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Photojournalism and Documentary Photography

Archive for May 2011

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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