Introduction by Svetlana Kitto
In 1993, photographer Nan Goldin published The Other Side, a collection of her photographs that paid loving homage to the drag queens and trans women in her life. In her words: “The pictures in this book are not of people suffering gender dysphoria but rather expressing gender euphoria.... 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.”
Twenty years later one of the most iconic images from the book, "Jimmy Paulette and Misty in a Taxi," appeared in the major queer art survey show Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
When the Smithsonian show traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, Jimmy Paul, the photo subject in the blond wig (right), went to see it.
What he saw startled him. The exhibition wall label described the image with intoxicating, heady language, imagining Jimmy Paulette and Misty as survivors of a debauched late-night party scene. The label referred to them as "party-goers" or "war-zone refugees," on a "a cab ride to nowhere," "after a hard night out."
The lived experience of that photo? Jimmy, who hadn't done drag for years, and Misty were on their way to the Gay Pride parade – that morning.
Art history includes a long list of silent artists’ subjects – quiet objects of the gaze – who rarely get the opportunity to respond to the way they've been represented, interpreted and described. Here, the subject speaks back to the art historian’s interpretation: Jimmy Paul tells us the long version of that cab ride, beginning with his fabled blond wig and his hairdresser mother in the 1960s, taking us to the early days of the drag resurgence in New York in the '80s, and running into Michael Chabon, Lady Bunny and Rupaul along the way.
By offering us his personal history, and the real context of that photo, Jimmy gives us a lot to consider: the power of images, the complex project of interpreting and understanding them, and the ways in which they reveal and obscure multiple truths.
I recently interviewed Jimmy Paul, a busy, successful, hair stylist in the fashion business, in his Greenwich Village apartment.
1 This Nan Goldin photo and its caption are published in the book that accompanied the show: Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture(Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books: November 2, 2010.