In 1981 Nan Goldin took a snapshot of a woman and a man in bed. The photo, simply titled “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became part of an epic artwork she called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which came to represent the post-punk era of hard drugs and sexual indulgence. But the work was intensely personal. The woman behind the camera and in the bed was Goldin herself. The intention of her photography was to chronicle her relationships in all their intimate, stark moments (Goldin, interview). In doing so, she brought to light much more than the details of a subculture. As her camera captured Brian with his back turned and her narrowed eyes watching him, she made public a typically private experience of women as gendered beings. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” became the signature image of Goldin’s Ballad, exhibited internationally and published in a book by the same name. Goldin’s photo stands out in a world of representation dominated by the male gaze, in which women want nothing more than to be looked at. In “Nan and Brian in Bed,” Goldin is doing the looking, and what her eyes see challenges universal ideals of gender intimacy.
“Nan and Brian in Bed,” was created in Goldin’s signature style of informal photography using available light and non-posed subjects in intimate spaces. The imperfections—slightly grainy with unlit corners—give the photo authenticity: This is a moment of life and truth. She has invited the viewer into her bedroom where Brian sits on the edge of the bed holding a cigarette to his mouth, absorbed in his unreadable thoughts. The sharpest focus and brightest light fall on his face; the largest shape in the foreground of the photo is his unlit naked back turned to his lover and the camera. In the background, Nan’s reclined body is obscured by a dark robe. Her face on the pillow gazes up at Brian with a hard look of desire.
The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art.
The composition and title of Goldin’s photo leads the viewer to imagine the actions that led up to this moment: the quintessential post-sex cigarette. Once intimately entwined, one imagines, the two figures are now separated and introspective. Brian has moved on to his next kick, and Nan contemplates the object of her own “dependency.” The look in Nan’s eye, and the view from her camera, imply the duality of dependence: desire and guilt, love and hate. This duality is echoed in the two predominant colors of the photo, black and golden red.
The casual nature of Goldin’s photography can be attributed to her own attitude toward her documentary project. In a 2013 video interview recorded by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Goldin says, “I didn’t really care about good photography, I cared about complete honesty.” She traces that focus to her family’s reaction to her own sister’s teen suicide when Golden was eleven. “The family was very revisionist, so what happened didn’t happen,” she says. She decided she wanted expose what happens in private spheres. Goldin’s Ballad became the “proof” of her experiences that “no one can revise” (Goldin, interview).
Based on this personal crusade for truth, her work is intentionally and fearlessly autobiographical. Goldin ran away from her suburban home at fourteen and subsequently found a new family among drag queens and underground club subcultures of Boston and New York City (Garratt). The friends she lived with during this period and their uncensored lives of sex and drugs were the raw subjects of her photos, which probe the limits of relationships in all gender variations. A pivotal connection in this urban tribe was with her boyfriend, Brian, the central figure of her 1981 photograph. “Nan and Brian in Bed,” literally represents a moment in Goldin’s life, when Brian turned his back to her to smoke a cigarette. The image illustrates a mundane yet poignantly familiar scene between men and women, and it heralds the ultimate fate of the lovers who were torn apart by the “conflict inherent in relationships between men and women” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy).
The unflinching autobiographical approach to her photograph allows her to articulate the mechanics of gender that normally remain in the darkness of the bedroom. In the introduction to her book, Goldin writes, “The friction between the fantasies and realities of relationships can lead to alienation or violence.” The fantasy of “happily-ever-after” romantic love between men and women is challenged in the recognizable moment of tentativeness captured in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” The positions represented in the photo are antithetical to the promise of enduring passion, yet so familiar they are stereotypical: A man has sex and turns away, while the woman wonders if the love she feels is returned or only leveraged for sex. The photograph represents a moment of doubt and incompatibility between the sexes that is typically unacknowledged in mainstream imagery.
Nan, in the photograph, is the dependent female, gazing up at her prince of the urban underworld with a mixture of need and regret. Yet, the fact that Goldin is also behind the camera demonstrates female agency: The viewer sees this break in romantic narrative through the woman’s own eyes. She is the active viewer and recorder of her own life. The object of her observation from the bed and from the camera is a naked man, which reverses the typical constellation of male gaze and female object in Western art. Brian becomes the “alien other,” the object of a woman’s gaze (Adams 99). However, Brian’s nudity is very different from that described by John Berger in “Ways of Seeing.” Unlike the reclining, receptive female nude, “offering up her femininity as the surveyed,” Brian is turned away from the observer, unaware and unavailable (Berger 55). What Goldin captures in “Nan and Brian in Bed” is the difference between male-created fantasy and feminist reality: Men portray the world as they wish it was, but this woman shows it the way it is. By making public the honesty of this intimate moment, Goldin demonstrates the strength of her own vulnerability in acknowledging the duality of dependence.
Although she claims no motivation beyond the desire to document her life and relationships, the power of Goldin’s honesty is proven in the enduring relevance of the photo (Garrett). The power of her truthfulness is also evident in the violent rage it caused in same man who claimed to love her. “The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote in the book’s introduction, “My written diaries are private; they form a closed document of my world. . . ” Her relationship with Brian ended after he read her “private” diary, burned it, and beat her up. In another photo from the series, Goldin looks directly into the camera with curly hair, bright red lipstick and bruises around her eyes. “Confronting my normal ambivalence had betrayed his absolute notion of romance” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). The photographer was brave enough to show the world that love is not always the romantic love of male-dominated social narrative. Sometimes love is hate, and sometimes it is a bad habit—an itch one cannot scratch because it is fabricated by chemistry and fallacy. After the beating, Goldin slid into the depths of drug dependency, a period of her life she characterizes as “very, very dark” (Garratt).
The awareness of the artist’s personal journey through sexual and drug dependency, and the significance of her photography in relation to a history of male-centered imagery, lends deeper meaning to Brian’s turned back in “Nan and Brian in Bed.” It signifies society’s cold shoulder turned on those who had expected deliverance through the myth of male/female intimacy, a myth which often leads people into small, dark rooms only to find the ambivalence, isolation, and violence Goldin articulates.
“When I was fifteen,” the artist writes, “the perfect world seemed a place of total androgyny, where you wouldn’t know a person’s gender until you were in bed with him or her. I’ve since realized that gender is much deeper than style” (Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Intimacy). In a similar sense, “Nan and Brian in Bed” reaches beyond its iconic nature as a symbol of an era of irreverent youth. The photograph demonstrates how some rules of behavior are so deep that it takes a brave and honest diary of intimacy to tease them out.
Adams, Laurie Schneider. The Methodologies of Art. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2010. Print.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972. PDF.
Garrett, Sheryl. “The Dark Room.” The Guardian 5 Jan. 2002. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
Goldin, Nan. Interview by the Museum of Contemporary Art. “Nan Goldin – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” MOCAtv on YouTube, 6 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Goldin, Nan. Introduction. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture. 1986. PDF.