Nan Goldin

Self-Portrait on the train, Germany


Not on display

Nan Goldin born 1953
Photograph, dye destruction print on paper mounted on board
Image: 695 × 1015 mm
Purchased 1997


Self Portrait on the Train, Germany is a large close-up colour photograph of the artist looking out of a train window. Her face is cropped at the level of her chin and fills most of the frame. It is in sharp focus, contrasting with the blurred green of the landscape outside the train window. The orange glow on her skin and in her hair is accentuated by the vivid green vegetation and the greyish cloudy sky outside. Bright red lipstick enhances the contrast between warm colours inside and cooler colours outside. Goldin lived in Berlin in 1991-2 under the auspices of a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) artist's fellowship. During this period she travelled around Germany and other European countries, frequently by train, overseeing the exhibition of her photographs and slide shows. She took this self portrait at this time. It is a print in an edition of twenty-five. It is also a component image in Goldin's slide installation All By Myself 1995-6. Goldin has said:

I still perceive the outside world as an abstraction. When I look at a landscape, I
see a postcard. I find it hard to connect to what I'm looking at … When I started
taking pictures, I realised that it was a way to make a real record … of what I had
actually seen and done. It came from a very deep place, this need to record. It was
all about keeping myself alive, keeping myself sane, and grounded. About being
able to trust my own experience ... it's so essential, it comes from a need to
(Quoted in Nan Goldin: I'll be your Mirror, pp.450-1.)

Goldin's photographs, of herself, her lovers and her friends, have a diaristic function. They combine a snapshot aesthetic with social portraiture in the genre of Hungarian born, French photographer George Brassai (1899-1984) and American photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71). Many portray people in intimate situations and reflect the lifestyle of the habitués of New York's downtown club scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Goldin's harrowing self-portrait Nan one month after being battered 1984 (Tate P78045) marked the end of a long-term relationship with her lover, Brian. After this she slid into depression accompanied by increasing bouts of hard-drug abuse. She entered a clinic in Boston in 1988 and recalls: 'I didn't have any knowledge of light, consciously - none - until I went to the hospital in 1988. I lived in the dark, I lived by night. I had no idea that light changed in the course of a day. I didn't spend enough time outside to know that.' (Quoted in I'll Be Your Mirror, p.449.) Almost all her photographs of the period 1978 to 1988 were taken indoors, at night, using a flashbulb. In the clinic she began to photograph herself in natural light, the change in colour tones and atmosphere reflecting the change in her visualisation of herself, and her world, without the intense hyper-reality of intoxication. Afterwards, learning how to live without drugs and alcohol, she said that she used 'the camera to fit back into my own skin, to relearn first my face and then the outside world' (quoted in A Double Life, p.11). This new-found mood of tranquillity is reflected in Goldin's pose of contemplation in this 1992 Self Portrait. She has explained: 'What I'm interested in is capturing life as it's being lived, and the flavour and the smell of it, and maintaining that in the pictures … it really is … about wanting to see the truth, and accepting it, rather than about trying to make my version of it.' (Quoted in Nan Goldin: I'll be your Mirror, p.452.)

Further reading:
Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, A Double Life, New York 1994, reproduced (colour) p.181
Nan Goldin: I'll be your Mirror, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1996, reproduced (colour) cover and pp.350-1

Elizabeth Manchester
November 2001

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Display caption

In 1988 Goldin entered a drug rehabilitation clinic. Recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, she used the camera ‘to relearn first my face and then the outside world’. This new-found tranquillity is reflected here in her contemplative expression. Today Goldin is engaged in activism to address the opioid crisis in the US and UK through her group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). PAIN has expanded its mission to advocate for shifts in public policy to enable Harm Reduction and compassionate care for all people using drugs and those in recovery. Most of all Goldin works to raise awareness to end the stigma around addiction.

Gallery label, April 2019

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Technique and condition

A cibachrome photograph printed on high gloss resin coated paper, which has been drymounted to a sheet of foam core board. The print is signed and dated with the title inscribed on the verso. The print is in mint condition.

Calvin Winner
September 1998

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