Nan Goldin – „My life aspiration as a teenager: being a junkie“

zuerst erschienen im März 2014 in Camera Austria 125, S. 9–22
Fassung des Autors

There is a book called, „Make Love“; it is a sex education book. A friend of mine, Heji Shin, took the pictures, and somehow they remind me a little bit of your work.

The sex education book?

Yes, It is like a very open book about sex – have fun with who you want, the way you want, as long as you do it safely. This year it will be published in English as well.

But it is not staged?

She actually asked young couples in Berlin, and photographed them having sex. To me it was interesting how much your pictures formed my generation’s imagination of sexuality. When you were working on „The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” the situation was very different. Your pictures were shocking for a lot of people.

It changed photography. That sounds really grandiose. But, I really suffered a lot of shit for it. I don’t want to be famous; I just want to have done something in my life. I feel like I opened some doors that had been closed, by showing what was private. So, I have always said that this was ‘personal documentary’. This is the name that was given to this kind of photography. But, looking back on it, I consider it bullshit. The „Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was the first book like this, except the only thing that I knew before was Larry Clark’s book, „Tulsa”. Thanks to Zweitausendeins, who published 75,000 copies of the Ballad, the book got to be known in the world. First it was hard cover, then they put it out as a paperback. Then the people could afford it and started to buy it. The people it was made for. The book was made for the people in it – like all my work.

The „Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was a slide show long before the book was published. You were changing the images in the slide show all the time in the beginning, but after you made the book, you kept on changing it?

I continued to change it. The book came out in 1986. I changed the music that went along with the show in 1987. I never changed the music again, but even in 2008, when it was sold to the Museum of Modern Art, I changed the slides. That is what I like about slide shows versus films. It is the ability to reedit, and reedit.

I an old issue of „Camera Austria“ from 1988 there is a letter from Christine Frisinghelli to you. In the letter she describes how she went with you to Houston to a presentation of your slide show. She said, people were attacking you –

The men were screaming at me.

Really, why?

Because they hated it. I wasn’t popular with male photographers. There weren’t that many female photographers around at the time. I went through ten years of being screamed at. In my memory things were being thrown at me… physical attacks. I got punched in the nose by a guy at a society for photo education. This work was so threatening to men. Still, even in the 80s, all the dealers in New York, most of them, were saying that there is not such a thing as a good woman artist. I had forgotten what a struggle I had as a woman.

Christine Frisinghelli said something in the letter: When she came with you to Houston, she understood that people hurt you, because they are afraid of getting hurt.

Oh, that is beautiful. Christine had a huge influence on my life at the time – the letters she wrote, getting the grant.

In the letter she describes how she was hurt herself by your pictures in the beginning. Maybe people sense that there is something scary in your pictures.

Well, I guess if you provoke people to that point, it is also powerful.

You mean it is about power?

I didn’t want power – not powerful like power over people, but I guess that is also an intensity equal to moving people is making people furious – I guess. So, I kind of stayed away from that, because I was too fragile basically to deal with it. I was afraid after the book, I went into kind of hibernation for two years.

After the „Ballad”?

Yes. I just went into drugs completely. Then I got clean, and a detox, and then I came back to life. But this book was a break through.

Absolutely. I looked at it again last week. It still moved me, maybe even more now since I have grown older and have been into more relationships, more into this struggle between…

Dependency and autonomy. Are you gay mostly?

No, mostly not. No, I am not. Coming back to the term sex education. As I said before, your work was some kind of a sex education for me, my generation. (Laughter) Really, it shaped my visual imaginary of sexuality, even before I had…

All your lovers…


I was wondering about your sex education when you where young. Were there any pictures that you were looking at?

I was a hippy, and I lived in communes – where hippies live together. I started having sex when I was 14, and at that time that was considered late. I was like the last one to lose my virginity. I had sex with girls, but they didn’t take it seriously. For me it was real, but for them it wasn’t. But the first time I had actual sex with a boy I was 14. I didn’t start taking pictures until I was 15. The first pictures were black and white Polaroids. The first camera I got was a Polaroid.

(looking together at the pictures in „I’ll be your mirror”)

Is that Suzanne? I know her from a lot of pictures.

Yes, that is Suzanne. And this is David. That is probably the first picture I ever took. These pictures were made in 1969, 1970, and then David went into drag. He was my best friend, like my brother.

David Armstrong?

Yes. He was so pretty in drag that once some guy divorced his wife to be with him.

Really? That is some early achievement!

That is me at the time. I thought I was a queen. I then became the bar photographer, and the queen’s aesthetic room. In Boston I went to a night school to become a fashion photographer. I was sent to this one bookstore every month to get all the Italian and French books, because I am a really good shoplifter. Once I got busted, and now I am not so good anymore.

You know what? I stole once August Sander’s „People of the 20th Century”.

All the four volumes?

There was a hardcover by Taschen. I stole it hiding it under my coat, when I was 16.

If you had done it last week, I would have been even prouder! I wanted to put the queens on the cover of „Vogue” – these people (pointing to her friends on the early photographs of her friends). Now there are lots of queens in vogue, but not in 1972, 1973. They couldn’t go outside in the daytime without being attacked. Gay people are still attacked in New York and all over the world, but at that time they literally could not go out in the daytime. They couldn’t find any work except prostitution, or making clothes for the other queens. That is about all they could do. Later in the 90s, they were able to get jobs in stores. It became very chic.

Voguing with a sudden became a big thing, mainstream. Madonna picked it up for her song „Vogue”.

But in the 70s it was a real kind of underground lifestyle. I lived with them. I was actually in love with one of them – obsessed. This picture here, that was me!

I like the hairstyle!

I invented that hairstyle called the French twist with this frizzy pompadour in the front.

When I look at your pictures, I think about family. I don’t know how you would call it.

„Family” is kind of a bad word for me. (Laughter) I left home at 14.

Did you run away? Did you grow up in a conservative family?

No, intellectual Jews. I was the youngest. Liberals. But, the psychology of the family was not good. My sister committed suicide when she was 18. She was like a mother to me. It was a pretty hard family to grow up in psychologically. So, it was obvious after my sister killed herself that I had to get out. So, first I was a foster child at 12. I was adopted by another family. Then I went into a commune. I lived with David and a few people that I still know. When I was 17, 18, I moved out to live with a 33-year-old junky, because I wanted to be a junky. That was my life aspiration when I was a teenager. I grew up on „Interview” magazine before it was „Interview”, before there were any rich people. They had something called „slum goddesses” every month. I wanted to be a slum goddess. That was an aspiration. I wanted to be a junky, because of Lou Reed and the whole scene. After living with that man for about 9 months, I went to the drag bar in the neighbourhood I was living, and I found David again. We hadn’t seen each other for 9 months, and he was in drag. Through him, I met all these people, and I went to live with them. I came out as a lesbian; but I was more of a drag hag than a lesbian. David was in the closet when I first met him. After about a week I said, “You are gay.” He had never heard the word. I already knew gay men at that time.

You remember when Larry Clark’s book „Tulsa” came out?

I was living with these people before I heard of Larry Clark. I didn’t hear of art photography. I had heard of fashion. When I went to the school to try to be a fashion photographer I met this teacher, and the first day he looked at my work he told me about Larry Clark, Arbus, Saunders, and Weegee. Those were the big four. He was great. I followed him from school to school for a few years. He was the one who had the big influence on me – that teacher. He wanted to make a book of that work then. We are talking 1972. I don’t think anything would have happened. It probably would have been a thousand books, and then it would have gone.

At the moment you are participating in an exhibition called „AIDS LOVE RIOT SEX” at the nGbK in Berlin. Two days ago there was a talk with you and the curator Frank Wagner. You talked about how Aids has disappeared from the public. There is still a huge stigma for people living with HIV and Aids.

Oh my God. Do you know that now there is a death sentence in the Uganda for gay people, as of a few days ago? I cannot understand. Also there are people, for instance, in this book who were openly gay, who have gone back in the closet. What is going on?

There is some kind of backlash, worldwide.

And also people who are open about having Aids, or even political, who are going back in the closet about having Aids. There is still a stigma. To me, there is something wrong with doing that. I grew up in a liberal family, I grew up with politics around me. I always believed that the private should be public. I think that you need to take a public stance if you have a public voice, because it helps so many people. I don’t think a lot of America would have ever come out without Rock Hudson. People would never have come out as having Aids without Magic Johnson. These people are heroes, and it is really important to be public about it – even if it hurts you personally.

I heard that in 1993 you had a fallout with „Emma“ magazine. What happened?

They wanted my pictures of Cookie and her life. She was with a woman for eight years, and she left her for a man. She met Vittorio, and they married. They both died from Aids. Emma asked me if they could use the picture of Cookie’s and Vittorio’s wedding on their cover. I said, „Send me the article.” They sent it and it was such lies! It was about Aids. It said: Aids is only caused by rich white men travelling around the world and giving the virus to women. I thought the article was so incorrect and so dangerous to put out; so I said, „You cannot use my work.” So, they dressed up their art department people, their director of their art department, their photo editor, as Cookie. They put it on the cover of the magazine. It hurt me so badly! I remember the store I went to and bought it. I remember how I felt the first moment I saw it. It was like someone had put a sword in my stomach. They gave me credit for this picture. If I had had more relationships with lawyers at that time I would have sued them. I wish I had sued them.

You are working on a new project about Aids in the Ukraine. How would you describe the situation in the Ukraine? What is your project about?

I got invited to a group show about Aids at the Pinchuk in Kiev. The show was put together by Victor Pinchuk’s wife, who is very involved in Aids. She was really interested in the fact that I wanted to come and do a piece about it.

Your assistant Max showed me your work from the Ukraine.

He did some of it too.

He was a bit shy about that. Yet I saw the credit.

We heard that the statistics in the Ukraine, considering the size of population, are the highest in Europe – of Aids – and the highest rising at a very quick rate, phenomenal rate. What I read from these people is that it was mostly women and children. What we experienced at first was that we could not get access to the gay community. Some of the gay men didn’t even want to say that they were gay, but I have gaydar with men very quickly. They didn’t even want their faces shown. They were afraid that their mother would even see them. I photographed one man in the Aids hospice I guess it is a hospice. I am not sure. It is somewhere between hospice and a hospital. I also photographed him against the window; so you cannot see his face. That allowed him to talk openly. The leader of the gay community, or the most outspoken figure, was bashed a few months ago – like really beaten up. The phobia is so strong. The statistics to my experience, my limited experience there, is mostly prostitutes and people using this new drug getting infected.


I had known for 20-30 years from friends that people in Poland made their own heroine. But, I didn’t know what crocodile was, and I didn’t know to the extent that you cannot get heroine in Ukraine. The police and the dealers are in each other’s pockets. The people don’t have access to heroine, except maybe occasionally.

So they use crocodile?


And they also use it IV.

And they also smoke it like methamphetamine. Do you know what it is made out of?

I think codeine and jodine. You also need gasoline for the process. If you smell gasoline in a house, you know it is a lab producing crocodile.

And you need something you find in matches.

Phosphor. It is like making crystal meth. For crystal meth you need matches, ephedrine, battery acid and other toxic stuff.

Oh really?

I did a project on crystal meth in the US. I went to this crazy place in the desert called Trona, where people were…


I didn’t photograph the cooking, but I was basically hanging out there with the people using crystal meth.

There is an amazing book called „Meth America”, about a guy who returns to his hometown, and the hometown is gone. All the buildings are blown up by the labs. The whole city was destroyed.

Crocodile is made in a similar way – you collect different…

…things from the pharmacies. I asked them: „Well, the pharmacies must know what you are buying it for?” They are in on it too. They are making money from crocodile.

The same with crystal meth. They use ephedrine from the pharmacy.  The pharma industry in America is lobbying against making it a prescription drug. Did you meet people making crocodile?

Yes. Did you see the pictures of the mother and daughter that we took? The pictures of the mother and daughter, I think, are the strongest. They are both addicts. The man in the mother’s life cannot even walk. The reason it is called „crocodile“ is that your skin starts to turn like crocodile skin. But it attacks you from the inside, from your bone marrow, I think, and your muscles. So, these people cannot even walk. The daughter, who was speeding her brains out, is well known as one of the best cookers in town. So, the mother: 48 per cent of her body is burned, because the police were coming in to arrest her daughter; so she dosed herself with gasoline, and the police lit the match to blow her up. It is an incredible story.

Max showed me a new slide show with a voice over of this guy Yuri you made in the Ukraine. Are you still working on the project?

Yes, we went only to Kiev. The organisation helping us there thought we would do five towns in ten days. I do two people in ten days. But we did more than that. We got involved with the needle exchange people, and like I said, a lot of them aren’t having safe sex; and some of them aren’t taking the medication, but they are giving out clean needles. We met some prostitutes, who gave interviews, but they didn’t allow their faces to be shown. The most amazing woman, who I want to go back to interview – she told me her life story but with no mike. It is the most incredible life story. She was a prostitute, and then she was a madam with a house, where you run other girls. We went to a house of prostitution, where people work out of an apartment. One of those girls gave an interview about how they get into prostitution and why – and their addiction to prostitution. Some of them have been tested and some not. It is very hard to make your customers use a condom. They don’t want to, because it feels better not to use a condom. The woman who allowed me to photograph she is married to a man who she loves, and she doesn’t want to have safe sex. I do understand it, as much as I know about Aids, I don’t like safe sex either. So, I have just stopped having sex. That is not so good for me, but anyway right now I prefer women, which is safer.

It seems to me that your project in the Ukraine is happening in a more documentary framework. How do you feel about this? You go to a foreign place, you have limited time…

I went back to the same people over and over. But for a week, not for years, and not for months. In the beginning they wanted us to just cover all the categories in the whole country…

…in a journalistic way.

Yes. I want to go back to Kiev. There are a few people I still want to interview and photograph. I have some connections in Odessa as well. One is a friend, and then his friends knows prostitutes in Odessa who are willing to talk, and people living with Aids who are willing to talk. So, I want to go back there.  But, I like the piece we made. At Pinchuk I am showing an earlier slide show on Aids, the Cookie Portfolio, and we made this new four-minute piece that I think is beautiful – and they are still pressuring me to make more. But anyway, we do want to make more.

Because you think it is important to do that?

Yes. Not for them, but for the people in the Ukraine. But the point is: how many people go to this gallery? How many of the people actually in the situation go to this gallery? They try to tell me that they have thousands of people a day. But, how many of the people that it is really pertinent to are going to see it in a gallery? That is the problem.

I know – this is something that I think about all the time. On the other hand, remember what you did in New York. You curated the first show about Aids in 1989 called „Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing”. 15.000 people came to the opening…

…the „Red Ribbon” came from that, and „Day Without Art” came from that.

That was amazing! But I understand this kind of feeling.

They put posters of Félix Gonzáles-Torres’ beautiful piece of an empty bed all over the city as billboards. I said to them: „This is extremely aesthetic, but it is not going to talk about Aids to people.” It is art, but it is not going to drive a point home to anyone – probably people won’t make the connection. So, in that case journalism helps.

That is true. It caters to a different audience.

It kind of wakes people up. People have to deal with something in front of their eyes.

Siehe: Camera Austria