Nan Goldin's raw images of strung-out friends and lovers in Eighties New York acquired a cult following. Ten years on, drug-free, an established success and a survivor, she is revisiting the past. Eve MacSweeney hears her bitter- sweet story. Portrait by Pirmin Rosli

Followers of contemporary art, as well as visually inclined hipsters from London to Tokyo, are likely to be almost as familiar with Nan Goldin's life story as they are with their own. Long before the memoir as both a literary and artistic form became as prevalent and accepted as it is today (witness the visual journals of the likes of Georgina Starr, Tracey Emin and Sophie Calle), Goldin was busy with her life's project: photographing herself, her friends and their lives and editing these photographs into an ever-changing narrative of her experience.

With Goldin, we've visited Boston in her teenage years, staying in with androgynous room-mates and venturing out to exuberant drag bars. In photographs in which the capturing of emotion takes precedence over technical brilliance, we've watched the story of her New York party years unfold, when she moved to the Lower East Side in her early twenties, switched from black-and-white to colour photography, and documented the shifting relationships, the miseries and the ecstasies, of her circle. We've witnessed her friends having sex, getting tattooed, thinking, weeping, dressing up, getting high. We've seen them fall out of the frame as they began to succumb to drugs and Aids. We've observed Goldin and her lovers of both sexes in various stages of connection and alienation. We've shared her lowest moments: in self-portraits after she was savagely beaten up by a boyfriend, and as she checked herself into rehab in 1988 after 15 years of taking heroin.

The power of her work at times seems as literary as it is artistic: she has said

that she allows people to "read" her life. And besides her refulgent use of colour and her film-maker's sense of composition, it's the intimacy of her

pictures, their unstaged, truth-telling, compassionate flavour, that binds them together and allows them to transcend the specifics of context.

Goldin, to be sure, has precursors and influences of her own - Larry Clark, for one, whose photographs of his own low-life adventures brought a disturbing tenderness to shocking situations, and Andy Warhol, who championed an emphasis on people in his movies, rather than seeking a polished form. But Goldin's conviction in turning the emotional landscape of her life into an artwork broke its own ground, and, as it has accumulated, it has won her numerous plaudits, most recently an extensive, 25-year retrospective exhibition mounted by the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1996, which is currently completing a European tour.

Blowing up intimacy on to a world stage creates its own problems. How does Goldin stay true to her milieu when the spotlight of fame is on her? How does she avoid self-consciousness? The downtown scene pictured in her work, with its drag queens and drug culture, has lent itself to a certain cult appeal, by which followers can track the recurrent and slightly famous figures in her work much as they might the bit-players in Andy Warhol's Factory. All of which must be a distraction from her purpose as a serious artist.

It is perhaps for these reasons, among others, that Goldin, post-fame, post-retrospective and its accompanying "bible" - a 500-page glossy book, I'll Be Your Mirror (Whitney Museum/Scalo) - has produced a slim, modest volume, Ten Years After (Scalo). A collaboration with the Naples-based curator and writer Guido Costa, Ten Years After effectively takes a scalpel to Goldin's normally expansive account of her own history, and fillets it into a poignant juxtaposition: the summer of 1986, when Goldin visited her friend, the actress and writer Cookie Mueller, on holiday in Positano with her husband and brother-in-law, Vittorio and Daniele Scarpati; and revisiting Naples and Positano a decade later, when so much in Goldin's life had changed. The book is dedicated to the memory of Mueller and the Scarpatis: all three died in the late Eighties, Daniele in a motorbike crash, Vittorio and Cookie of Aids. This knowledge adds a layer of meaning to the work, but the book also powerfully engages, on a universal level, photography's heart-wrenching power to turn back time and capture futures unforetold.

"It's probably the most intimate book I've ever made," 45-year-old Goldin tells me, as she sits chain-smoking in her light-filled downtown apartment. As one might expect from her work, she talks easily about herself, with flashes of deadpan mischievousness: you feel you could ask her any question and she'd answer it candidly. "It was a very unhappy period in my life," she says of the first part of the book. "I had just finished The Ballad of Sexual Dependency [the book version of Goldin's rapid-fire slide-show performances of the Eighties, which showed shots of her friends in varying sequences and to changing soundtracks]. It was the beginning of when I really got strung out, and I was really fucked up, and I was involved with Daniele, who'd had a long history with drugs.

"Cookie was really funny, she saw the humour in everything," Goldin reminisces. "She was the starlet, the diva, the centre of the whole scene, and she always knew where the parties were. She was very charismatic, a real beauty. She had a gorgeous body; her face she made ... really beautiful." Goldin's voice softens. "She knew she was HIV positive, but we always thought we could lick it. It was the greatest impotence I've ever felt in my life in that last month, seeing her so sick, unable to talk or to walk, and not being able to help her."

The first part of the book focuses tightly on Mueller and the Scarpatis, as well as showing some other figures who frequented Positano at the time, including the beat poet Gregory Corso and the transsexual model Teri Toye. A written account by Mueller of her arrival in Naples is full of delight and adventure, while a letter to Goldin extolling the healthy Italian lifestyle reinforces these positive emotions. Looking through the pictures, the Mediterranean light and colours, the found love, you discover an accompanying undercurrent of melancholy, of reflectiveness, of needles being shot into arms. Then, a 10-year break...

The book's second half shows junkie shrines in the city, statues and corners, Goldin's then lover, Pavel, and a series of friends laughing, driving, swimming, gazing. Golden light bathes some of the pictures, blue mist others. A sense of elegy is knife-sharp, but also present are openness, friendship, a slight diminishing of anguish, the possibility of going forward. Goldin indicates some of the pictures that are most important to her now, that combine figure and landscape, giving them a relationship and equal weight in the pictures.

"Initially, Nan didn't want to go back to Naples," says Costa, who had invited Goldin to mount an exhibition, "Theoretical Events", in his Neapolitan gallery two years ago, and then proposed expanding the show into a book. "The second part of the book is a discovery, a connection. It was like being phantoms, wandering, researching the feelings Nan had with the town. We went to the same places, Positano, Forcello [Naples' drug and crime quarter], where she had been to buy drugs with the Scarpati brothers. In the book you see the distance between the first and second period. The second is more relaxed, more connected with the place. Nan has changed her direction in art a little, towards landscapes and still-lifes, and we wanted to focus the attention on the change."

For all her recovery, for all the obvious benefit she has had from rehabilitation and therapy, Goldin remains fiercely unsentimental, however. It's tempting to view this book as a healing, an attempt to find, in the contemporary jargon, "closure" with a painful period of her life. Goldin measures the change in herself borne out by the book, but she resists any easy conclusions. "In the old days, if I went to Pompeii Herculeum it was because Daniele and I went to Naples, bought a bag of dope, and went to Herculeum to smoke it. Now I would go to Pompeii to look at Pompeii," she says. "But I don't feel like going back resolved or completed anything." Far from distancing herself from her past, she seems happy to see the continuum, telling me with a certain glee that a FedEx delivery man who came to the unrenovated house she has just bought in Long Island's smart Sag Harbor - evidence of her new-found wealth - couldn't wait to leave because it looked like the kind of junkie crash pad she used to depict in her photos.

Goldin has always strained against sensationalising her material and influencing events, against second-guessing the effect that hindsight will lend to her subjects. And, like a good novelist, she embraces complexity and ragged edges. Yet, although she constantly edits and re-edits her work, she avoids writing her own story. "I have no idea if a picture I make is going to have a different meaning six years later," she tells me. "I live so much in the present"

The writer is the features director of 'Harper's Bazaar'

Photographs taken from 'Ten Years After', published by Scalo, pounds 16.95