About photobooks – old and new.
“The Other Side”, first published in 1993, chronicles twenty years of photographer Nan Goldin’s love for drag queens. Organized as a diary, this book reveals the intimate lives of individuals whose gender identity does not conform to the mainstream male-female binary.
The first time that Nan Goldin encountered drag queens was in 1972, in downtown Boston: “They were the most gorgeous creatures I’d ever seen. I was immediately infatuated”. Goldin was about eighteen years old and she then decided to live and share an apartment with a drag queen, immersing herself completely in that particular world.
The book starts out with black and white photographs from that period featuring Ivy, Naomi, Colette, and her flat mate. Some of these black and white images are, arguably, among her best ones. Most of them are casual portraits, like snapshots, disregarding aesthetic norms and accentuating the complicity between the photographer and her subjects. Although Nan Goldin was young, her photographic style was already very personal and consistent with the purpose of her work. That same photographic style would come to define a major part of her future work, including “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”.
The Boston series are then followed by color photos, documenting other twenty years of obsession for drag queens. They include images of drag queen friends living in New York City, Manila, Bangkok and Berlin. Each city corresponds to a different chapter in Goldin’s life between 1972 and 1992. They reflect different times and different cultural environments, giving us different perspectives on the life of drag queens.
The photos taken in the early 90s in New York City for instance reveal a broader social acceptance of drag queens. They are not anymore photographed in underground venues. They are photographed in daylight, in the streets, in cabs and in different social gatherings. More surprising are the photos taken in the Philippines and Thailand, where drag queens are portrayed at home with their family, from which they don’t appear alienated, contrary to the reality in many western societies.
In Goldin’s own words, this book was intended to pay homage and “to show how beautiful they [drag queens] were”. Definitely these photos communicate the grace of these drag queens with authenticity and without artifice. But this book is also an intimate photo diary that goes beyond the theatrical perspective of drag queens. On many occasions, they are photographed while dressing or putting on make-up in front of mirrors, celebrating their birthdays, spending time with friends, partners or family. In all of these instances, they act and recreate themselves “according to their fantasies”, under a wide range of gender identities.
Through this intimate approach, we are drawn into their daily lives and their multiple gender identities, progressively understanding that they do not correspond to the conventional gender categorization. Compared with other photobooks that have also featured drag queens, such as “Les Amies de Place Blanche” from Christer Strömholm (published in 1983), the strength of Goldin’s work lies in a narrative that slowly deconstructs the traditional perspective on gender, at a moment when it was still underexplored.