Nancy "Nan" Goldin was born in 1953 in Washington, D.C., and grew up in the Boston, Massachusetts suburb of Lexington, to middle class Jewish parents whose ideas, moderately liberal and progressive, were put to the test when on April 12, 1965 their eldest daughter Barbara Holly, at the age of eighteen, committed suicide.
Goldin’s father worked in broadcasting, and served as the chief economist for the Federal Communications Commission. After attending the nearby Lexington High School, she enrolled at the Satya Community School in Lincoln, where a teacher introduced her to the camera in 1968. Goldin was then fifteen years old.
Her first solo show, held in Boston in 1973, was based on her photographic journeys among the city's gay and transsexual communities, to which she had been introduced by her friend David Armstrong. Goldin graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University in 1977/1978, where she had worked mostly with Cibachrome prints. Following graduation, Goldin moved to New York City. She began documenting the post-punk new-wave music scene, along with the city's vibrant, post-Stonewall gay subculture of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She was drawn especially to the Bowery's hard-drug subculture; these photographs, taken between 1979 and 1986, form her famous work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency — a title taken from a song in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera. These snapshot aesthetic images depict drug use, violent, aggressive couples and autobiographical moments. Most of her Ballad subjects were dead by the 1990s, lost either to drug overdose or AIDS; this tally included close friends and often-photographed subjects Greer Lankton and Cookie Mueller.
In 2003, The New York Times nodded to the work's impact, explaining Goldin had "forged a genre, with photography as influential as any in the last twenty years." In addition to Ballad, she combined her Bowery pictures in two other series: I'll Be Your Mirror (from a song on The Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico album) and All By Myself." Goldin's work is most often presented in the form of a slideshow, and has been shown at film festivals; her most famous being a 45 minute show in which 800 pictures are displayed. The main themes of her early pictures are love, gender, domesticity, and sexuality; these frames are usually shot with available light. She has affectionately documented women looking in mirrors, girls in bathrooms and barrooms, drag queens, sexual acts, and the culture of obsession and dependency. The images are viewed like a private journal made public.
Goldin's work since 1995 has included a wide array of subject matter: collaborative book projects with famed Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki; New York City skylines; uncanny landscapes (notably of people in water); her lover, Siobhan; and babies, parenthood and family life. Goldin lives in New York and Paris - one reason the French Pompidou Centre mounted a major retrospective of her work in 2002. In 2006, her exhibition, Chasing a Ghost, opened in New York. It was the first installation by her to include moving pictures, a fully narrative score, and voiceover, and included the disturbing three-screen slide and video presentation Sisters, Saints, & Sybils. The work involved her sister Barbara's suicide and how she coped through production of numerous images and narratives.
Her works are developing more and more into cinemaesque features, exemplifying her graviation towards working with films.
Goldin's numerous solo exhibitions include a mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1996) and Le Feu Follet, a traveling retrospective organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (2001). In 1995, she made a film for the BBC, I'll Be Your Mirror, with Edmund Coulthard and Ric Colon. Goldin has received the Englehard Award from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston (1986), the Photographic Book Prize of the Year from Les Rencontres d'Arles (1987), the Camera Austria Prize for Contemporary Photography (1989), the Mother Jones Documentary Photography Award (1990), and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award (1991). In 1991, she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and was a DAAD artist-in-residence in Berlin. She currently lives and works in Paris, London, and Luxor, Egypt.