Art & Photography / The Story Behind The Image

Nan Goldin’s Powerful Homage to Her Surrogate Family

Friends are the family you choose for yourself, they say – a sentiment that Nan Goldin took to heart, as one unforgettable image demonstrates

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01_Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in the bathroom, NYC
Jimmy Paulette and Taboo! in the bathroom, NYC, 1991Photography by Nan Goldin, Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund for Photography, Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“The instant of photographing, instead of creating distance, is a moment of clarity and emotional connection for me,” said Nan Goldin in 1986. For Goldin, who is known for her diaristic approach to photography, taking a person’s portrait is like giving them a caress. Though Goldin had a fraught relationship with her own family – her older sister committed suicide when she was 11 and she left her family home in the suburbs of Boston at 13 – the theme of family is enduring in her work. Growing up in Boston in the 1960s and then in New York in the 70s, she started taking intimate and spontaneous photographs of the friends she surrounded herself with. They were her chosen family, and as the artist wrote in her oft-referenced The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, they were a family “bonded not by blood or place but by a similar morality, the need to live fully and for the moment”.

Jimmy Paulette + Taboo! In the Bathroom, New York (1991) is an image of two drag queens named Jimmy Paulette (facing the camera) and Taboo! (facing away) in their New York City East Village apartment. Both appear topless and with their wigs off, but Jimmy Paulette is still in full make-up and Taboo! dons a showy necklace. The scene feels spontaneous and casual; we don’t get the sense that the photographer is intruding into a domestic moment, but rather that she herself might be part of it.

This photograph is now on view in (un)expected families, an exhibition investigating the changing definition of the American family through photographs from the 19th century until today. Goldin’s image exemplifies the show’s goal of expanding the way we think of familial ties by showing a range of relationships, whether connected by DNA or other circumstances. As curator Karen Haas noted, Goldin’s image speaks on several levels. “There’s a family in the relationship between the two men in the picture, who are her friends, but also that idea that as her relationship with her own family became stressed and frayed, she sought to create her own surrogate family.”

Goldin started taking photographs of drag queens in 1972 and soon developed an obsession with them, as she has described: “I never saw them as men dressing up as women, but as something entirely different – a third gender that made more sense than either of the other two.” Her photographs became a form of homage. “Anyone would say this is a very casual picture,” notes Haas. “Yet there’s something so beautifully composed in it, and something so incredible in its luscious colour – you can almost fall into it.” Goldin wanted her photographs to reflect the sense of beauty and strength she saw in her friends, so that they would see it also. “These are people who are brave enough to present themselves to her, to the camera, onstage,” Haas says. “That power, that beauty, her admiration for what they stand for, I think that’s really palpable.” 

Memory has always been at the core of Goldin’s photography. In taking these photographs, Goldin creates a tangible record of her life that “no one can revise”. After losing her sister at a young age and later on many of her friends to the AIDS epidemic, photography became a way for her to capture moments that would endure – an impulse which, ostensibly, is at the core of every family photograph.

(un)expected families runs from December 9, 2017 until June 17, 2018 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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