Nan Goldin (American, born 1953), 'Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston,' 1973 (printed 2006). Cibachrome print on paper, 27 1/2 by 40 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Museum Purchase

Nan Goldin (American, born 1953)

Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, 1973 (printed 2006)
Cibachrome print on paper, 27 1/2 x 40 in.
Museum Purchase

Nan Goldin, who describes her photography as a visual diary, established her reputation with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979–86), an oft-reworked serial portrait of the artist and those nearest and dearest to her. In this pulsating record of intimacy and estrangement, good times and bad, no image is more powerful than one of the photographer herself, revealing evidence of physical abuse inflicted by her boyfriend. Another disturbing photograph captures Goldin's wary face in a tableau that includes her batterer, who sits calmly smoking on the edge of a bed.

Ballad was first formulated as a slide show comprising hundreds of snapshotlike images, accompanied by a musical soundtrack whose compass ranged from the Velvet Underground to Maria Callas. The work appeared in an 800-image, 45-minute-long prerecorded version at the Whitney Biennial in 1985 and, a year later, was published in book form. (1)

Goldin was familiar with Larry Clark’s images of a drug underground in his book Tulsa (1971) and with Diane Arbus’ photographs of nudists, freak-show performers, and other individuals rendered grotesque when Arbus recorded them. But Ballad revealed the downtown New York scene in its raw ascendancy and caught the attention of the art world not only for its shock value but also for its artistry.

Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, which is included in the published version of The Ballad, is an early, rather atypical Goldin image. It recalls a famous Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph from 1938 of a family picnic by the Marne River. There is an Arbus-like twist, however. Far from being what it might appear at first glance--a sweet birthday gathering of some girlfriends--a second look raises a not-so-simple question: Just how many of those enjoying the cake are female? Here, Goldin's snapshot style, every bit as artful as the Frenchman’s, differs considerably from the more formal approach of Arbus. Moreover, whereas Arbus was an outsider, Goldin, as she herself has written, is a member of the group. (2) Although her camera bag and cigarettes are the only evidence of her presence, she is clearly within a circle of friends.

Goldin made the picture in Boston several years before her move to New York in 1978. Her post-Ballad photographs are in part a record of loss, including the ravages of aids, drugs, and other misfortunes: two people shown here did not survive. In the book version of The Ballad, Picnic on the Esplanade appears toward the end, as a reminder of the happiness Goldin found with that spirited group. "I used to think I’d never lose anyone as long as I photographed them enough," she has said. (3)
But in the context of The Ballad, this image indicates a different, if equally melancholy idea, the one suggested by Marcel Proust’s observation that "the only true paradise is a paradise that we have lost." (4)

--Robert Silberman

1. Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York: Aperture, 1986).
2. She noted, "I'm not crashing; this is my party." Ibid., 6.
3. Goldin quoted (from a 1995 BBC documentary) in Éric Mézil, "A Woman Under the Influence," in Paulette Gagnon, Nan Goldin, exh. cat. (Montreal: Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, 2003), 59.
4. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 6, Finding Time Again, trans. Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2003), 179.