle the intimate lives of her friends.
These photographs were made into slide shows which Goldin would present in nightclubs, accompanied by a live soundtrack. Later, she published them in a book called The Ballard of Sexual Dependency. It was a personal contemplation of the nature of sexual relationships, male social isolation, domestic violence and substance abuse and was shockingly frank.
By the early 1990s Goldin’s photographs had gained international acclaim. Her 20-year record of her friends’ lives, in which the impact of HIV and AIDS, drug addiction and rehabilitation were registered, offered audiences a profound engagement with social issues. Now considered one of the most influential figures of the confessional photography genre, in 2007 she was presented with the Hasselblad Award for photography.
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