Exercise: Nan Goldin


Analyse Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC by Nan Goldin.

Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, 1991 © Nan Goldin


A side-ramble first…

My first thought was that unlike the course author I wouldn’t have naturally included Goldin in a section on portraiture, but I try to be open-minded so I got out the copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) that I’d bought a few months ago. I confess that up until now I hadn’t quite seen it as the work of genius that many claim it to be.

It’s funny how revisiting something with a different point of view in mind can transform your opinion of it. Until now I’d mentally filed Goldin away under ‘gritty personal documentary’, but today, revisiting the book I see that it’s essentially a series of highly intimate portraits.

Goldin took pictures of her ‘tribe’, her “recreated family, without the traditional roles” (Goldin 1986), and while they weren’t portraits in the traditional posed sense, they were extraordinarily vivid candid portraits, of people that she knew very well and one presumes she could discern when to press the shutter to capture a good representation of them.

I’ve gone on about this before, but the most fascinating area of portraiture for me is pictures of people that I don’t know, have no preconceptions about and only have the photograph to work with. It’s a true skill to imbue a photograph with enough ‘information’ to fool the viewer into believing they know more about the subject than they do. Why should one care about a subject that one doesn’t know? A good ‘unfamiliar’ portrait creates an illusion of knowing. This isn’t the case for all of Goldin’s portraits, for sure, but there are a handful of her recurrent subjects that really come through to the viewer.

To the image in question: though later than The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, it continues the same personal visual diary style.

  • Face: Misty: defiant, challenging, returns the camera’s gaze; Jimmy: more hesitant but still very direct; both heavily made-up (notions of identity, masks etc…)
  • Pose/gesture: again, defiant
  • Clothes: edgy, transgressive, a major part of their external personae as drag queens; Jimmy’s bra falling down in a parody of feminine sexuality
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: looks like flash: quite harsh, exposes details of their skin, revealing flaws
  • Background: heads framed by the taxi window and with the view outside it places them in New York city; they’re on their way out, there’s a sense of anticipation
  • Meaning: ‘we’re hitting the town, don’t mess with us tonight’


Goldin, N. (2014) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. United States: Aperture.

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