It’s not always emphasized, given that she’s one of the most groundbreaking still photographers of the past 50 years. But Nan Goldin is a movie buff. Big time.
Seeing Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up as a 15-year-old is what made Goldin want to be a photographer in the first place. She thinks of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency – her signature collection of some 700 unfiltered images of Goldin’s life, friends and lovers in early ‘80s downtown New York – as a film that she continues to edit and reedit. She’s long harbored dreams of making a movie, and still does.
“It’s still my obsession,” says Goldin, sitting in the booth in a Fort Greene, Brooklyn, restaurant on a recent rainy afternoon. “I watch a movie a day, normally. I watch what’s on TCM.”
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Goldin, whose life and activism are vividly profiled in Laura Poitras’ Oscar-nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is excited, even thrilled, about going to the Academy Awards. She blames it on Barbara Stanwyck and Judy Holliday and Marlene Dietrich.
“I do really want an Oscar,” says Goldin, smiling. “I didn’t expect to, but I do.”
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, currently in theaters and on video-on-demand, is quite different from a traditional biopic. It juggles the story of Goldin’s life as a New York photographer of raw and radical intimacy and her demonstrations with the group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now as they pressed the world’s elite museums to eradicate the Sackler name from their halls. The Sackler family owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.
The film is a rich, provocative fusion of art and activism. Poitras, who won best documentary for the 2014 Edward Snowden film “Citizenfour,” juxtaposes exchanges with Goldin surveying her life and work with footage of Goldin leading dramatic protests at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and elsewhere.
Poitras, who joined Goldin for the interview, wanted the film to have historical sweep, from the sexual repression of the 1950s, Goldin’s portraits of queer life in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the AIDS crisis and Goldin’s present-day transformation into an activist. PAIN’s demonstrations resulted in the Sackler name being wiped from most museums, including the Louvre and the Tate Modern.
“It speaks to both the power of the artist in society and the power of the artist to communicate the moral outrage of the failure of the government,” says Poitras. “I wanted it to be epic.”
“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” won the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and will now bring Goldin, one of the foremost image-makers of many of the things Hollywood tends to shy away from – ncomplex sexuality, LGBTQ lives, unfiltered reality – into the industry’s glitzy epicenter on March 12.
“I don’t think there as too many movies that are as raw as my work. But I don’t think it’s against my integrity to love Hollywood,” says Goldin. “I don’t think documentary is given enough credit, though. It’s not sexy.”
“I was around when there were no queer people that had films made. So they’re trying,” she adds. “But they’re rich people and I never trust rich people.”
Watching the documentary, Goldin says, is “a painful experience.” She’s a producer and believes in it, but seeing her life condensed into two hours is hard for her to watch. Still, Goldin, 69, is enjoying much of the journey and finds it gratifying to see younger generations responding to her work.
“I like doing the Q&As,” Goldin says. “I like waking people up.”
The opioid crisis has been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US since 1999. Goldin was nearly one of them. While living in Berlin in 2014, Goldin overdosed on fentanyl. After wrist surgery, she became addicted to OxyContin for several years. But she doesn’t see her activism in personal terms.
“It had nothing to do with my addiction to OxyContin, or very little to do with it. It was about the overdose crisis,” she says. “The group was never anti-opioid. It wasn’t against the drug. It was about the use and marketing and addicting of America.”
Purdue Pharma and three executives pleaded guilty in 2007 and agreed to pay more than $600 million for misleading the public about the risks of OxyContin. Both Goldin and Poitras have lobbied the Justice Department to file individual criminal charges against the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma executives. In 2020, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to criminal charges related to the marketing of OxyContin. Lawsuits have continued.
Five years after Goldin led protesters in throwing prescription bottles into the moat in the Met’s Temple of Dendur, the museum hosted a screening of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” Poitras jokes the White House never invited her to screen “Citzenfour.”
“I’m proud of these museums. But there are still problems,” says Goldin. “The rest of the board, we’ve just scratched the surface. Their money isn’t exactly ethical, either. So that’s the problem. Where are the ethical billionaires?”
But the experience has left Goldin feeling emboldened as to what kind of change is possible — if people are willing to put up a fight. The night before, Goldin attended an event with Bernie Sanders and Cornel West.
“It was pretty much entitled Brooklyn kids,” she says of the crowd. “They applaud wildly, but I don’t know what they’re actually doing. Everyone has to get on the street because nothing’s going to change otherwise.”
Documenting history – whether personal experience or political reality – is something Poitras and Goldin have in common, albeit typically from very different points of view. Poitras has intrepidly chronicled government surveillance and the whistleblowers who bring state secrets to light.
“Images can have this way of reminding us of our history, what people suffered, what they went through,” Poitras says.
Back in Goldin’s studio, photographs of her old friends, many of them now dead, hang.
“They’re all there,” she says. “I keep them alive every day.”
In the days prior, Goldin and Poitras had been at the film academy’s annual nominees luncheon and at the BAFTAs, in London. Goldin has made some new pals on the awards circuit.
“I’ve gotten to be a little bit of friends with Paul Mescal. I hung out with him in London. We went to see Caravaggios together,” says Goldin, smiling.
After a long hiatus, Goldin is starting to pick up her camera again. But what her eye is drawn to isn’t the same.
“I just started again. But I don’t photograph people. I photograph places,” Goldin says. “I just fell out of the habit. I usually do what I have to do, urgently. And I urgently had to photograph people all those years. I don’t have that urgency anymore.”
But one ambition has been rekindled: She’d like to make a feature film, and even has a book adaptation in mind “about the mundanity of violence, how non-descript violence is.”
“Until I became 65, I was immortal. Now I’m mortal,” Goldin says. “So I don’t have that much time. That’s what happens when you reach a certain age. The glare of mortality is bright. So I don’t want to waste it now.”
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