Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is one of those books/events that probably needs no introduction. The book has been in near-continual reprint since the 1980s, and the project is Goldin’s most well known. If you’re unfamiliar, well, whatever I have to say about it won’t do it justice and I’ll link to some competent reviewers below. In the mean time, do yourself a favor and go pick up a new or used copy.* It’s a masterwork.
Head’s up: there are some NSFW and triggering photographs in The Ballad, so you’ll have to go to YouTube to see my unboxing. Apologies!
In its true form, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (hereafter, “The Ballad“) is a 700-900 image slideshow with music that Goldin performed in clubs and small galleries in New York and all over Europe through the 1980s and 90s, and that is now digitized and in the collections of a number of big art museums (MoMA, the Whitney, the Art Institute of Chicago, Fondation Cartier, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, among others). Goldin continues to occasionally perform the work live, usually digitally, though occasionally with as many as 9 slide projectors, and at least once with a live band, and also continues to edit and resequence and remake the work. As such, The Ballad is living and mutable thing, much like the friendships and relationships Goldin documented for the project, and quite unlike a static book.
The book version first appeared in 1986, and was reprinted from new scans in 2012. My copy is the 9th printing of this 2012 edition. As far as I know, the 2012 version is largely identical to the 1986 version, with only a redesign of the title page (to include all the Aperture stuff and the various IBNs and things); a slight change to the grouping, but not order, of the song-title “chapters;” and the addition of an Afterword by Goldin.** It works as a book, for sure, and that’s the version I suspect most people know, but I wish the slideshow was more widely available than it is. (Ms. Goldin and associates, should you read this, perhaps consider releasing the slideshow as an unlimited video edition for private or small institution use, for rental or purchase through one of the many online providers of such services. I know that going from the club or gallery wall to a computer or phone screen will change the work, and releasing it on a wider scale may involve some legal maneuvering and impact future sales, but so many people would love to see the whole thing, and are just unable to visit it at any of the random points that museums decide to show their versions. But I digress.)
I was, of course, aware of The Ballad thanks to my background in Art History and all. It’s one of those largely unavoidable, seminal works of photography that everyone sorta just knows. It’s a major part of the canon. And as such, I didn’t really ever think to pick up a copy, but then I did, and then I spent some time with it, and subhanAllah. It’s an incredible, moving, important, and vital document. For every reviewer who talks about Goldin’s work with “marginalized groups,” there are hundreds of viewers who see themselves in these pictures, who see their friends and neighbors and intimates, who recognize and feel validated and seen through these pictures. I recognize all of it from my own life, or from my past anyway, and I really, really miss having friends. Goldin’s may have passed away, they may have objected to inclusion in The Ballad and edited out, but what we have is proof that she, and they, were there, that they existed, that they loved each other deeply, profoundly, even to the point of destruction.
I’d like to say that The Ballad is what Hiromix’s early work might look like if she had lived in the late 1970s and 1980s in New York and Europe, in the height of New- and No Wave, with a swirling cast of friends, but that’s not quite true. I’m not sure Hiromix’s work would’ve even captured the attention of the (sexist) critics that originally fell in love with her, were it not for Goldin and The Ballad. Her personal, diaristic work—Goldin calls The Ballad “…the diary I let people read.”***—was really the first of its kind, the first in lurid, flash-lit hypercolor anyway.
Goldin credits Larry Clark’s Tulsa with giving her a sort of model, with being the first diary-type work she encountered. I’ve only seen Tulsa in exhibition form, and what I remember of it is similar-ish: it’s Clark’s friends and intimates in their day-to-day activities, much like The Ballad, albeit in black and white, and in a somewhat more rural environment. And while Tulsa is definitely part of the canon, I don’t think it quite reached the stratospheric heights of The Ballad.**** That’s neither here nor there, though I expect Clark faced much less criticism for his diaristic work from the male photo community than did Goldin. In an interview with Gregory Crewdson as part of the Yale Photo Pop Up Lecture Series, Goldin mentions male photographers heckling and shouting during her performances, saying her work was worthless garbage and etc., and of course they did, the fuckers. The sexist vitriol she received in the 1980s was different from the sexism Hiromix received in the 1990s, but it’s all of the same place, I think.
Maybe we’ve all evolved some? I sincerely doubt it, but maybe a little? I don’t know.
Anyway, despite the near-unbridgable divide between men and women, what hasn’t changed is our human need for connection, for coupling in various ways, and The Ballad is as fresh and topical and timely here, nearly 40 years later, as it was in its earliest forms. Like other books in the Photobook Pantheon—think American Photographs and especially The Americans—Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency should probably be in your library, and should’ve been in mine long before it was.
Highly Recommended. Just go buy a copy.
As promised, for some competent reviews, please see:
- Hilton Als, in The New Yorker
- Ken Johnson, in The New York Times
- Kate Wolf, in the LA Review of Books
- Greil Marcus, in Aperture
- Erik Kim, even
- Sean O’Hagan, in the Guardian, talks more about The Ballad and Goldin’s biography than her Eden and After book, which is the subject of his review
And there are many others. If you’re still not convinced, or just want more information, there’s a great interview that goes into the slideshow a good bit behind the Vogue paywall, and a fascinating interview with Marvin Heiferman, who helped to edit the original maquette, at Aperture. I really wish I could see the slideshow in its original form—with Suzanne and others in the pictures cheering and clapping when their pictures showed up and everyone having a grand old time—or at least in a cold museum gallery. Maybe it’ll come to the Fort Worth Modern or maybe I’ll be in New York when MoMA or the Whitney has it up. God knows. Until then, the book version will have to do, and, again, it’s a masterwork.
*It’s a rare thing when used copies are more expensive than new copies… At time of writing, Aperture sells brand new copies for $40, and others have it slightly cheaper; the cheapest reputable bookfinder used book reseller wants near $50 for it…
** I found a page-by-page flip through and discussion of a first edition copy from Daniel Krauss The Photobook Review on YouTube and not only verified that the 2012 version is sequenced identically, but also that The Photobook Review is doing far more with photobooks than my channel does, albeit much less often, but has less than half the subscribers (at time of writing). Do yourself a favor and go check it out!
***Goldin, Nan. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Aperture, New York, 2012. p. 6.
****And you know me… I’ve ordered a copy of the 2000 softcover version of Tulsa and so expect a review at some point in the far far future.