In ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ documentarian Laura Poitras tracks the photographer’s unrelenting pursuit of personal and political truth

Nan Goldin once said that she took up photography in order to prove her life experiences to herself. But Goldin’s images prove much more than that—they validate those othered by white cis-heteropatriarchal systems of control.

This instinct was burned into her by the loss of her 18-year-old sister, Barbara, who committed suicide in 1965 because her parents would not accept her lesbian identity. “I saw the role that [Barbara’s] sexuality and its repression played in her destruction,” Goldin wrote in the introduction to her groundbreaking exhibition, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. “Because of the times, the early sixties, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behavior, beyond control […] she saw that her only way to get out was to lie down on the tracks of the commuter train outside of Washington, D.C. It was an act of immense will.” From then on, Goldin was resolute: “I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”

In the ’40s—in the days when Weegee was photographing New York’s crime scenes—everyday people were put in the backs of vice-squad vans for the scandal of “female impersonation.” When Goldin took pictures of that same community, 40 years later, they were labeled “drag queens.” Nowadays, many people who were previously considered “drag queens” identify as transgender. In another vein, when Goldin was growing up, anyone who made their money from sex—as she briefly did—was called a whore or a prostitute. Now, they’re called sex workers. Identifiers shift over time to reflect changing cultural attitudes. But the enduring criminalization, stigmatization, and subjugation of these individuals linger, beyond the evolution of politically-correct language. The oppressive vanishing of these subjects by dominant culture still continues today.

Goldin curated her first art show in 1989. It was a group exhibition featuring creatives living with AIDS, called Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing. This “vanishing” was an intentional act, perpetrated by the American government and the hatred of fundamentalist conservatives who called themselves the “moral majority.” It was not a passive phenomenon, but a pointed attempt to erase certain kinds of people from the historical record through state-sanctioned ignorance. Goldin’s work has always been about fighting against this ignorance and validating the lives of what she called “the other side.” It says, We exist, too.

Critics and fans have always mentioned intimacy, with regards to both the content and composition of Goldin’s photos. But the word almost feels too simple to encapsulate their impact. The photographer’s work shines hard with brash elegance. There is certainly an intimacy to the way Goldin captures her smiling friends at a picnic, and a different kind of intimacy in her photographs of bruises and wounds left by an abusive boyfriend, or the blackouts of her opioid addiction. These photos feel “intimate” because they put the personal front and center—both the good and the bad. But there is also something undeniably political in the frank nature of what they depict. With her battered self-portraits, Goldin forces people to look at the things men do to women. In capturing the sad fog of blackout intoxication, she indicts the violent, greedy cynicism of pharmaceutical power.

“Goldin’s work has always been about fighting against this ignorance and validating the lives of what she called ‘the other side.’ It says, We exist, too.”

It made sense, then, that a similarly political artist—journalist and documentarian Laura Poitras—would craft her own portrait of the photographer, All The Beauty and The Bloodshed. The film is a moving illumination of how a young woman became a photographer and an artist, and how that artist became a practicing activist. In 2017, Goldin founded the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to provide support for people dealing with opioid addiction, like herself, and to protest the Sackler family, who has long profited off the pain of others. Specifically, the film charts the ways that Goldin has leveraged her position in the art world to pressure museums and galleries to deny future funding from the pharmaceutical-giant—and to take down their name from their walls.

All The Beauty and The Bloodshed is elegantly composed, combining new and archival footage with excerpts from the various slideshows Goldin has constructed over the course of her career. Last year, I viewed a recent work entitled Memory Lost at Marian Goodman Gallery. These digital images abridge a time of blurry delirium for Goldin. The deadly grip of OxyContin robbed the photographer of the memories she vowed to so fastidiously protect. The drug wrote its own version of her history.

“I love working with a material I know: blue Valium bottles,” Goldin jokes in the film, while on the way to a P.A.I.N. die-in. The organization has protested at esteemed venues such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, both of which conceded to demands—removing the Sackler name from their halls, and refusing funding from the family. The sections of All The Beauty and The Bloodshed concerned with P.A.I.N.’s activism are damning and eye-opening, featuring heart-wrenching testimonies from those who lost loved ones to the epidemic, and chilling accounts of attempted intimidation and censorship. The most powerful moments of the film, however, are the thoughts of Goldin herself, spoken aloud for Poitras. Goldin’s breathtaking voiceover binds the film together with blunt, aching memories.

The photographer muses honestly on the first time she shared her work with curator Marvin Heiferman. He wanted to see more of her photos, so, as she recounts with a laugh, “I brought up a crate. And I got the cab driver to bring it up by giving him a blowjob. That’s how I entered the art world.” Goldin remembers taking the bus to Paterson, New Jersey, “wiggling her ass” in nightclubs that didn’t require her to be topless, so that she could afford to buy film. “Then I started in the whorehouse,” she continues. “That got pretty ugly. I haven’t kept many secrets in my life, but I never did talk about [that time] before. But I think at this point in my life, I should talk about it, because of the incredible stigma around sex work.” Goldin mentions Maggie Smith, the owner of a Times Square bar called Tin Pan Alley, who hired the photographer to help her distance herself from sex work. At a talk at Lincoln Center, Goldin remarked that Smith was the first person to make her realize that her art was political.

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed is a deeply affecting picture of a monumental artist. In it, Goldin salvages true memories of her family, her lovers and dear friends, fellow artists like Jim Jarmusch, Adrienne Shelly, and those angels of a past plague time: Cookie Mueller (“she was the center of New York downtown life!”), Peter Hujar, and David Wojnarowicz, who Goldin calls her spiritual and political guide. Wojnarowicz’s essay for Goldin’s Witnesses show ignited the fury of the religious right, as did much of his work during the AIDS plague. “She wanted to dispel the notion of AIDS victim. I’m hardly a victim if I can resist what I see as institutionalized ignorance about this epidemic,” Wojnarowicz says in an archival voiceover.

At the New York Film Festival screening, I couldn’t help but applaud when archival footage showed a reporter repeating Wojnarowicz’s description of Catholic Archbishop John O’Connor (nicknamed “Cardinal O’Condom” by ACT UP, for his repudiation of the contraceptive), a “fat cannibal in a black skirt.” The audience cheered when the artist doubled down: “Since he does feast on the body of Christ, he is a cannibal. Yes, he does have a penchant for black skirts. He is fat, translucent, and immoral.” In news footage from the time, Goldin, wearing a Silence=Death button, called the NEA’s decision to withdraw funding from the show “an outbreak of McCarthyism.” Hearing that, it’s no surprise that this young woman would continue to carry a deep understanding of the political power of anger throughout her life’s work. With All The Beauty and The Bloodshed, Poitras shows that Nan Goldin has always been an activist as well as an artist—and a supremely brave one at that.