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Nan Goldin: I’ll Be Your (Complex) Mirror

Richard PHELAN


L’une des photographies les plus fortes de l’artiste américaine Nan Goldin la montre sur son lit écrivant son journal intime, mais en quoi son œuvre visuelle tient-elle également de l’écriture de soi ? Qu’est-ce qu’un autoportrait de Nan Goldin ? Qui est réfléchi dans son miroir ? Sur quoi porte la réflexion à l’œuvre dans son travail ? Telles sont les questions traitées dans cet article qui replace The Ballad of Sexual Dependency dans une perspective historique et analyse sa production à l’aide du travail de Roland Barthes.

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I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
I’ll be the wind the rain and the sunset
The light on your door to show that you’re home...

1I’ll be Your Mirror, from the album The Velvet Underground & Nico, is the title of a piece used by Nan Goldin for the soundtrack of her slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The song resonates with the world of Andy Warhol who produced the album in 1967 and with his practice of creating images infused with a toxic glamor. The lyrics foreground the notion of reflection and the metaphor of the mirror, the historical medium which, during the Renaissance, gave rise to the development of the pictorial genre of self-representation. The words sung by Nico highlight the relationship between the subject and the other, suggesting an equivalence between the 1 and the you, but identity is enlarged beyond the human, for in the act of representation the authorial subject encompasses all that the representation captures (“I’ll be the wind”).

2The work of Nan Goldin is a dialogue between the self and the other and, in her own words, a “struggle between intimacy and autonomy” (MoCA), an account of how the I can approach the you without losing itself (or, in the Ballad’s terms, without withdrawal symptoms). “Nan Goldin: I’ll be Your Mirror” was the title of an exhibition and a publication in 1996 by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2020 the Collection Lambert in Avignon, which contains a great many of Goldin’s self-portraits, held a show with a similar title that presented a large section devoted to Goldin. The latter exhibition has served in the present article which contends that when Goldin’s photographs reflect specific others, the artist is reflecting herself, and ultimately, the viewer.

3Nancy Goldin was born in Washington in 1953. Her work began to emerge in the New York of the 1980s, when the artist was in her early thirties. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the work that founded Goldin’s place in contemporary art (“The thing that sustains my name,” MoCA) began as an ever-changing slide show projected by the artist herself in underground clubs in New York and around the world. Sound was added in 1980 and the work received its name in 1981 from a song in Brecht’s Three-Penny Opera. In 1985, it was reviewed in the Village Voice and presented at the Whitney Biennial; it reached its definitive form, running for 48 minutes with over 700 pictures and with 30 songs, in 1987. That year it was also shown during the Rencontres de la photographie in the Roman theatre in Arles. Goldin’s work began to be exhibited in France in the early 1990s, first by Agnès b. and then by Yvon Lambert whose gallery she joined in 1995. Lambert chose Goldin and other artists working with photography precisely because she was not a photographer, but an artist using photography: “I’ve always supported the work of that generation which called themselves artists, and used photography as one medium among others, by reinventing it. People like Louise Lawler, Andres Serrano…” (Ibars 67).

4Goldin’s Self Portrait Writing my Diary, Boston MA (1989) foregrounds the connection between verbal and visual self-writing; how does the much-vaunted kinship between verbal diary and visual diary work in the case of Goldin and to what extent is the analogy between verbal and visual autobiography pertinent in her case? To answer those questions, I will examine what the term self-portraiture means with respect to Goldin’s work, and then analyze the way the construction of her work is akin to verbal autobiography. To conclude, I will bring out Goldin’s aim in creating works like The Ballad of Sexual Dependency which I propose to consider as an extended self-portrait.

I. Mon semblable, ma sœur

5Self-Portrait in Blue Bathroom, London, 1980; Self-Portrait in Bed, New York City 1981; Nan one month after being battered, 1984… A number of bona fide self-portraits compose Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, but they also occur in her later work. Self-Portrait, Red, Zurich, 2000 is such an instance. In Self-Portrait on the Train, Germany, 1992, we find one of the classic tropes of the painted self-portrait: a focus on the artist’s gaze itself. Self-Portrait Writing my Diary, Boston MA, while including the artist’s body, also highlights the artist’s gaze and its inward look. In this self-portrait, the artist appears as a diarist, which, although possibly metaphorical, reminds us that the self-portrait as visual artist (a genre we find in Van Dyck and Reynolds, but also in Stieglitz and Steichen) is curiously absent in Goldin’s work. Helmut Newton has spoken in admiration of the lack of self-aggrandizement in the way Goldin presents herself: “Rarely do we find in contemporary photography such boundless self-effacement. The self-portraits lay bare her utter integrity and absolute honesty even more explicitly than her other work” (Sartorius 324).

6Not self-celebration but self-effacement, or self-confrontation, then is Goldin’s pursuit. Nan one month after being battered, 1984, which may evoke Bacon’s disfigured self-portraits, foregrounds the artist’s desire to look at herself whatever the situation, and to face up to herself when it comes to the consequence of the toxic relationships that form the narrative of the Ballad. In this operation, the camera is a tool for self-preservation and the self-portrait performs a therapeutic function. Goldin has said that after a stay in a detox clinic she used the self-portrait to re-identify with her body: “When I came out of the clinic… I really understood how I was using the camera to reassemble myself” (Sartorius 452).

7The self-portrait can be a summary of the self and its history, the journal intime that recounts the journey of a life. This is the case of the two works called All by Myself: first a set of self-portraits made after detox in 1984, and a second work made in 1994 and offered to Yvon Lambert. That piece is a 95-picture slideshow of Nan at age forty with a retrospective gaze, a story of melancholy and survival set to the music of Eartha Kitt: “A sort of report of her life,” says Lambert (Ibars 71). As with Rembrandt, an artist who charted his identity throughout his career in a huge number of self-portraits, Goldin’s representation of time is central. Cartier-Bresson’s famous “decisive moment” becomes in Goldin’s case a plural; Goldin’s extended decisive moment is a period of her life she charted in photographs that she afterwards selected and presented.

8As with Rembrandt and Courbet, we find in Goldin’s œuvre a number of portraits of the artist in the frame with her friends, notably Nan and Brian in Bed (1983) the picture of the artist and Brian, her toxic lover chosen for the cover of The Ballad. However, the basic tenet of the œuvre of Nan Goldin is, I would argue, that even when the artist herself is not represented, most works, and especially those in The Ballad, lean towards the self-portrait. Goldin is representing herself through what she has called her family. In other words, Gina, Gilles, Suzanne, Brian, Dieter, Cookie, Ryan, and Mark, these specific others with whom she identifies are her “tribe” (Armstrong and Keller 454) and are part of herself. The result is that whether a photograph is of Nan or of one or some of her friends, the viewer’s experience is like that of the reader of a verbal autobiography when presented with the significant figures in the author’s life story. The viewer and reader are “privy to the author’s sense of self” and of what constitutes her identity, a sense of oneself performed and often theatricalized by the mirror (Armstrong and Keller 449).

9It is important here to unpack what the notion of “family” represents for Goldin. First, it is manifestly a construction against her experience with her real family. Foundational for Nan is the story of her sister Barbara Holly Goldin whose suicide and its motivations were denied by her parents:

“When I was a kid people would say, You didn’t see that; that didn’t happen […] You know, there was this web of denial […] And the only way I could feel that I could survive that, and maintain my own truth, was to start writing a diary when I was really young. […] Writing was the way I held on to my version of things… […] When I started taking pictures, I realized it was a way to make a real record of what I had actually seen and done.” (Armstrong and Keller 451)

10The early identification of Nancy Goldin with her sister Barbara is re-performed with the figures of Nan’s adopted family. Goldin insists on the proximity of these people to her: of the people who appear in The Ballad she says, “There is not one person I didn’t live with at one time” (MoCA). We might also point out that the slideshow form that she adopts (a rather idiosyncratic choice) is precisely associated with family photos and evenings with close friends. Finally, we should note the resemblance of Nan’s family with that of Warhol’s Factory. Warhol had created a family of superstars whose posed and unposed lives he exhibited. If Goldin can be said to create characters then in her photographs, it is in part the product of her own Warholian capacity to attract interesting people. Thus, the term “family” with regard to Goldin’s œuvre comes to convoke not only affection, but glamor too. Despite the fact that she refuses to describe her work as a portrait of the marginalized (MoCA), it is arguable that the artist’s reputation has much to do with the glamor of those on “The Other Side” (the name of the gay nightclub she frequented in Boston, Ibars 29).

11I have examined the ways Goldin’s photographic work is a portrait of the self: first in the literal self-portraits, then in the portraits of self and friends in the same frame, and more largely in the “family portraits.” I will now explore how the construction of Goldin’s work is akin to verbal autobiography. For this, I would like to make use of an idea formulated by Eric Marty while editing Roland Barthes. For Barthes, Marty tells us, thinking is anchored not so much in concepts, but in the rhythm of writing: “Le vrai lieu où la pensée vibre, pour lui, ce n'est pas le concept, mais la phrase rythmée” (Birnbaum, np).

II. Le vrai lieu où la pensée vibre

12Looking at Self Portrait in Bed, New York City reminds me that Goldin kept as material for a possible work the tapes from her answering machine of the 1980s, an action that is close to the performances of French artist Sophie Calle. There is, in other words, an essential and undistinguished drive in Goldin’s work to record her life, an energy behind both her visual self-portraits and behind the written diaries that she has been keeping since adolescence. In Self-Portrait Writing my Diary, Goldin hides and yet highlights the written text in the bottom left corner and dramatizes the visual text of the whole image, sharply contrasted in its recording of light. This work, as it were, captures the double project: light writing and life writing. Barthes the Semiograph has elaborated on the complicity between what he calls “scription” and “piction” (Sociologie de l’art 172) and in Goldin there is a drive that goes in both these directions, towards the story and towards the image, towards a narrative in pictures and towards narrativized pictures. Goldin’s hybridity, and her hesitation between media, tempt me to highlight this urge by referring to her most famous work as the Graphing of Sexual Dependency. We could also think in terms of Rancière’s “phrase-image.”

13We could of course compare Goldin’s work in photography to the cinema. Goldin, who started out as a writer, did indeed attempt to work in film before going back to photography (Armstrong and Keller, 451). The artist worked on the fringes of film for a while and the film aesthetics to which she was drawn were that of Warhol, a makeshift “anything-goes” process where the viewer has the impression of being confronted with the real rather than the represented. This is how Goldin describes it in an interview: One of the most important things about Warhol movies was their funkiness the way they threw off the whole craft ethos. […] I wanted to make Warholian films;” she says. She adds that Warhol’s films are “incredibly boring,” (Hoberman, 137) a remark that provides sufficient reason for the artist to abandon that project and to look for a means, or a medium, to better engage and retain the viewer’s attention in front of her images.

14However, Goldin’s narrative impulse is also close to literature. First of all, Goldin’s pictures tell a story, something that cannot be said in the same way, for instance, of the work that formed the canon against which Goldin’s venture in photography was engaged (MoCA): that of Edward Weston. It is impossible to circumscribe the imaginative projection open to the viewer, so we cannot accurately determine the degree to which Weston’s Peppers, Nude or industrial sites suggest a narrative; but, if there are degrees of story-telling, it is reasonable to say that Goldin, in Self-Portrait in Bed, New York City for example, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Weston.

15Of course, Nan Goldin’s narratives are activated by the appearance of recurring charactersGina, Bruce, Cookie, Sharon, Gillespeople we see again and again, people we see evolve over the years. This repetition brings us close to the heart of the matter. Says Goldin: “To represent someone what is needed is not a photo, but an accumulation of photos. I don’t believe in the single portrait. I believe only in the accumulation of portraits as a representation of a person. Because I think people are really complex” (Armstrong and Keller, 454). Essentially then, Nan Goldin’s signature is not in the isolated unit, like that of a photograph by Edward Weston, it is in the sequence. This is how the artist herself puts it: “My genius, if I have any, is in the slideshows, in the narratives. It is not in making perfect images. It is in the groupings of work” (Mazur, np).

16The manner in which the presentation of works in museums is constructed rhythmically can be seen in the room devoted to Goldin in 2020 in Avignon (third and fourth slides) or in the hanging at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2014 (MoCA). Goldin’s founding work The Ballad is indeed a show, a work whose parameters are those of time as much as that of the space of the visual object. Moreover, when presenting a sequence of photographs in slide shows, the artist further transforms the still images into temporal works through the use of music. The songs not only tell stories akin to those in the pictures (the Brechtian story of alcohol, the Kitt story of solitude, or the Lou Reed and Nico story of partying and of fatal attraction), they also make the viewer sensuously aware of experiencing the images in time. What most structures the work therefore is its syntax, the assembly of one image with another. Tellingly, Goldin insists that The Ballad is not just a show or a wall display, but also a book, a sequential form she feels suited to photography—“It’s the only (visual) art that really works in books,” she says (MoCA).

17Thus, just as Marty said that for Barthes thinking is constructed and kept alive not in concepts, but in the rhythm of writing, I would suggest that the vision of Nan Goldin is anchored not in the photographic unit, but in its rhythmic presentation; her images, in other words, become alive when shown in sequence. Daniel Arasse has argued that images not only show but think (Arasse, 45-47); this confirms Leonardo da Vinci’s cosa mentale in the sense that, as images are perceived not just by the eyes but by the mind, they produce non-verbal thought. So, we might bring Arasse into the dialogue of Goldin with Barthes and further specify that, for the American artist, the place where her images think is not the photograph, but the sequence of photographs. I will now proceed to question what, under the layers of shocking glamor that ushered them into our cultural history, Goldin’s images think about.

III. “Family of Nan”

18Not only does Nan Goldin prefer photographs — plural — over the singular photograph, she clearly prefers the average photograph over the “good” photograph. Her work was initially rejected on these very grounds (MoCA) since her photographs were often blurred, saturated, badly framed, or poorly composed. It is precisely the messy quality of many of the shots that gives some of the pictures the power to strike us just as we are struck by a snapshot in a family album, touched or “pricked” (Barthes, Camera Lucida 47) by the power of a “bad” photograph.

19But why, we might wonder, does Goldin prefer her visual diary, why is this public while her written one is private? The reason is surely that the photograph is indexical; it says “this was here” and “this cannot be denied.” Of course, we are talking about photography of the pre-digital age and of a pre-Photoshop time when Barthes could write in La chambre claire that “for certain The Photograph says what has been” (Camera Lucida 85). It is for this “unmediated” truth that Goldin feels photographs not only record what happened, but also trigger memory in a way that, for her, writing does not (Goldin 6). She is talking here about the way the photograph interacts with memory for the photographer and the sitter, but she may also be suggesting that it provokes a stronger emotion too for a viewer who is not directly involved in the scene of the snapshot.

20That emotion is central to Goldin’s work is certain—an emotion not subsumed by “aesthetics.” This foregrounding of emotion involved a certain provocation in the 1980s given that the American visual art of the previous decades, Minimalism and Pop, had sternly proclaimed their distance from emotion. As Catherine Grenier wrote, European artists like Anselm Kiefer were already at the end of the 1970s as interested in touching the viewer as in questioning him, but the change of paradigm and the generalized inflation of emotion in the visual arts analyzed by Grenier and by Sylvie Coellier was to come later. Coellier points out that Goldin only reached a wide audience in the mid-1990s (38). We can retrospectively imagine how Goldin provoked a scandal not only by the content of the Ballad of Sexual Dependency but also by the performance of a rough and direct address to the viewer in terms of emotion.

21What, then, is Goldin’s aim? Quite possibly the answer lies in a quip by photographer Helmut Newton (Sartorius 324). It is from Newton that I borrow the phrase “Family of Nan.” The joke here is on the famous photographic exhibition that ran from 1955 into the 1960s called “The Family of Man.” Organized by Edward Steichen, it was presented first at the MoMA, then all over America and internationally. Mary Anne Staniszewki’s The Power of Display gives a thorough account and appraisal of the event. Composed of over 500 photographs, “The Family of Man” aimed at a universalist vision of humanity, showing birth, marriage, work and death all over the world. It was created, we should remember, at a time when the fear of the atom bomb gave such concern an edge that mitigated its sentimental view. Steichen envisioned the show “as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life—as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world” (Staniszewki 236). A mirror was initially placed so that viewers could literally see themselves within the family of man. In Mythologies (1957), Barthes had written to debunk the myth of universal humanism in this exhibition and incite the reader/viewer to think of human “Nature” as human “history.” Writing in 2001, Staniszewkis pursues the critique: “The essence of humanity was presumed to be heterosexual and patriarchal with values and expectations matching those of a 1950s middle class American family” (236).

  • 1 Kaplan (92-93) explores this contradiction.

22With respect to the “Family of Man,” the “Family of Nan” is undoubtedly more inclusive, as we would now say. Yet, despite their enormous differences1, the deep appeal in Goldin’s work is also to the universal. And again, to better feel the force of such an appeal, we need to see it historically: in the 1980s, the myth-touting USA of Ronald Reagan was doing little to fight the Aids epidemic that was decimating Nan’s “family.” Her “tribe” needed at the time to be regarded inclusively. And if today’s viewers or readers still resist such an unabashed formulation of Goldin’s humanism, perhaps the latter needs to be prefaced by the words that Baudelaire addressed to his reader: “mon hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable” (6). Goldin’s work, like that of the French poet, invites us to abandon any refuge behind a moralizing gaze; the work is an appeal to consider “the nature of relationships, what makes coupling so difficult, the construction of gender roles, the power of sexuality” (Goldin 6) and, between the lines, to register the relationship between desire and loss.


  • 2 “I want to show my fellow humans a person in all the truth of nature.” My translation.

23The Ballad’s insistence on coupling reminds us that the artist’s graphic project is to exhibit and expose that which is hidden because generally considered intimate or obscene. Goldin’s claim can thus also be translated into the words of Rousseau: “Je veux montrer à mes semblables une personne dans toute la vérité de la nature2” (5). Nature, as Roland Barthes warned and reminded us, is a signifier of history—in this case, these self-portraits confide some of the history of the USA in the last two decades of the twentieth century. We have learned that lesson from Barthes the structuralist. Graphic artist Nan Goldin performs for us his other lesson, that of Barthes the writer: truth is thought, and the construction of truth kept alive, though syntax. The mirroring of the pulse of nature, la monstration de la vérité, is a matter of rhythm.

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1 Kaplan (92-93) explores this contradiction.

2 “I want to show my fellow humans a person in all the truth of nature.” My translation.

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Richard PHELAN, « Nan Goldin: I’ll Be Your (Complex) Mirror »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Richard PHELAN

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France
Richard Phelan is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Aix-Marseille Université. His doctoral thesis was devoted to aesthetic questions in modern American painting. His recent research concerns contemporary visual art and to zones of collaboration between visual and verbal art forms. He has published on Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Allan McCollum, Ernest Pignon-Ernest and (Elaine) Sturtevant.
Richard Phelan est maître de conférences en études américaines à Aix-Marseille Université, rattaché au laboratoire LERMA. Sa thèse a été consacrée à la question du cadre dans la peinture américaine moderne. Ses recherches récentes ont pour sujet les arts visuels contemporains et les collaborations entre arts visuels et littérature. Il a publié sur Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Ellsworth Kelly, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Allan McCollum, Ernest Pignon-Ernest et (Elaine) Sturtevant.

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