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The Vietnam Conflict: The Rock ‘n’ Roll War

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 Moratorium Day, October 15, 1969 – Washington D.C. (AP Photo)

In the immortal words of the German Romantic writer Jean Paul Richter “Music is moonlight in the gloomy night of life”. There could be no truer words for a soldier entwined within the chaos of a violent battle. Music has long been a fundamental element in providing temporary relief during wartime. This is especially true during the United State’s involvement in Vietnam War, also known as “America’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll War” (

My hypothesis starts with the suggestion that much of the music written during the 1960s and 70s characterized the discontent of American youth with the escalation of America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from November 1955, to the fall of Saigon in April 1975). The rhythms, raw energy, and screaming guitars of rock music perfectly reflected the chaos and confusion of the jungle warfare and fire fight battles. Since Rock music was the most popular genre at the time with American youth, it inevitably became popular also in Vietnam among the young American soldiers. In retrospect, Rock ‘n’ Roll music ultimately became an anthem of the American youth demonstrating their anti-establishment anti-war sentiment. It is important to emphasize the youthful age of the Vietnam combat soldiers: ninety percent of them were under 23 years of age and the average was 19 years old. Moreover, we can assume that most of them did not want to be in Vietnam, risking their lives and being alienated from their family, friends and own generation once back home (

As history has proven, music helps to define a generation and the U.S. soldiers imported their musical preference into the war zone. It is interesting to note that there was not significant separation in musical tastes between enlisted men and officers. Many songs of the period were inspired by the Vietnam War with even the most popular musical artists being influenced, for better or for worse, by the plight of the soldiers forced into battle. For instance, “Purple Haze”, by Jimi Hendrix, made reference to a slang term for the M-18 violet smoke grenade, used by United States armed forces. In the song “Magical Mystery Tour” by The Beatles, the lyrics “Coming to take you away, dying to take you away”, had special meaning for Marines during the battle of Khe Sanh (when the Marine base was isolated and there were a series of desperate actions that lasted 77 days).  Also, some phrases were used in the context of the war. For example “Rock-and-roll” was used for “lock and load”, referring to the procedure for readying the M-16 rifle for firing or for switching the weapon from semiautomatic to automatic fire (

The most common medium for the music between soldiers in Vietnam was the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN) Radio. This 24 hour radio station was created by the U.S. Armed Forces to entertain the American troops. As Michael W. Rodriguez (combat veteran of the Vietnam War and writer of the book “Humidity Moon”) stated: “Rock ‘n’ Roll meant fully automatic fire, get some adrenaline running through the body like a runaway train” ( Radio as a means of disclosure, however, did not always reflect the preferences of the soldiers. So tape recorders and cassette tapes, either brought from home or purchased on leave, became the most popular medium for music in Vietnam, a kind of status symbol among GIs. The tape players were battery operated, small, portable and therefore easily carried into the field (

The approach of the soldiers to the music mirrored also the differences between Vietnam War and other conflicts, such as the World War II. The latter was seen as a unified mission of fighting Fascism and Nazism. Alternatively, with the Vietnam War, there was no such unity of purpose, especially in the later stages of the 1970s. The Vietnam War was the first in which the combat soldiers listened to antiwar and protest lyrics while fighting in the conflict. In previous wars, the music had always been supportive of the U.S. government’s objective and specifically to mission of the soldiers in combat (

America during the Vietnam Wars years, like the rest of the world, was awakened from a beautiful dream. Young people, in their simplicity, sensed a future of uncertainty and were seeking a path that lead towards a better world in collective protests. Rock music became the megaphone of an idealistic and confused generation, which ultimately identified itself in the lyrics and music by artists such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jim Morrison and The Doors, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan, just to name a few. These so-called “cursed heroes” became wonderful interpreters and their songs have survived long past the war torn years during which they were created. The music itself has become immortal still listened to today, some 40 years later, by American youth who have little knowledge of the Vietnam War.

The revolutionary fervour of the time was expressed also by the “hippie” movement. In the wave of the Vietnam War, which saw thousands of young people, who were not sent into the “jungle”, far away from home, felt the duty to show solidarity with the soldiers’ plight. The refusal of society, that the hippies called “consumerist” and the withdrawal into a rural and simple life, with primitive socialistic rules, where no private property existed, marked the background to the explosion of Rock music (

Two bands, in particular, were the protagonists (next to the ever-present Bob Dylan), songwriters of the revolution: The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The first was a genuine product of the hippie community, and never abandoned the idea of music as a vehicle to dream. The leader of The Grateful Dead was Jerry Garcia and his guitar cords have gone down in history as the best companion to “trip on” after Hendrix. Different was the fate of Jefferson Airplane, which started with a similar “hippie” background as The Grateful Dead, but later transformed into anti-political rock with the album “Volunteers”, which was openly opposed to the Vietnam War which didn’t seem to end (

There are two key figures among the music antiwar spectrum: Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. It should be underlined that Hendrix, who was a former soldier himself, was not an official protestor of the war, and he actually sympathized with the anticommunist view. However, with songs like “Machine Gun”, dedicated to those fighting in Vietnam, he did protest the violence that took place during the conflict. While Hendrix’s point of view was probably not similar to the protestors, his songs became anthems to the antiwar movement and a driving force during the war years even after his death (

Similarly, Bob Dylan had a similar effect on American youth. “Whether he liked it or not, (he) sang for us. We followed his career as if he were singing our songs”. These were the words of Tor Egil Førland, reflected in his article “Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist”, quoting Todd Gitlin, a leader of a student movement at the time. However, Dylan’s songs were designed to awaken the public and to cause a reaction. For instance, “Blowing in Wind” perfectly embodies Dylan’s antiwar sentiment. Specifically, the song lyrics “The Times they are A-Changin’”, alluded to a new method of governing necessary and warned the government that the change was imminent. In fact, the song was so close to the antiwar cause, that Joan Baez and Judy Collins recorded the song and performed it at a 1965 march protesting the Vietnam War (

There are few songs particularly representative of that period and, all of them, are openly against the war. In chronological order of recording: “Eve of Destruction” (Barry McGuire), “Give Peace a Chance” (John Lennon), “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), “Ball of Confusion” (The Temptations), “Ohio” (Crosby Stills Nash & Young), and “War” (Edwin Starr). I chose these specific songs because they are the most meaningful of the period and, at the same time, were influenced by and have influenced the Vietnam War Era. Is interesting to note that these songs were written (except the first one “Eve of Destruction” which was released in the 1965) recorded and released between late 1969 and early 1970. In fact, a few of them were during in the same month: at the height of the American presence in Southeast Asia and at the height of the anti-war movement in the U.S.


Eve of Destruction

This song was written by the American singer and songwriter P. F. Sloan, when he was 19 years old, and became famous when recorded with the voice of Barry McGuire, in 1965. “Eve of Destruction” is a protest song more generally about the American political issues of the 60s, and eventually became a hippie anthem against the Vietnam War. This song is a warning of an imminent apocalypse and moreover talks about racism, hypocrisy and injustice. The assassination of the American president John F. Kennedy was an influence. It also voices the frustrations and fears of young people in the age of the nuclear arms race, and the civil rights movement. “Eve” was banned from many radio stations, in the U.S. and by Radio Scotland, and placed on a restricted list by the BBC. It could not be played on general entertainment programmes, for its antigovernment lyrics. Even though it was restricted and banned because the government said it could help the enemy in Vietnam, it still managed to hit #1 in the US. The American media used the song as an example of everything that was wrong with the youth of that time, but this actually helped to popularize it. One sentence in particular is meaningful if we think about the engagement of youth during the War: “You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’“, and this refers to the fact that men were subject to the U.S. Military Draft at age 18, while the minimum voting age, at that time, was 21 (


Give Peace a Chance

This song, one of John Lennon’s solo masterpieces, was released on July 1969 and immediately became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement, even though the lyrics don’t explicitly refer to the Vietnam. In classic John Lennon style, as he was always able to do, the song reflected a positive way to think about war and peace. “Immediate peace”, as John Lennon always used to say, for all the people on earth. He also changed the word “masturbation” in “mastication” on the official lyric sheet, to avoid any kind of controversies. On the 15th of October 1969, a multi-city demonstration called “The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam”, took place in Washington D.C., and “Give peace a chance” was sung by half a million demonstrators. According to Christie’s auction house, which on the 10th of July 2008 in London sold John Lennon’s hand-penned lyrics of the song, when Lennon saw all those people singing his song outside the White House, he considered it to be one of the biggest moments of his life (

There is another famous song by John Lennon, against the Vietnam War and, more generally, any war. Unfortunately, over the years the song has been relegated to the collection of Christmas classics, probably because of the title and content of the text that, sarcastically, wants to be a provocation: “Happy Xmas (War is Over)”, a hymn to all to realize that the war can end, as the best Christmas present anyone could ask for, but only if people want it.


Fortunate Son

“Fortunate Son”, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, is a song released by the end of the 1969 and was inspired by the marriage between David Eisenhower, the grandson of President Dwight David Eisenhower, and Julie Nixon, the daughter of President Richard Nixon. As writer and singer John Fogerty said during an interview for the music magazine “Rolling Stone”, he was inspired by Julie Nixon who “was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war. In 1969, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and like eighty percent of them were in favour of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble“. Obviously, Fogerty was not a fan of President Nixon and his belief was that people with wealth and influence with close ties to politicians like the President were receiving preferential treatment. Most of the soldiers came from the working class background and, according to Fogerty’s lyrics, were there because they didn’t have connections that could get out of the draft. One of these men is the subject of the song who ended up fighting and, through the words of Fogerty, is singing: “I ain’t no senator’s son. I ain’t no fortunate one, no. I ain’t no military son. I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no”, with a clear reference to the wealthy politically influential ruling class (


Ball of Confusion

This song was released by The Temptation in the spring of the 1970 and has a strong political message for multiple problems that afflicted the U.S. at that time: segregation, the so-called “white flight”, drug abuse, air pollution, revolutions and, of course, the Vietnam conflict, especially in the verse that refers to the “Eve of destruction” and, at the end “People all over the world, are shoutin’ ‘End the war’. And the band played on”. However, the band didn’t actually take any clear antiwar point of view, for the fear of losing the more conservative listeners. To the question “Where the world’s headed?” the answer is “Nobody knows” (



This song is about the events that occurred on the 4th of May 1970 at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. Also known as “The Kent State shootings” or “The Kent State Massacre”, that day, while they were protesting, unarmed college students were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard. That was the culmination of 4 days of protests and riots, after the announcement of President Richard Nixon, on April 30, about the “Cambodian Incursion”, that had been launched by United States military. Four students were killed and nine were seriously wounded. The singer-songwriter Neil Young wrote the lyrics of the song after seeing the photos (one of them a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by photojournalism student John Filo) of the incident in “Life” Magazine. The song “Ohio”, by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, was released 10 days after the shootings. As one can easily assume, the song was banned from some AM radio stations, because of the first lyrics referred to Nixon’s administration (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming“), but received airplay on then-illegal underground FM stations in larger cities and college towns. Inevitably, “Ohio” became a protest anthem as Americans became fed up with the war in Vietnam (,_Stills,_Nash_%26_Young_song%29



This song was written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, for the “Motown” recording label in 1969 and released in the 1970. Eventually, Edwin Starr was chosen as singer, deciding to withhold the Temptations’ version so as not to alienate their fans. Starr didn’t have as big a fan base to offend. The song lyrics are openly against the war (“War, I despise/because it means destruction/of innocent lives”) and “War” became one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. After the terrorist attacks that occurred on 9/11, 2001 in America, the song was placed on a list of inappropriate titles distributed by Clear Channel Communications, Inc., a media conglomerate company which hold more than 1,200 radio stations. The list is a controversial document called by the media “The 2001 Clear Channel memorandum”, of which Clear Channel always denied the existence (,_2001_attacks).

The conclusion of this research reveals that, even though 40 years have passed since the end of the Vietnam War, many of the themes found in the society of that period are still current in contemporary society, as well as the words of protest, more or less veiled, used in the musical repertory of the period can still be actual if we think about the divisions between social classes, between generations, between cultures and opinions about the utility of armed conflicts. It is hard not to think that every human being, instead of remembering his own history, tends to ignore and forget far too quickly, so that the same problems still plague society. Equally, the battles of youth of that time are quite similar the struggles of young people today and, as in those years, when government opposed protests, even now and also in the future, protests of the youth will continue to be unheeded. It is precisely the case to say, quoting The Temptation’s lyrics, “Where the world’s headed? Nobody Knows“. Or maybe, to conclude with the sentence of one the most celebrated anti-war songs by Bob Dylan, “The answer…is blowing in the wind”.

Paola Sarappa


Cross, Charles R. (2006) Room Full of Mirrors: a Biography of Jimi Hendrix. New York: Hyperion

Førland, T. E. (1992) Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist. Journal of American Studies.

Arnold, B. (1991) War Music and the American Composer during the Vietnam Era. The Musical Quarterly.

James, D. (1989) The Vietnam War and American Music. Social Text.

Internet sources,_Stills,_Nash_%26_Young_song%29,_2001_attacks

Here follows a list of songs of particular interest, referring to the Vietnam War Music Era, based on my own research. They are included in a period of time between 1965 and 1971.

Listen to the playlist “Vietnam: the Rock ‘n’ Roll War” on Deezer:


Eve Of Destruction – Barry Mcguire

Hello Vietnam – Johnnie Wright

Nowhere To Run – Martha & Vandellas

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place – The Animals

Wooly Bully – Sam The Sham & Pharaoh

Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones

My Girl – The Temptations

Shotgun – Jr. Walker & All Stars

I Got You Babe – Sonny & Cher

Hang On Sloopy – The Mccoys

Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag – James Brown

The Game Of Love – Wayne Fontana & Mindbenders

The Name Game – Shirley Ellis

Seventh Son – Johnny Rivers

For Your Love – The Yardbirds

California Girls – The Beach Boys

All Day & All Of The Night – The Kinks

Wonderful World – Herman’s Hermits

The Last Time – The Rolling Stones

All I Really Want To Do – Cher

Laugh At Me – Sonny


The Ballad Of The Green Berets – Ssgt. Barry Sadler

Reach Out I’ll Be There – The Four Tops

96 Tears – ? (Question Mark) & Mysterians

California Dreamin’ – The Mamas & Papas

Summer In The City – The Lovin’ Spoonful

These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ – Nancy Sinatra

Good Lovin’ – The Young Rascals

Paint It Black – The Rolling Stones

Wild Thing – The Troggs

Sunny – Bobby Hebb

Devil With A Blue Dress On – Mitch Ryder & Detroit Wheels

Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys

Cool Jerk – The Capitols

Sounds Of Silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Bang Bang – Cher

19th Nervous Breakdown – The Rolling Stones

Wipe Out – The Surfaris

Psychotic Reaction – The Count Five

Gloria – The Shadows Of Knight

Rainy Day Women – Bob Dylan

I Fought The Law – The Bobby Fuller Four


I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die – Country Joe and the Fish

Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix

All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix (Bob Dylan)

All You Need Is Love – The Beatles

Magical Mystery Tour – The Beatles

The End – The Doors

The Letter – The Box Tops

Ode To Billie Joe – Bobbie Gentry

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy – Pete Seeger

I’m A Believer – The Monkees

Light My Fire – The Doors

Respect – Aretha Franklin

Soul Man – Sam & Dave

For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield

Somebody To Love – Jefferson Airplane

Jimmy Mack – Martha Reeves & Vandellas

A Whiter Shade Of Pale – Procol Harum

San Francisco – Scott Mckenzie

Friday On My Mind – The Easybeats

Gimme Some Lovin’ – The Spencer Davis Group

Let It Out – The Hombres

Let’s Live For Today – The Grass Roots

Funky Broadway – Wilson Pickett

White Rabbit – Jefferson Airplane

The Beat Goes On – Sonny & Cher

I Can See For Miles – The Who


The Unknown Soldier – The Doors

Happiness Is a Warm Gun – The Beatles

Street Fighting Man – The Rolling Stones

Sunshine Of Your Love – Cream

Mrs. Robinson – Simon & Garfunkel

The War Is Over – Phil Ochs

On the Road Again – Canned Heat

Draft Morning – The Byrds

Tighten Up – Archie Bell & Drells

Dance To The Music – Sly & Family Stone

Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf

Jumping Jack Flash – The Rolling Stones

Summertime Blues – Blue Cheer

Sky Pilot – Eric Burdon & Animals

Revolution – The Beatles

White Room – Cream

Time Has Come Today – The Chambers Brothers

Say It Loud-I’m Black & I’m Proud – James Brown

Piece Of My Heart – Janis Joplin

Susie Q – Creedence Clearwater Revival


Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon

Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Ball of Confusion – The Temptation

Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stone

Sugar Sugar – The Archies

Aquarius/Let The Sunshinshine In – The Fifth Dimension

Reflections of My Life – The Marmalade

Honky Tonk Woman – The Rolling Stones

Crimson & Clover – Tommy James & Shondels

One – Three Dog Night

Hair – The Cowsills

Get Together – The Youngbloods

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley

Proud Mary – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Get Back – The Beatles

Do Your Thing – The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band

Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man – The Bob Seger System


Ohio – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

War – Edwin Starr

Machine Gun – Jimi Hendrix

American Woman – The Guess Who

Child in Time – Deep Purple

I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home) – Grand Funk Railroad

I Should Be Proud – Martha & The Vandellas

Get Ready – Rare Earth

Question – The Moody Blues

Thank You – Everybody Is A Star – Sly & Family Stone

Spill The Wine – Eric Burdon & War

Spirit In The Sky – Norman Greenbaum

All Right Now – Free

Venus – The Shocking Blue

Instant Karma (We All Shine On) – John Ono Lennon

Lookin’ Out My Back Door – Creedence Clearwater Revival

House Of The Rising Sun – Frijid Pink

Run Through The Jungle – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Who’ll Stop The Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Mississippi Queen – Mountain

The Letter – Joe Cocker

Woodstock – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young


Singin’ The Vietnam Talkin’ Blues – Johnny Cash

Cat Stevens – Peace Train

Man in Black – Johnny Cash

Imagine – John Lennon

Riders on the Storm – The Doors

War Pigs – Black Sabbath

Have You Ever Seen the Rain? – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Me & Bobby Mcgee – Janis Joplin

Sam Stone – John Prine

Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore – John Prine

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – Joan Baez

What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye

Signs – The Five Man Electrical Band

Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who

Bring The Boys Home – Freda Payne

Written by Paola Sarappa

18/08/2011 at 12:34 pm

Posted in Essay

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Transvestism and the third gender: how the mask is the expression of the self in the work of Nan Goldin

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The “third gender”, in those societies who recognize more than two sexual genders, usually refers to people who are not categorized as either male or female. Biologically, all the human beings are divided into these two categories. However, if we consider the word “gender” as defining the role that an individual assumes in a society, the identity of a person, the sexual orientation or everything else that could epitomize the word “gender”, it becomes difficult to reduce the whole variety of humans to only two categories. On the bases of this assumption, the third sex can be considered as an intermediate state between male and female: it could be both, it could be neither or it could be totally independent from them. This third definition is commonly agreed in the debate for the interpretation of this “other” gender (

Most of those who identify themselves with the third gender have the tendency to modify their behaviours and bodies in order to match their inner feelings, which may not have anything to do with being either male or female. Therefore, they use the “mask” to express their identity. This is exactly the opposite of the function of the mask, which is commonly used to hide the identity. In fact, the mask as an expression of the self is crucial to transvestism. It is interesting how the third gender, in the world of transvestites, can be regarded as the self-identity that manifests itself through the mask, thus breaking the schemes imposed by society, and challenging the common assumption that the mask is a disguise.

Transvestites have often been chosen as subjects in the works of many photographers, such as the world-renowned Diane Arbus, American, famous for her work in the 60s about marginal and deviant people like dwarfs, giants, nudists and transvestites. Also a less known Italian photographer, Alessandro Vincenzi, has recently published an interesting reportage about transvestites, “India: The Transgender World” (“Himal Magazine”, Nepal – India, August 2010). Among photographers who have made an attempt to interpret the world of transvesters, I believe that Nan Goldin is the one who has best understood their inner world, feelings, secrets, issues. A comparison has to be made between the approach to photography of Diane Airbus and that of Nan Goldin. While the former considers the camera as a shield to protect herself, for the latter the camera is a barrier between the photographer and the subject.

Nan Goldin, who currently lives between New York and Paris, was born in 1953 in Washington, D.C., from an upper-middle class Jewish family. She was introduced to photography by a teacher at high school at the age of fifteen. She grew up in Boston, where she graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, before moving to New York. In her work her life becomes the subject. In fact, all her relationships are documented in series of snapshots, which she describes as “the form of photography that is most defined by love” (I’ll be your mirror, 1996, p. 450).

Her first series of pictures were photographic journeys among the gay and transsexual communities in Boston, to which she had been introduced by her best friend David Armstrong. When looking at these pictures the viewer is immediately absorbed into her world and the world of her subjects, thus becoming part of their lives and identifying himself in their stories.
“The Other Side” was a club popular among transvestites in Boston in the early 70s. In this place, which is also the name of one of her photo-books (1992), Nan Goldin started to take her pictures, between 1971 and 1973. Some of the subjects were drag queens – men that get dressed and act like women for the purpose of entertaining or performing. She was so fascinated by their beauty that she treated them with all the respect their name demanded, as they were regal for real. And this is clear in her photographs. According to Goldin’s vision, the queens embody freedom, beauty and courage. This third gender is the real winner in the quarrel between men and women. As Nan Goldin puts it, “the people in these pictures are truly revolutionary; they are the real winners in the battle of the sexes because they have stepped out of the ring” (from Goldin’s introduction of “The Other Side”).

Her devotion to the queens was so deep that they remained for several years one of her favourite subjects. Looking at these photographs, the observer can better understand the value that Goldin gives to the refusal of traditional schemes recognized and accepted by society. Her approach is delicate and human, since the queens are her friends and her family. Therefore, there is no judgment, only participation. Goldin wrote: «I believe one should create from what one knows and speak about one’s tribe. You can only speak with true understanding and empathy about what you’ve experienced» ( Nan Goldin’s photography seems to be an act of love towards these people, that she considers beautiful and fascinating. It is a caress that she gives through the camera.

Nan Goldin is not afraid of this “other side”, as her will is to investigate their identity. She has the courage to face up what she sees and document it faithfully, looking through their skin, hairstyle, make up, daily life and the relationship between them. As for technical characteristics of Goldin’s photography, she starts shooting first in black and white and later in colour. She makes an intensive use of artificial light and she normally captures her subjects in very narrow spaces, such as the back seat of a taxi, a bathroom or a dressing room. When you look at her portraits you feel like you are there with the queens, at that very moment. The subjects of the picture become tangible and close to you. You have the impression that you have met them before or even know them.

Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, 1991 – Cibachrome print, 76,2 x 101,6 cm.

We know them because Nan is a portraitist of souls. She looks through the eyes of her subjects, in both directions, and her purview additionally takes in friends, lovers, artifacts, clothing, rooms: the soul’s context. She sees herself in her subjects; the doors between her life and her work are kept wide open. And that is why, when I look at her pictures, even of people and places far removed from my daily existence, I see my own life, then and now. This is not always pleasant – sometimes it can be extraordinarily painful, dredging up old but unburied feelings and unresolved knots and continuing fears – but Nan’s work won’t let anyone stop at pain. The journey is longer than that. (Luc Sante, “I’ll be your mirror”, 1996, p. 103)

For many cultures, like the African tribes, being photographed is a way to let other people steal your soul. According to Goldin, as she tells her friends David Armstrong and Walter Keller, “the wrong people had the camera”. And she adds: “I always say if you’re photographing your own tribe, then there’s not that danger of the soul being stolen. I think that you can actually give people access to their own soul” (I’ll be your Mirror, 1996, p. 454). Thus, photographing is for Goldin a kind of homage, a way to keep friends always alive, tracing their history. This was one of the reasons why she started to take photographs: a way not to lose her closest people. In this framework, it is important to mention that Nan Goldin lost her sister, who committed suicide at the age of eighteen, when she was only twelve years old. This tragic event in her life further had an influence on her photography.

Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, 1973 – Cibachrome print, 49.8 x 61cm.

This photograph, among the first Goldin made in colour, shows many of the features that made her one of the first and foremost exponents of the snapshot aesthetic. This Easter picnic by the river in Boston shows Goldin’s ‘family’ at the time, one of the happiest periods in her life. She was living with a group of drag queens, her heroines, and had already amassed a huge body of black-and-white photographs of them. It shows her lifelong obsession with social rituals and the pleasures of communal life. Over time she would lose many people in this group to AIDS and drug addiction (Guido Costa, 2001, pp. 16-17).

She used to refer to the group of drag queens as “her family”, since they were her world when she left her biological family and started to live with them in Boston, sharing the same apartment and nightlife, before moving to New York. This collection of photos of drag queens is also part of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, a slide show, where drags and transvestites are depicted as members of a family album, in a series of snapshots. Due to her attitude to photographing people, even subjects who might easily appear as diverse and bizarre become normal and common. Although she largely uses the potential of objectivity offered by the camera, the approach to her own tribe becomes a clue of the sentimental values ​​which arising from her membership to the context she photographs. According to Goldin, there is no distance to reveal, she does not even aim at capturing stories of diversity, as only the “be there” prevails. The act of photographing itself is the evidence of an emotional involvement. Due to this approach it is possible to perceive the spontaneity of that particular moment as part of an unfiltered reality – a world without any prejudices and questions. In Nan Goldin’s worlds, “a picture is a way of touching someone, a caress, and acceptance, a desire to grasp the truth and accept it without trying to make a personal version”.

In a conversation with David Armstrong and Walter Keller, Nan Goldin says:

It’s about trying to feel what another person is feeling. There’s a glass wall between people, and I want to break it. One of the misunderstandings about my work is that I go into relationships with people because they are spectacular photographic subjects. Whereas the emotional need comes first, and then the pictures. And the people that I’ve been attracted to had nothing to do with photography. It wasn’t, Oh, I’m gonna get involved with drag queens, ‘cause they’ll be good photographic subjects – it was a much deeper connection…a sort of recognition of something.

WK: Of what?

NG: Of my own complicated sense of gender. Or…of something that I loved. You know, the beauty, the transcendence of male-female classification, the humor, and the courage. I was just really deeply touched, as a young person, as I still am. I wasn’t even a photographer at the beginning, when I went to live with the queens (Nan Goldin, I’ll be your mirror, 1996, pp.448-449).

On the left – Roommate with teacup, Boston, 1973 – Gelatin silver print, 50.5 x 40.3 cm.

On the right – Bea in her Chair, Boston, 1972 – Gelatin silver print, 51 x 41 cm.

When she started to take pictures, she unintentionally documented her friends’ passage from adolescence to adulthood. Within this change she also started to record their exterior transformation: a different dress style and new make up, a new hair cut or hair left to grow long. In the 70s her friends mostly got their style inspiration from fashion magazines, like Vogue, a kind of manifesto of sex and desire. The camera became the means for witnessing the birth of this new identity. Every detail in the pictures taken in this period seems to epitomize the femininity of Goldin’s friends: from their poses to the domestic environment and the softness of the lights.

On the left – Kenny putting on make up, Boston, 1973 – Cibachrome, 34.8 x 22.9 cm.

On the right – Kim in rhinestones, Paris, 1991 – Silver dye bleach print, 101.8 x 69.5cm.

The focus of Nan Goldin’s work is the human body, fragile yet strong, tiny yet full of presence, surrounded by affection, love, and destructive tendencies. The face that belongs to this body is often turned towards us. It looks at us. Her photographic work can thus be read as an encyclopedia of gazes. […] Nan Goldin is very close to what she sees and photographs. She is in the seeing of it. Yet because she accompanies her friends across the years, creating sequences, there is also a certain element of refraction which, paradoxically, triggers this impression in the first place (Joachim Sartorius – Deep pictures of us all, “I’ll be your mirror”, 1996, p. 323).

The issue of the mask is related to the dicotomy between being and appearance. The lack of a correspondence between them is a major concern in the idea of the world as will and representation. Thus the mask comes from the divergence between being and appearance. Form can only be seen by the observer as a disguise, which is something that altough does not belong to men, yet it is deliberately used by men for some purpose. The camouflage is usually adopted either to fight a state of fear and weakness, or as an outward expression of an inner reality. In both cases, however, it is linked to the struggle for existence. Through the work of Nan Goldin it is possible to feel this conflict and identify yourself in the subjects of her pictures, thus challenging the appearance and going beyond the “mask”. This is probably Nan Goldin’s greatest homage the “third gender” debate. Through her work, she has started some sort perpetual reflection between mirrors: a reality which is reflected in another reality and still mantains its own identity.

The work has always been misunderstood as being about a certain milieu of drugs and parties and the underground. And altough I’d say that my family is still marginal and that we don’t wanna be part of normal society, I don’t think the work was ever been about that. I think the work has always been about the condition of being human and the pain, the ability to survive and how difficult that is (Nan Goldin talking about her work in the video “Contacts”).

Paola Sarappa


Goldin, N. (1996) I’ll be your mirror. New York: Scalo.

Crump, J. (2009) Variety: Photographs by Nan Goldin. New York: Skira Rizzoli.

Costa, G. (2001) Nan Goldin. London: Phaidon Press.

Marra, C. (1999) Fotografia e pittura del Novecento: una storia senza combattimento. Milano: Bruno Mondadori.

Jenkinson, J. (2003) The devil’s playground. London: Phaidon Press.

Video sources

Contacts, Vol. 2: The Renewal of Contemporary Photography. (1992) Based on an idea by William Klein. France: Arte Video: [Video: Dvd]

Nan Goldin – I’ll be your mirror. (1998) Nan Goldin and Edmund Coulthard. London: BBC Videos for Education and Training [VHS PAL]

Internet sources

Written by Paola Sarappa

12/05/2011 at 11:39 pm

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