Nan Goldin Demands Accountability from World’s Top Museums

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022) is a powerful look at the life and work of activist Nan Goldin and her fights for personal and collective justice. Director Laura Poitras crafts an inspiring documentary that uses the past to trace lines through loss, grief, companionship, and the hope of redemption.

Nan Goldin was the first artist I fell in love with when I began studying photography. I found a copy of her photobook Couples and Loneliness on the sidewalk, and I was immediately enraptured by the raw beauty of its contents. I had never seen anything like it; it felt like looking into someone’s personal photo album – their private pictures of friends and moments they wanted to remember – because that’s exactly what it is. Nan used photography as a tool to record her life and the lives of her friends as it happened to them, not trying to make it any more or less.

As a freshman in college it was the first awakening I had to photography’s ability to capture life in all its beauty, with no need for glamorization. Nan’s work is marked by available light, personal moments, intense color, and ghostly blurs that leave you with a sense of their ambient emotion. That is Nan Goldin’s legacy – her ability to capture the essence of these moments so intensely that you can almost smell the dust and smoke.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed itself is a collection of slideshows from Nan’s archive, moments of her life ranging from her first photographs through her most recent work, which are cut amongst footage of her contemporary activism against the Sackler family. This parallel highlights a clear thread between Nan’s individual history and the rebellious demand for justice that has underlined her entire career. Her career is one defined by activism – her early work focusing on the drag/LGBTQ community of 80’s New York, then later her own experience with domestic abuse, then the AIDS crisis, and today the fight against the Sackler family’s role in the opioid epidemic. Nan’s work, as she has said herself, is about honesty, which she has always demanded of others as well. Her photography is motivated by love, while her activism is motivated by an irrefutable anger and desire for justice.

Nan Goldin’s photographs are undeniably beautiful and often joyous, but they are also framed by decades of crisis and tragedy.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is an apt title for a wide-scope look at Nan’s work. Her photographs are undeniably beautiful and often joyous, but they are also framed by decades of crisis and tragedy. Much of her work consists of photos of people through the decades – through all the heartbreak, illness, and moments of love and friendship. While looking at her body of work as a whole, one can pick out the pivotal moments of her life as they are reflected within the photographs. In 1988 she got sober, and, as she says, for the first time in her adult life she discovered “natural light.” All of the sudden, her work moves out of dark bars and lamp-lit streets to sunlit bedrooms and parks at sunset.

Click on image to enlarge.

Not long after, she was at the center of the AIDS crisis in the 80s, and photographed many of her closest friends as they were reduced to near-nothing by the illness. During this period her work is transformed; both the photographs and their subjects seem to lose a bit of the youthful, wild freedom they contained in her early work. At the end of 1989 Nan Goldin organized a group show called “Witnesses: Against our Vanishing” at Artists Space, New York, which was initially sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts until NEA removed the grant due to the show’s depictions of AIDS victims and homosexuality. This show marks her first venture into activism, which has not ceased through the current day.

The modern thread of Laura Poitras’s documentary follows her group PAIN – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now – in its effort to find justice amidst the ongoing opioid epidemic. The group focuses its protests on the Sackler family, exposing the criminal history behind their guise of humanitarian efforts and financial support of artists and museums. We see footage from some of PAIN’s most high-profile protests, including the 2019 die-in at the Guggenheim Museum (NYC), which I remember reading about in the news as a massive disruption in the art world.

PAIN has been massively successful in defacing the humanitarian legacy the Sacklers had worked so hard to create for themselves.

This series of protests is an insightful look into the uphill battle that is current day activism, which so often seems to fall flat, or simply be ignored by those it targets. Of course, when an artist who has work in the collection of a museum stages a protest of the museum accepting funding from a specific family that is responsible for over 100,000 deaths a year, it makes sense that the museum will listen. PAIN was massively successful in defacing the humanitarian legacy the Sacklers had worked so hard to create for themselves. Eventually, PAIN managed to get 7 of the most prestigious museums around the world to refuse funding from the Sacklers and/or drop their name from their walls. Today, PAIN continues to demand that the Sacklers invest in opioid addiction treatment programs, and works to raise money for this effort itself. It is an inspiring story of success in current day activism, one that feels too alone in a time of continuing crises.

Despite the tragedy that lies beneath much of Nan Goldin’s work, I still feel a deep belief in a better world when looking at her photography, and that is exactly how I felt after watching All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. There is much pain and suffering in Goldin’s photography, as in life, but the love in each photograph is so evident that one is left with a sort of bitter-sweet hope that it is all worth it. The filmmaking Laura Poitras employs is stripped down and simple. There is no frivolous editing, and a minimal soundtrack guides the viewer through the emotional beats. The result is a deeply affecting look into the many crises that have defined Nan Goldin’s life and work. I was moved from the opening sequence on, and I cried more than once along the way. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is incredibly important, and worth every bit.

© Hannah Mayo – Special for FF2 Media (7/11/23)


All the Beauty and the Bloodshed can be streamed on MAX and Direct TV. Click here for link on Just Watch.

Visit Nan Goldin’s Wikipedia page.

Visit Laura Poitras’s Wikipedia page.


Featured Photo: Photograph by Courtesy of HBO (from EPK—electronic press kit—provided by Warner Bros Discovery). All Rights Reserved.

Director Laura Poitras (left) & photographer Nan Goldin (right) at the New York Film Festival screening of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Photo Credit: lev radin (10/7/22) / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2K5EXY7

Tags: AIDS epidemic, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Documentary Films, Female Directors, female photographers, hannah mayo, Laura Poitras, Nan Goldin, Opioid Crisis, PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), Sackler family

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Hannah Mayo is a Brooklyn based writer, filmmaker, and cinematographer. Raised in Houston, Texas, she grew up with a father who loves photography and made sure to put a camera in her hand before age 10. Inspired by the power of the moving image, her work focuses on telling stories that explore community and the nuances of human connection. She is influenced by a wide range of media, from punk music to old western films to stained glass art, and is constantly picking up a new skill or hobby to keep her hands busy and inspire new works. For more work by Hannah please go to:
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