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Nan Goldin Wants You to Know She Didn’t Invent Instagram

“I had men screaming at me and throwing things at photo conferences,” she said. “They hated me.”

“And they resented that a woman was getting that much attention.”


“Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City” (1983). Credit 2016 Nan Goldin, The Museum of Modern Art

Despite that resistance, Ms. Goldin’s “Ballad” resonated deeply: She took the slide show around the world. A critic for The New York Times called it “an artistic masterwork.” And the book version, first published in 1986 by Aperture, has sold more than 100,000 copies.

It has also been running in a second-floor gallery at the Museum of Modern Art since June, where a battery of slide projectors light up Ms. Goldin’s images on a large screen.

But unlike those who saw the work in the ’80s, or even 10 years ago, many of those in the audience at MoMA are engaged in their own autobiographical projects, using those pesky social media apps. Hundreds of images from the exhibition, tagged #NanGoldin, can be found through search.

But while there are some obvious connections to be made, the distinctions between Ms. Goldin’s work and the average smartphone diarist are just as illuminating.

We spoke to the show’s curators, and to visitors who shared photos from the exhibition on their own social media accounts — many including a reflected self-portrait of the visitor. They offered their thoughts and images in response to “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” Here are edited excerpts.

Rajendra Roy, chief film curator, MoMA

It is an interesting thing to have a diary that everyone can read as a revolutionary act 30 years ago, and now to have that be such an essential part of younger generations’ lives. It’s not even a question that you share your life in an intimate way.

A photo posted by LYDIA PANG (@lydia_pang_) on Jun 14, 2016 at 4:11pm PDT

Lydia Pang, 27, brand director, New York

A lot of my job is looking at photographers and looking at artworks, and I kind of got [to the MoMA exhibition]and thought that everything I’ve been looking at recently was a complete fake.

People think that they are exposing a lot these days, but we are so edited and curated. You know that that’s her party, you know that that’s her house, you know that the stains on the carpet are real.


“Philippe H. and Suzanne Kissing at Euthanasia, New York City” (1981). Credit 2016 Nan Goldin, The Museum of Modern Art

Ashleigh Ide, 33, photo retoucher, Brooklyn

What’s most interesting about her work is the moment. The lighting, the faces, the fleeting expressions, intimacy, etc., are evocative in ways that keep me wanting more.

Nora Woolley, 37, actor, Brooklyn

The messy aspects of it and the volume of it really ring to me very truthful. I sort of long for that more, now that we live in an era where everything is so editable. That looks like real life to me.


“Buzz and Nan at the Afterhours, New York City” (1980). Credit 2016 Nan Goldin, The Museum of Modern Art

Lucy Gallun, assistant curator of photography, MoMA

The work has this vital quality that people respond to whether they knew who these individuals were or not. Whether or not they’re just coming to Nan’s work for the first time here, they’re still responding to those big and full moments from life — of violence, of lust, of pain, of love.

Carlos Alvar, 32, theatrical coordinator, Mexico City

We tell the story we want people to know about us — how successful I am, how much in love I am, how funny my kids are.

Some people do use social media as a real form of expressing and exposing, but I have only seen that with artists. I guess because the first fear artists overcome is the fear of getting exposed.

Steven Liang, 27, filmmaker, Los Angeles

What was really endearing about the piece was the fliers — all the handmade fliers that she had. It was clear that her audience was sort of her friends at first.

What’s interesting about Instagram and Snapchat and other forms of social media is they give us the illusion that we are living in this forever present. We’re just on all the time and there’s no past, there’s no future, there’s just now. But when you’re sitting in an audience, watching this film that’s completely analog, that was made by hand, you feel the passage of time.


“Trixie on the Cot, New York City” (1979). Credit 2016 Nan Goldin, The Museum of Modern Art

Sung Hwa Kim, 31, artist, Brooklyn

My friend was visiting Tokyo last week and she always carries a disposable camera, digital camera and iPhone whenever she travels. She just sent me the photos that she scanned from her disposable camera and for some reason it seems more real to me. Maybe it’s the quality that medium offers; it’s not filtered, there is no editing. It has that one-shot kind of thing, which you could relate to how we live life. There is no editing or deleting in life.


“Nan and Dickie in the York Motel, New Jersey” (1980). Credit 2016 Nan Goldin, The Museum of Modern Art

Christine Navin, 43, photographer and graphic designer, Brooklyn

I am not so sure such honest, sometimes brutal documentation is possible in today’s world.

People documenting their lives on social media are glossing over activities that might not shed such a good light on their character. They are electing to show the most glamorous bits of their lives, presenting a “perfect” life, a life that others might envy.

Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large, MoMA

I think she captures the human condition. Show me the social media stream of anybody running back and forth today on the streets who really captures the human condition.

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