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A groundbreaking photographer who has influenced subsequent generations, Nan Goldin has produced startling and revealing documentary pictures depicting segments of American culture rarely seen or discussed. Her most famous series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, made during 1979 and 1986, captures her cohort of drug-taking, cross-dressing, self-destructive friends and comrades in the depressed Bowery section of Manhattan. The stark and startling images of their lives, poignantly opened to Goldin, remain as shocking today as they were when she first showed them. Her clique freely experimented with social taboos and Goldin chronicles their pleasure and pain with sensitivity and unflinching vision.
Goldin grew up in Boston and was introduced to photography by a teacher when she was 15. Her style has long been unconventional in the field, relying on available light and capturing people almost casually with loose-but-blunt snapshots. Even as she has matured, her subjects transitioning from hard-living bohemians to married parents and professionals, Goldin’s attention to their lives and loves (even their sexual intimacy) has continued. Her 2003 series The Devil’s Playground recalls her early photographs despite the relatively tamed circumstances of its participants. That series’ domestic scenes retained part of their edge by the inclusion of contextual photographs, taken of cityscapes and pastoral scenes, ripe with danger, as in the 2001 image Apocalyptic Sky over Manhattan, NYC, which immediately calls to mind the September 11 attacks and the terrifying billow of smoke and ash that engulfed the city in their aftermath. Goldin’s work has long been displayed in slideshow format, making her difficult pictures into larger narrative sets that encourage patient viewing and sympathy as subjects grow, develop, and reveal variously cruel or selfless parts of their personalities.
Goldin has shown her work in museums worldwide, included in exhibitions at the Louvre, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. She has shown her work at multiple biennials, including those in São Paulo, Sydney, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is the recipient of the Hasselblad Award for photography, the Medal of the city of Paris, the 1994 Brandeis Award in Photography.
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