Nan Goldin

Mod kid with dog, London

1978, printed 2019

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Nan Goldin born 1953
Photograph, inkjet print on paper
Image: 393 × 259 mm
Presented by the artist in honour of Sir Nicholas Serota 2017


This is one of ten archival pigment prints in Tate’s collection from Goldin’s series Skinheads and Mods 1978 (Tate P21009-P21018). All the images were taken in London in 1978 and document members of opposing youth-culture groups known as ‘skinheads’ and ‘mods’. In 1978 Goldin was the recipient of a $5,000 arts grant which allowed her to travel to London to make work. She stayed for two months, living in a squat and photographing skinheads, mods and punks whom she met in nightclubs. In an interview she described her close engagement with her subjects and their lifestyle during this period:

The two months in London were some of the wildest times in my life. Literally. And I documented the whole thing. But I was always inside the work. It was never strangers. Even the skinheads. It wasn’t like I went out looking for skinheads. I stayed with them briefly until they became the soldiers for the National Front. I witnessed that. In that period I lived a really wild life. Much wilder than anybody knows.
(Quoted in Rebecca Bengal, ‘A Conversation with Nan Goldin on the 30th Anniversary of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy”, Vogue, 26 October 2015, online at, accessed 29 August 2017.)

This series of works evidences Goldin’s deeply personal approach to photography. Collapsing the boundaries between art and life, she often lived and experienced the same situations as her subjects. In New York, during the 1980s, she took up residence with and photographed a group of friends she considered her adopted family: a group of social outsiders, artists, transvestites, drug addicts, actors and prostitutes. In London she found herself associating with similar subcultures on the margins of society.

Several of the images in this group feature in Goldin’s signature work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency 1979–ongoing. Named after ‘The Ballad of Sexual Obsession’ in The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertholt Brecht (1898–1956) and Kurt Weill (1900–50), the work consists of a digital slideshow consisting of approximately seven hundred colour images and lasting about forty-five minutes, set against a soundtrack of pop, rock and classical music. The images are grouped in a loosely thematic structure to create a complex overall narrative, the essence of which Goldin has described as ‘the struggle in relationships between intimacy and autonomy’ (quoted in Louis Kaplan, American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century, p.83).

Goldin’s practice draws inspiration from the social portraiture of Hungarian born, French photographer George Brassai (1899–1984) and American photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971). However, her work absorbs these influences and articulates them through a distinct snapshot aesthetic. The majority of the images in Skinheads and Mods depict the subject in candid moments, whether play-fighting, socialising in pubs or hanging out on the streets. In some images the subjects play up to the camera in moments of macho bravado; for example, one man reveals a tattoo on the inner side of his lip, while another image shows a group of skinheads posturing while displaying a flag emblasoned with a swastika. This image in particular points to the racist element of the Skinhead movement and its identification with Nazi ideology.

This diaristic snapshot style is associated with the medium of vernacular family photography, and is thus a fitting mode for Goldin’s practice which is predicated on photographing from a position of intimacy. As with the family snapshot, Goldin's images seek to memorialise and preserve memories of loved ones and friends. She has noted, ‘My work originally came from the snapshot aesthetic ... Snapshots are taken out of love and to remember people, places, and shared times. They’re about creating a history by recording a history.’ (Nan Goldin, Couples and Loneliness, Tokyo 1999.)

The images in Skinheads and Mods are typical of Goldin’s emotionally raw and gritty approach to photography. They neither glamorise nor openly criticise their subjects, adhering to the empathetic mode of her wider practice. She has explained: ‘The best of my work is about empathy, trying to feel what it is to be in another person’s body; to break that glass. I don’t think any of us understand the other person well enough. Or maybe that’s just me. I’d always like to know what it is to be inside other people.’ (Quoted in Rebecca Bengal, ‘A Conversation with Nan Goldin on the 30th Anniversary of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependancy”, Vogue, 26 October 2015, online at, accessed 29 August 2017.)

Further reading
Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, New York 1986.
Guido Costa, Nan Goldin, London 2010.

Sarah Allen
August 2017

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