On September 12, 1953, Goldin was born in Washington, D.C. Her family then moved to suburb of Boston. When Nan was 14 years old, her older sister, Barbara Holly Goldin, committed suicide. It was around this time, Goldin decided that traditional schooling was not for her and therefore enrolled in an alternative school called Satya Community School located in Lincoln, Massachusetts. It was then Goldin met two people who would influence her greatly for many years to come: David Armstrong and Suzanne Fletcher. Goldin became extremely fascinated with photography. Therefore, for next 16 years, she produced several what is called "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency", the "blurry line separating the genders" and also photographed drag queen beauty contests during the early 1970s. In addition, she became friends with many transvestites and saw them as a way to reinvent oneself.
She studied at the Boston School of Fine Arts. It was during this period that her photographic style evolved. Previously, she only worked in black and white films. However, she began to incorporate color and flash which later became “Goldin look”. From this time, she hardly worked under natural light and illuminates her subjects with careful use of flash that extenuates her vibrant colors. In 1978, Gold in moved to New York City which was her turning point in her life both for her career and personal life. She began to have show at punk rock club in New York City, and they combined photographs and music and ran about 45 minutes. In 1986, she started to have her show on the road and traveling abroad including the Edinburgh and Berlin Film festivals.
Nevertheless, in 1988, Goldin had to check herself in a detoxification clinic because of her use of drug and alcohol started to take a toll on her life and work. It was at this clinic she began to execute various self-portraits. As the 80s was the height of AID epidemics, she started losing many of her artists friends to AIDs including her a long time friend Cookie Mueller. Hence, Mueller’s death, Goldin began "The Cookie Portfolio," a series of 15 portraits of Cookie, following their first meeting, youthful parties to Cookie's funeral in 1989. And, next few years, Goldin began to photograph of her close circle of friends, and started to exhibit across the country, and as well as internationally. She also spent one full year in Berlin on a DAAD grant. A 1995 show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston grouped Goldin, Armstrong and fellow photographers and friends Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson and several others, and dubbed them the "Boston School."