Category Archives: LGBT

My interview with photo-artist Jamie Mcleod for Glass Magazine

Just a brief post. I interviewed the photo-artist Jamie Mcleod this month for the online edition of Glass Magazine. Here it is.  I’d be delighted to read any comments you have.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the very talented Mcleod has his private view for his show Ottoman Fight Club, which the interview focuses on, at Dalston Superstore tonight, January 12 starting at 7pm.

The formidable and fantastic Tiff McGinnis, aka Grande Dame, will be providing the sounds, the author Bertie Marshall will be reading and the Ginger Light, fronted by poet and writer Jeremy Reed will be performing.

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Filed under Art, Bertie Marshall, British writers, Caroline Simpson, Dalston Superstore, Glass magazine, Jamie Mcleod, Jeremy Reed, LGBT, Marc Almond, Ottoman Fight Club, Photography, Poetry, Private view, The Ginger Light, Tiff McGinnis, Turkish Wrestlers, UK fiction, Wrestling

Ottoman Fight Club – new show by photo-artist Jamie Mcleod

This Thursday a new show of work entitled Ottoman Fight Club by photo-artist Jamie Mcleod opens at Dalston Superstore, London. Mcleod is perhaps best known for his modern pop portraits, most famously with the torch singer Marc Almond, and his bold graphic work borrowing from his obsession with masks, faces, flesh, fonts,  lyrics and symbols which he composes to “create something borrowed, something stolen, something new and a lot that is blue”.

This new work, although eight years in the making as Mcleod immersed himself in the Turkish wrestlers’ culture, marks a departure and development in the London-based New Zealander Mcleod’s work which previously explores his fascination and  empathy with the outsiders, desperadoes, the forgotten and lost of the metropolis.

The images of Ottoman Fight Club were taken at the annual Kirkpinar tournament, held in Edirne, Turkey, which Mcleod visited over an eight-year period and where he established a friendship with the wrestlers. Shot in black and white, and screen-printed in a panoramic style, Mcleod examines the themes of male kinship and sexuality as expressed through the body.

The private view takes place at the Superstore tomorrow (Thursday January 12) at 7 pm and will be a very special event as the punk legend, author and mainstay of the Bromley Contingent, Bertie Marshall shall be reading and the Ginger Light, the musical collaboration of the poet and writer Jeremy Reed will perform a short set. And the magnificent Tiff McGinnis aka Grande Dame aka Crazy Girl will be spinning some maximum rock und roll.

Ottoman Fight Club

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Filed under Art, Art exhibition, Bertie Marshall, British writers, Dalston Superstore, FIlm, Jeremy Reed, LGBT, Literature, Marc Almond, Music, Ottoman Fight Club, Performance, Photography, Poetry, Private view, Short Story, The Ginger Light, Tiff McGinnis, Turkish Wrestlers, Wrestling

Genderful – an interview with Laura Bridgeman and Serge Nicholson

This summer I went along to the launch of the book, There Is No Word For It, a series of  short “monologues from the trans man community, exploring childhood to manhood, sex and sexuality” and is by Laura Bridgeman and Serge Nicholson. There Is No Word For It is based on a theatre project, the (Trans) Mangina Monologues, which was staged and devised by Laura and Serge in 2009. Directed by Lois Weaver, with Simon Croft designing the visuals, the (Trans) Mangina Monologues, was a unique piece of live theatre featuring a cast of trans men sharing their stories of the trans guy experience on stage.

This attractively designed and produced 110-page book (which reminded me very much of the US-based Semiotexte publications) has been compiled, written and edited by Serge and Laura and is the first book on their Hotpencil Press imprint and costs £12.99.

The book covers various aspects of the experiences of 12 trans men across south-east Asia, the UK and France who contributed their stories firstly to the (Trans) Mangina Monologues, and which now appear in There Is No Word For It. The book is comprised of 12 chapters – with titles ranging from “Childhood and family”, “Transitioning bodies”, “From low to gung-ho”, “Male privilege”, “Medical settings” and “Sex (part one)”.

There Is No Word For It is simple and spare in its content and presentation (and all the better for it). It is a sensitive, honest, non-sensational,  provocative and fascinating account of an experience which, if discussed at all, is usually in a prurient, sometimes trivialised, lurid manner. It’s also funny and pretty damn sexy too.
This autumn, I talked to Serge and Laura about the (Trans) Mangina Monologues and There Is No Word For It.

FS: Where did you both meet?

The cover of There Is No Word For It

SN: Probably through First Out coffee shop which was like LGBT finishing school. Everyone’s  worked there, from Graham Norton to      Amy Lamé. I worked there 19-20 years ago.

LB: I was doing stuff for the Transfabulous festival  [of which Serge is a co-founder] wasn’t I? We just started hanging out and I remember we were in your flat and you said that you had this idea to do the Trans (Mangina) Monologues, a version of the Vagina Monologues with a cast of trans guys.  I just looked it you said that’s a fantastic brilliant idea. This was properly four years ago.

SN: We would be in the middle of the Transfabulous festival

FS: What’s the Transfabulous festival?

SN: The Transfabulous Arts Festival ran from 2005 until 2008 with three international festivals of International transgender artists and artists of interest to transgender people. We did three summers at Oxford House in Bethnal Green. It was a full packed-out festival programme that was completely sold-out. It was always a summer weekend with performance nights, spoken word workshops. Laura and re-met there and Laura came and did stuff there. So by the 2008 Festival, we had had the idea for the monologues. We started to test and collect stories. We had talking booths in the gallery at Oxford House to see if people would to see if people would like the idea and share stuff with us that easily. We tested it there, and then after the festival ended, we knew we’d got something and we could really go and advertise for trans-masculine people to come to us.

I think if you didn’t know about the Transfabulous effect, not only was it an arts experience,but  over those years, it also broke down a lot of barriers. So that lots of people could work together and attend work together. So in terms of trans women and trans men, partners, friends, gender-queers, queer people, butch dykes, it could be possible that we were all there together. And that also quite a few love affairs started at those festivals as well.  And things have shifted a lot in terms of how people understand each other, dare to approach each other. so that’s also part of what happened because of Transfabulous.

LB: Yes, you created a dynamic space   – quite an unusual space as well – all encompassing as well.

FS: (To LB) You’re a performer. Is that your background?

LB: Yes I went to drama school then I left and worked with lots of writers in theatre companies. Then I formed my own theatre company.

FS: What did your theatre company specialise in?

LB: I did some performance art events and the last big thing I did was when I got some money from the London Arts Board (as it was at the time). I did a production for the Battersea Arts venue in a site specific venue, a disused dance hall in Clapham Junction. I curated the show and wrote it. This was the last big thing I did. And post then I started to get commissions from Radio 4 and from other theatre companies to write for them. The writing took off and the performing dropped away.

FS: So you were writing plays?

LB: Yes, writing plays more – more traditional work. Then I went to University of East Anglia where I did a MA and PhD and turned to prose. And this project is kind of a mix of the two. It started off as a theatre show with a script and the publication felt more of a prose piece that exists within its own right. I had my own company for a while.

FS: What was that called?

LB: Art Throb, then I changed it to Girlboy. I started to work with Michael Atavar on some projects together and we affiliated ourselves. After this, the writing took off and I started to be commissioned. I wasn’t performing so much but then through Transfabulous I started to do a little more live art and the tiny bit more writing and performing. Then Serge approached me to do this and it just built.

FS: (To SN) Do you have a performance background?

SN: I did two Gay Shames at Duckie.  I’ve also done things with Transfabulous – things to do with trans  masculine visibility. So Jason and I did the F-to-M Full Monty – which almost caused a riot. It brought the house down. This took place at the Pleasure Unit in Bethnal Green Road. Somehow, the council got wind of it and some inspectors came down and said we couldn’t strip. If we didn’t do it however, it would have brought the house down. So we just had to do it – quickly – and it was absolutely riotous, with screaming like Beatlemania. It was done very much like the Full Monty with hardhats, so you weren’t really exposing yourself. We also went on to do the Puppetry of the Phalloplasty which was about going to the Charing Cross gender clinic and all the hurdles you have to jump over. And it was about all these horrible psychiatrists who are power mad that you have to see. So we did these two pieces which were humorous but were working with stuff that everyone really wanted to see. And in the Puppetry of the Phalloplasty, we had a puppet cock that actually shot milk – it was gross.

Serge Nicholson (left) and Laura Bridgeman (right) at the launch for There Is No Word For It

FS: So you started with the talking booth at Oxford House and you saw that people were open and they wanted to talk.

SN: Only within the safety of Transfabulous – where we really took over the whole venue. There was also that sense of integrity behind what I was setting out to do. I was known as someone doing transgender activism through the arts. So I already had the trust of people. We couldn’t have just set it up in an ordinary arts space. Oxford House was now our home and people knew us. It was the right kind of safe playspace for people to come and speak to us. We were us just testing out the idea for the future and it worked.

FS: When was that?

SN: In the 2008 arts festival weekend.

FS: And the actual (Trans) Mangina Monologues were performed in 2009? So you got 12 people together who wanted to collaborate with you?

SN: Yes.

FS: So did people write down their stories or did you interview them?

LB: No, a few people wrote stuff. When contributors were based quite far away, we asked them to write down material. Serge and I went out individually and talked to people, gathering hours and hours of transcription. At the beginning, we didn’t lead or guide it, we just let people speak as we weren’t sure of the shape of the show – whether we were going to cut the monologues up. However, as we went on, it seemed as there were areas where people’s journeys cross-referenced. Then we started to cut our material into the sections. By the time we were taking the latter transcripts, with the last few contributors, we decided which sections worked. We were able to guide it a bit more.

FS: I think the book is great because there’s all these different aspects, different angles and different elements that I would never have thought of. It’s very beautifully and sensitively done – good-humoured and very intuitive. It’s entertaining. There are many insights, into a subject that usually sensationalised – if it’s ever dealt with at all.

SN: I think the humour is part of a survival armour. It is essential really to not get defeated.

FS: And the book does contain the best riposte ever. One of the contributors describes how to deal with any insults one may encounter with, “You’ve really got to work harder on your chat up lines”. You said in the book that you had evolved three general headings.

LB:  We wrote down lots of stuff we had sheets of wallpaper.

SN:  With all of our scrawls all over it.

LB:  If you go through the material looking at childhood and family, and what the contributors’ backgrounds were like, it seemed to be that people didn’t feel like they belonged, as other kids did at school, or in the family environment, and during the teenage years where your sexual preferences might have developed. And then the material moved on to sexuality and re-addressing sexuality; and then the journey might be about gender. It seems to be the beginnings of people’s backgrounds were obviously very different, and, then, what was interesting for us was people’s transitions and dealings with the medical services. In this respect, the experience of people living abroad was very different to people living in the UK. It seemed to us that we should include those stories in. We had one contributor who was based in Europe during transition and another one who was in Australia. So it was actually compare and contrast.

SN: What we were looking for also was a certain British voice – whether the contributors were living here, and had been here for some time, or they were living in other countries. We were looking for UK backgrounds rather than US ones. I think that worked very well so even though Americans might have some difficulty with some of the slang and the jokes and the language.

Serge Nicholson. Photograph byJamie Mcleod

FS: But you have a handy glossary at the back of the book.

SN: But in terms of the humour.

FS: The British sense of humour?

SN: We also wanted to cover people from quite a few different regions of Britain and then, to protect their anonymity, we switched things around a bit so that no one is going to stand out.

LB: We said to the guys from the beginning that, ultimately, you have the last call on what we will put in the script, and also publish. However, in the editing process, obviously things change – you may say things in the moment that you might not remember saying. So we always asked the contributors to approve the text before it went to the final draft. We took the transcripts and then we started to write them up and we weren’t sure initially how that was going to go.  I did try with, the early passages to make them more poetical but it didn’t seem to work. So what I do now, which seems to be a stronger thing, or a more authentic thing, to try to get down word for word. We tried to keep very close to each person’s speaking voice.

FS: I really like this style. I think it’s really beautifully written.

LB: It’s quite conversational I think.

FS: I think there’s something very beautifully understated and poetic about it. I like its subtle little jokes

LB: We tried to keep that lightness of touch. Serge and I felt that would work well and not sort of over-egg the pudding. In the live piece, we had a lot of material and people felt we went at a cracking speed. However, some people wanted a little time to just sit with it and reabsorb it. Certainly, with a publication you can go back and revisit a story, or just take time with it let it filter down. I think the material from the performance lent itself quite naturally to publication.

FS: Were the performers some of the people who told you their stories?

LB: We can’t say that.

FS: But there are more people telling you their stories in the book than you had performers on the stage.

SN: Yes, in the same way what we found when you did perform a piece, people thought it was your story. Wherever you go, you have to bear this in mind.

Laura Bridgeman signing copies of There Is No Word For It at the launch

FS: Were the performers trained actors?

LB: No. What Serge and I decided to do was to actually keep it within the community, although some of the guys had had stage experience.

SN: Or the Transfabulous experience as well.

LB:  But not everyone, and that’s why when we approached the director Lois Weaver who I thought would be a good person as she has worked with people who are not trained actors. I knew that she would just make everyone feel comfortable, confident and that worked well.

SN: Oh yes. It was a hugely empoweringly thing to be involved in it and also for the audience. They would never necessarily have seen five trans masculine people on stage together ever before.

LB: That’s true. We were worried. We debated it. I always said to Serge that I wanted to make the work, or the publication, or the experience, as inclusive as possible. So that is part of the reason we put the glossary in the book. We didn’t want to preach to the converted – nor want to alienate people. In fact, a heterosexual friend of mine came along who doesn’t really know much about this experience, and she said something quite poignant, “I am sitting here and gender affects you whether you are trans or not, gender affects you on a daily basis. I’m listening to these stories and it is involving and it is engaging for that reason”.We wanted that people could bring relatives along who don’t know much about the trans experience, but be able to get something from it.

SN: And that the friends and lovers are also part of the transition process and they will be audience members and so the work resonates.

LB: It’s like hidden histories.

SN: It was harder than we thought.

FS: That’s my next question. Is it easy or difficult to put on a show like this?

SN: It’s hard to get around the British reserve when you’re talking about sex. That was harder then we thought.

FS: What for the writers or the performers?

SN: No, the contributors. There were some people that were very much ease with it. But it was hard. I also think that is part of Britishness too.

LB:  Essentially, if you offer up a story,  it’s your story. So we never asked contributors to say something they didn’t feel comfortable with. But, by the end, we were saying we would welcome hearing about your sex life. But it was up to the person to draw their own line about what they felt comfortable. But actually looking back over the transcripts, Serge and I definitely saw a correlation with the guys that weren’t transitioning in the UK, and the guys that weren’t British, were open and more comfortable. I don’t know if was a coincidence – but they were more at ease. And what was different and  interesting were that some guys were in the existing relationships before transition and guys that had started different relationships post-transition – all those sort of things that were quite fascinating for us as well.

FS: Was it hard to put the actual performance on or was the money easy to raise?

LB:  We got some money from the Arts Council  just prior to the cuts. But at one point because we couldn’t match-fund it in the way we anticipated, which was a conditions of the grant, as it was conditional. We didn’t get the funding that we thought we would. However, eventually we managed to put a package to them which they accepted. That was very tough. We had to have some stiff phone conversations with the Arts Council.

SN: We did feel as well that we were misunderstood.

Serge Nicholson. Photograph by Jamie Mcleod.

FS: In what way?

SN: Don’t know that they didn’t see …

LB: The relevance of it …

SN: They wanted something fluffy lesbian and gay loveliness. But anyway we won.

LB: And when we went to sell tickets for the performances at Queen Mary, University of London and the Soho Theatre, they had sold out. I have never worked on anything like that. So, actually, there is a massive audience and appetite for the work. And the book launch was the same again.

FS: There were a lot of people there.

LB: The time is now. Doing this work, I totally underestimated that appetite and I think Lois did as well.

SN: If only we had the book then …
LB: That’s true.

FS: So how many performances did you do? 

LB: We did the two in London [mentioned above]. But on the back of the book, we are setting up more. Serge and I always had this idea that we would go around the country and collect new stories all the time and invite guys from those regions to join us on stage, if they wanted to contribute. This was more or less Eve Ensler’s idea with the Vagina Monologues which is always mutating and changing. We had the idea to do a sort of roadshow.

FS: Is there anything comparable with the (Trans) Mangina Monologues anywhere else in the world?

LB: We know it’s the largest piece of trans theatre work going on in Europe.

SN: I don’t think there’s anything else that can compare to this in terms of current voices and that is also something people could pick up and perform themselves. So I would really like to see someone take it and put it on. But in terms of just pieces that just stand up in their own right, and at readings, I think to do this in other countries or places, like San Francisco and New York, will be powerful. I don’t think there’s anything like it. Also as a collection it covers a really wide scope. We costed it.

LB: But it’s hard financially. So you have to go back to the Arts Council again. We went back to the drawing board. We realised that once you’ve got a product (ie a book) in your hand, you can get readings and shows booked off the back of that.

FS: You realised that a book was the next step?

LB: We priced it up we went to the Arts Council and tried to get money to publish the book.

FS: Did you get some lottery money?

LB: We got that originally for the show but nothing for the book in the end. And so we just thought we are going to  do it anyway.

SN: We didn’t want it to disappear.

LB: Exactly. A few people who contacted us online to give us their story. One guy didn’t show up and another was going to do a telephone thing but they didn’t happen. So maybe they thought it’s not there anymore We did the two shows and now there is physically a product. This is in existence.

FS: What are your next plans?

LB: We we are trying to set ups some UK dates, potentially for Brighton Festival next year. And we’re doing an event with the Arnofini Gallery in Bristol. We are keen to take it to the US. We’ve had some interest from New York, where Lois is based, also San Francisco – potentially for Pride next year. But again we need to think about the costing and pricings.

SN: If we do develop this further, or we go onto the companion book of the lovers of  trans masculine people, there has already been a shift in time and language. The glossary at the end of the book is out of date already. There will have been rapid  changes.

LB: Very early on Serge said to me he was keen to get in the lovers’ voices. I said at the time that it’s properly going to be too big, I’d rather  concentrate on the guys’ stories and just get those really solid and firm. And once we had that I do think there is a place for the lovers and partners and to get their stories told . We actually did some writing workshops up at the Central School of Speech and Drama with Jay Stewart’s company, Gender Intelligence  and we worked with some of the trans youth group and other members of the public who wanted to come in.

FS: So are you pleased and satisfied with the results of the project?

LB: Yes.

FS: What have the responses been like? Are they all positive?

LB: Yes. And we would love to do more. Obviously, we have got people supporting us. Anyone who has read the publication has said it is fantastic or that they love a particular story. It just seems to be hitting a nerve. We are really happy. If we had more time or more money, we would do this full time. What Serge and I find hard about doing projects that are self-governed is that all your time and energy is taken up. You are doing everything. Of course you are doing all the artistic work. Serge was in the piece so he was on stage as well. And he was dealing with the technical side too. And it got to the point where we were actually selling the tickets too. And buying the beer for the party afterwards – we were doing everything. I really believe in the work and the project too. I think it is really needed. Theatre is sometimes accused of being elitist and not for the people. And I think this project counters all those accusations.

SN: Because there would be nothing for me or other guys to go and see like this. Or there would be nothing about sex. There was also a need that I could see. I feel that I wanted to read something like this.

LB: I suppose that in a way the book and the performance is quite political because it’s from the personal.  I think we were only worried about changing the order [of the texts] when we did the stage show. Lois was quite keen to put the section on male privilege first. And we did do that although I said to Serge that I thought it was a mistake because then it looks like a series of statements – a bit soapboxy and heavy. In fact our idea was always to introduce people or have inclusivity. So actually when we went back to doing the book, I said I know childhood and family needs to go first because people step into the world as a child and everyone has a childhood.

SN: When trans people face psychiatric assessment, it always goes back to the family make-up and childhood. And in most films, or documentaries, there’s always that and it always goes into medical settings and surgery. We were  trying to move on from that. But on the other hand, when it came to the book and accessibility, we fell back into that [pattern] as well.

LB: And I wondered about the logic of the order of the texts. And for me, it felt like having a timeline seemed the natural thing to do even though Serge’s point is right. It means that you can start with childhood and then you can go to things like male privilege, you’ve taken people, guided them into it. And when the show started with considering male privilege, I always felt that it began with something with something heavy and it’s best to start with something lighter.

FS: I think it’s very brave of you to address the issue of male privilege.

LB: Yes, and it’s quite easy to think it puts you on the back foot a bit.

FS: As what a trans person has to go through is so heavy anyway. It quite a brave thing to discuss.

LB: I think that it is sometimes thrown onto the trans male experience. There is an assumption that you’re going to be earning double, or your salary is going to increase, and all these things are going to fall into place because you’re no longer female. Actually all the stories were in counterpoint to that. I think that is an assumption that your life is going to get easier because you are presenting as male.

FS: One thing I liked in the book was  how the trans men said they were happier because they’d lived  both women’s and men’s lives and they weren’t frightened of getting old. I thought that was quite interesting – how the trans person experiences life from such different angles and points of view.

SN: The whole point of putting on the show was that the technicians and everyone involved was trans masculine, either in the show or the volunteers working with us. There was quite a large group of us and when we would go after rehearsals for a drink, Lois was surrounded by this adoring group of men, so she loved it. We love Lois. Lois loved us. It was a phenomenal experience. I also think now that it’s a different time and that there is now more people examining either that they feel gender queer or gender fluid. There’s more range of people forming their identities or fluid identities. Things have changed from maybe the old days of  lesbians and dykes and trans not mixing together. I think times have just so changed and people can grow into themselves rather than being held back by community.

Which way up? The controversial image used for the postcards for the (Trans) Mangina Monologues (designed by Simon Croft)

LB: For us, the move from a theatre experience to a book encountering all those decisions you have to make when producing a publication. We had collaborated with the visual artist Simon Croft on the performances. It was also the first time he had ever worked on a book cover. We went so far ahead with ideas that they were too complex and had to come back. So it was very laborious but we still like its pleasing simple appearance. The title and credit font on the front cover is actually paper cuts.

And the postcard was an image that he made for us to promote the show. It was actually really controversial. So it’s only now that it is produced for the book with no type on the front cover of it. When it was first made the image was in a vertical position because of the position of the text and people would recoil – we had complaints. It’s a really powerful image and we just countered any complaints with the answer it’s just two moustachioed lips. It’s tongue in cheek and it’s really  clever. Maybe too clever for some people.

Or this way? Tongue in cheek?

I’m so used to reading theatre texts and and plays. For me just the words on a page are what are important.  I thought photographs would potentially weaken the book because sometimes when you’re offered the image, it takes away from the imagination. So I kind of felt we weren’t serving any purpose (in having images in the book). I said to Serge that we are so close to the material that we forget how strong the stories are. They are kind of like bombs going off your head and your hand. Actually I thought we would do a disservice to the work and the words. It would take away the power of the words.

FS: So was it a lot of work to edit all your material?

LB: It was just the thing of going over all the material. We added a more few stories too. We were paranoid that there might be a spelling mistake. At the end of the day, we couldn’t even look at it when it came out. We had reached that point. There were a lot of decisions to make. But I still believe in the power of the voices. And Serge is right – opinion, attitudes and experiences are changing the whole time.

SN: Nowadays, there are so many online groups about where you can share experiences. So times have really changed in terms of how you access information. On the other hand, I was thinking that the language has changed so rapidly that female-to-male and male-to-female are no longer going to be used, as some young people (and we learn a lot from them) say, “That’s not us. We were never female so we don’t want to be called one to the other”. Or in terms of using the phrase “trans masculine” this could be something used now but it could change again.

LB: Yes, that’s interesting and obviously the landscape is entirely changing with younger people growing up and, as you say, they have access to services that people of different generations just wouldn’t have had. However, again, I guess we are referring to people who are living in the metropolises in the West. I am still interested in flushing out the stories of people who are living in communities that more isolated. But we will see we are certainly up for still moving it on and doing other editions and seeing where it goes.

There is No Word for It is available at  Gays the Word bookshop or via the Hotpencil press website

If you want to contact Serge and Laura, email them at: or,

Hot Pencil Press also has a blog:

Many thanks to Laura and Serge for allowing me to interview them.

Credit: The phrase Genderful was coined by the wonderful Little Annie Bandez


Filed under Book launch, LGBT, Literature, Performance, Queen Mary University London, Soho Theatre, Trans man, Transgender

What becomes a legend most?

I have been sorting through my cuttings and notes recently and found the transcription of an interview I  did with Nan Goldin in 2002 which I  was commissioned to write for Pure magazine, and has until now, never been published, as, sadly, Pure folded before this piece could go to press. I know I have subtitled this blog My Literary Life, but the work of Goldin, one of my favourite artists whose work has made such a great impact on me – I am an unabashed and unapologetic fan – and has, in my opinion at least, such a powerful narrative quality, I thought this blog would be a appropriate place to publish it.

I first encountered Nan Goldin’s work in 1990 when I saw an image of hers, David and Butch crying at the Tin Pan Alley, New York City, displayed in a show of fashion photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This image of a woman in tears whilst trying to remain composed as Goldin takes her picture made a great impression on me. It stood apart from the other inclusions in the show, and was, I thought, an odd choice, not as it didn’t apparently fit the remit of the show, although I was delighted it had been included despite not having any overt fashion content, as this was my introduction to Goldin’s work. To me the image embodied the narrative power and qualities of the best literature; empathy and mystery. A depth charge went off in my head.

Then later on at the ICA, I saw Goldin’s book “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (Aperture, 1986, first published in the UK in 1989 by Secker and Warburg), which I bought. I was deeply impressed by Goldin’s startling talent and not only the brilliance of her images but by her sensitive and insightful introduction, which laid out quite succinctly what compelled her to document her world.

Discussing her sister Barbara’s suicide at the age of 18 (when Goldin was 11), she wrote: “When I was eighteen I started to photograph. I became social and started drinking and wanted to remember the details of what happened. For years, I thought I was obsessed with the record-keeping of my day-to-day life. But recently, I’ve realised my motivation has deeper roots: I don’t really remember my sister. In the process of leaving my family, in recreating myself, I lost the real memory of my sister. I remember my version of her, of the things she said, of the things she meant to me. But I don’t remember the tangible sense of who she was, her presence, what her eyes looked like, what her voice sounded like.

“I don’t want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”

However, many of her friends that she documented so intensely were lost to early deaths – often from AIDS-related illnesses. A few years after the Ballad was published, she wrote in her introduction to her monograph about the life and death of her dear friend Cookie Mueller: “I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact it shows me how much I’ve lost.” This cruel fact is not lost on Goldin.

The Ballad was a book I returned to again and again. Fascinated by the shifting relationships between Goldin, her subjects and her camera – the ambivalence, trust, oblivion, poignancy, ecstasy, despair and sadness, love and lust.

Since then I have seen Goldin present her images at a variety of events at the Photographers’ Gallery and the ICA and again been deeply impressed by her unflinchingly honest, brave and beautiful work and how it has evolved as she has: from her drag days in Boston, to Lower East Side party oblivion, from empty bedrooms to her more recent poetic, abstract landscapes and film installations.

Her groundbreaking and brilliant work has been influential. And while various photographers, particularly those working in fashion, have appropriated elements of her style none rival the genius of her uncompromising vision.

As I mentioned above, I conducted the interview for the brilliantly innovative Pure – such a fantastic place to work where I met the most brilliant and talented people, it was like going to Warhol’s Factory everyday – which closed and so wasn’t able to publish the following interview.

The final issue of Pure magazine.

Seeing as this piece was for a fashion magazine, that industry is discussed at some length by Goldin in this piece. But I think her observations are worth considering and it’s (to me, at least) interesting to hear her talk around topics other than her early life and career as she established herself, which are frequently revisited in interviews with her.

At the time of this interview, which took place in London in January 2002, her exhibition, The Devil’s Playground was showing at the Whitechapel Gallery.

Coincidentally, Goldin has a show in London at the recently opened gallery Sprovieri of recent work, including grids of images featuring new and old work and a slideshow of her
pictures of children.

I could write a lot more about Goldin and how much her work means to me, but I’ll stop now. Here’s the interview:

FS: Is film still the number one thing in your life?
NG: My number one thing is still to go to a movie. They seem surprised by how long I take to install here because I can spend a week installing a show. There are 350 pictures in this show. Not all are new. Two thirds are from 1999 onwards. I’ve got really prolific since I moved to Paris where I am living permanently, for the rest of my life, until I find another idea. I have really close women friends here: Valerie, Raymonde, not Joana so much, Maria Schneider, who was always a real heroine of mine who and has now become a close friend. I have very healthy strong relationships with women. I didn’t have so many in New York. My life there was almost entirely about gay men for 30 years.

FS: So that’s the reason you’re in Paris?
NG: That’s a big reason.

FS: Do you find it more sympathetic? Do you find Europe more politically sympathetic?
NG: No place could be less sympathetic to my politics than America. My work is received more intelligently in Europe. I had my first museum showing of my slide show in Rotterdam, in 1983. I love Rotterdam. I love harbour cities in general. I like it much better than Amsterdam which is too much like a postcard. It’s too cute for me. Rotterdam is more real, it’s got a stomach. In ’83 I started travelling round Europe with my slide show. It wasn’t until I moved to Europe and got accepted in a big way in Berlin in the ’90s that I got acceptance by the big art world in New York. I didn’t really get to be known, or in the market, til ’93 in New York.

FS: Is acceptance important to you?
NG: Yes it was. Now what I like is that other artists know my work and are interested in me or want to collaborate. I’m very flattered when people I respect like my work. It’s like a dream of a little kid when somebody I idolised likes my work.

FS: Like who?
NG: Maria (Schneider). I don’t think of her like that anymore, because I worshipped her when I was young. Like Kiarostami; Jan Fabre the theatre director and visual artist; the Dardenne brothers, Jean Pierre Dardenne and his brother Luc Dardenne, Wong Kar-wai. Like Yves St Laurent, I don’t know if he likes my work but Pierre Bergé does. Stella McCartney is a big fan. I feel like a little girl sometimes because I don’t hang out with celebrities. I have never got into that. I never courted that but it’s nice when it’s people you respect and they respect your work. It’s thrilling.

FS: In a recent interview with the Observer, you said you were ambivalent about the fashion world and cosmetic industry.
NG: One of my assistants, a British man, says I should find a platform for it. Meanwhile I wear make-up.

FS: It’s a dual edge thing.
NG: I have no ambivalence about myself wearing make-up or designer clothes but I have an enormous ambivalence about what the fashion world has done to women.

FS: Do you know the writer Jean Rhys?
NG: Yes, I read everything by her.

FS: Do you remember the quote from her (I think from “Quartet”) “the desire to be loved and to be beautiful is the true curse of Eve”.
NG: Ha! It’s not true for me, my life is more important. At this point in my life I’m alone. I don’t think about it a lot. I’ve been alone for about eight years and it doesn’t bother me. Yes, I need to be fed but the need to be loved by friends has been as important to me than any lover I’ve had all my life. This is part of the reasons that my lovers don’t stay because they are jealous of how much I care about my friends.

FS: Haven’t you recently shot for Vogue?
NG: I shot for French and British Vogue. The British Vogue one featured clothes by Chloe and was shot at Highgate and the John Soane Museum. It came out much better in my opinion. I only did one day and was working with my own make-up and hair people and a model who I’ve known for years. I like Stella (McCartney) a lot – she’s a very open and warm person. I don’t particularly want to know about her background. We started talking last night about how we should tell each other about our family histories but we haven’t got there yet. Each time I spend with her, I like her better. So I was excited to be asked by her.

I had bought some Chloe clothes in Italy. I was interested and curious about her. I know somewhat about Kate (Moss who featured in the Vogue spread). I always thought that Kate’s look had come from my old friend Siobhan Liddell and some of her friends because they dressed like that about ten years ago. Unconsciously, and right after that, that whole look sort of came out. It looked exactly like Siobhan and Siobhan actually is – or was – as thin (I think she still is). She has that kind of baby face, a very young face. So I was interested in working with Kate.
At the same time as the UK Vogue one, I did a shoot that took about 40 days of friends and people I admired in Paris, for French Vogue. It included Joana (eight or ten pages) and Valerie. This is how I met Maria Schneider in June and which began our friendship. I also met Dominique Sanda, who I always worshipped. I also photographed Maggie Cheung – but these didn’t develop into a friendship either – and Maria de Medeiros a Portuguese actress and her daughter. She played Anais Nin in “Henry and June”. And Amanda Ooms who lives in London, and who I’ve known since ’89 and my friend Joey from New York who is a gorgeous transsexual.

The shot was about jewelry but that was sort of secondary. It was more like portraits. Joey is almost completely naked and they are taken in hotel rooms or old 18th century hotel rooms that I love.

The pictures were beautiful but the layout and colour-printing weren’t so beautiful. I love lots of the pictures but somehow there was something flat and dead about the way they were printed. But there was a really interesting letter published in the magazine the following month from a woman reader saying it was so nice to see real human beings.

One of the fashion things I ever did was for Helmut Lang for Visionaire magazine and I used people from all genders. People from the age of 18 – like James King – to people like my friend Sharon who’s about 50 or older. People of all different shapes and literally all different genders and my boyfriend at the time and his daughter who was 11. If I were to do fashion that’s what I would want to do

“If I do continue to do fashion, I would want to radicalise it

FS: Does it feel different when you shoot fashion?
NG: Well, that day it didn’t (for Helmut Lang). It was really fun. For Paris Vogue, it was setting up the shooting, setting up the clothes – there was so much involved in the set-up that it literally ended up being 40 days – or it felt like that. The letter was very gratifying. This woman acknowledged it was the first time she had seen in a fashion magazine real people of different shapes and ages.

If I do continue to do fashion, I would want to radicalise it, refuting the whole idea that there is only one way to look; that women have to be so skinny to look good; that they have to be 12 years old and wearing clothes that only women in their 30s and 40s can afford. Plastic surgery is distressingly popular and I feel that the fashion industry has killed tens of thousands of women over the years from anorexia.

I used to live with Teri Toye in the ’80s – a really gorgeous transsexual. She won Girl of the Year in 1986 (I think) as a Chanel model and she introduced this whole way of slinky, slow-motion modeling. It was amazing that the girl of the year was actually born male. It’s so rare to see a woman’s sexuality, real female sexuality, either in the shows or in the clothes. And in Paris now, when I walk into stores and the shopgirls literally say to me every time, “We don’t have anything in your size”.

The only time this happened to me before was in Jil Sander in Berlin where they said, “We have nothing that will fit you.” I said, “Yes, you do.” And I found something great. This happens to me in Paris again and again and again. They don’t carry anything over size 40 which is nothing, because I wear a size 42 or 44 but that’s hard to find in Paris among the designer clothes. All stores are like that. And I say, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” And they say, “not at all.” But I say, “Not in the rest of the world.”

It’s a hideous feeling to go round shopping and even feel like you are a freak. In America, more than half the population are overweight. It’s not healthy and I’m not proud of that but I don’t hate having a woman’s body. I’m not ashamed of my body and you know everything in the fashion world, if I was vulnerable to it, could drive me crazy. I think it produces so much self-hatred.

I remember so many girls when I was growing up who hated the way they looked. My work shows the beauty in so many different kinds of people because I never photograph anyone who I don’t think is beautiful. I never take an intentionally mean picture. I won’t show a picture where a person doesn’t look beautiful. There are days when everyone in the world looks like a Diane Arbus to me. She’s a genius but her work is completely different to mine. But on those days I don’t use my camera. I feel like if I started to use it that way, it would be like a sin almost. I never show people ugly pictures I take of them. I usually destroy them. So even if I like it, and they don’t, it doesn’t get shown.

The main thing that I want to say in this magazine is that I don’t think women are at their most beautiful in their adolescence or in their early 20s. You know it’s said that you make your own face. So you don’t really have a face until you are 30 or your mid-20s. When you are starting to grow up and show your character in your face. I think it’s obscene that many people are starving to death from anorexia. It’s been said many times, it’s trite. But when so much evil is going on against, for example the Afghani people, where women are being so oppressed that a woman’s body is a battlefield.

One of the things I love so much about Valerie is that she inhabits her body so completely. She has no self-consciousness about having stretch marks or having given birth. It’s just so amazing that she has nothing to hide. Whereas all these other women see every little – supposed – imperfection – anything irregular is seen as an imperfection.

Actually, I think what is being shown as beauty in fashion magazines right now has become particularly ugly. This kind of straight, blonde very conservative. American magazines are becoming very patriotic beyond belief to the point that I can’t live there any more. I had said that when the first Bush got elected that I would leave the country. And when the second Bush wasn’t even elected properly. I wasn’t there when the city was bombed but it seems to have changed my friends. Some people have become a lot more conservative but I can’t really speak about that because I wasn’t there. I feel compassion for their pain but it distresses me to see them all become more patriotic.

FS: How do you feel about appropriation of element of your style in fashion photography?

NG: In a way, it’s an homage. But I didn’t really know about it at first. But then when I started living in Berlin in the early ’90s, I started getting ID and Dazed and Confused. I was shocked how close things were to my work,

“I never thought heroin was very chic”

FS: Nothing in those pictures has the power to move you though.
NG: Well, it’s all set up. I never, never photograph someone getting high to sell clothes. I was called, at some point, the person responsible for “heroin chic”. I didn’t have anything to do with “heroin chic”. I never thought heroin was very chic. I did maybe when I was 18 but I got over that pretty quickly. The idea that a fashion photograph could make you cry doesn’t happen. And I’m proud to say that my slideshows can make people cry.

FS: I love the narrative quality of your images. There is a short story in each one.
NG: I don’t think I am going to do pictures which are anything like Renaissance art. I’m very influenced by a lot of things, but my chief influence is my friends and what I see and what I feel and my own experiences and memory. And the things that I look at include Renaissance art. I’m obsessed with churches and paintings of saints.

FS: You’re not Catholic, of course.
NG: I have the freedom of seeing it with a non-Catholic eye without the guilt. No Jews have our own guilt, that’s why we have psychiatrists – the Jewish version of a priest. As a non-Catholic, and since I was a child, I have been obsessed with the ritual and the beauty of Catholic art. I look at Renaissance art all the time. That’s where I got the idea to paint the walls of the gallery with varied colours (at the Whitechapel show). I tried to figure out how all these Renaissance paintings manage to work together.

And after that, I start to paint my walls. And I’m heavily influenced by films.

FS: Who has influenced you recently?
NG: Cassavetes, “Killing of a Chinese Booker”, “Opening Night” are my favourites. Gena Rowlands is fabulous. The work of early Antonioni,  Orson Welles and Pasolini, I love Roeg’s film “Performance”. I saw “Darling” the other night, which was amazing. I love all the Hollywood women. I saw all the films when I was a teenager. Jack Smith‘s “Flaming Creatures”.

The film maker Vivienne Dick had a big influence on me. I found her eye was very close to mine. I think we see things very clearly.

“The thing that drives me most crazy in the world

is not to be believed”

FS: Are you still taking self-portraits?
NG: No, not recently.

FS: I have always wondered how you managed to never show your camera when you were shooting yourself.
NG: There are ways of angling the camera. I don’t just use a tripod. The only time I did that was in ’88 when I first came out of detox, I spent every day doing self-portraits to fit back into my own skin. I didn’t know what the world looked like – what I looked like – so in order to fit back into myself, I took self-portraits everyday to give myself courage and to fit the pieces back together. I used a tripod then.

I was recently interviewed for radio in relation to the “Thanksgiving” show (2001) at the Saatchi gallery that I was part of. The interviewer said that people in London were very disturbed that I showed a picture of myself battered (“Nan One Month after Being Battered”, 1984) and they thought that I set it up. I was accused of deliberately putting on a wig for that particular picture. And also because I have some make up on they think I must have set it up. Of course I was wearing make-up, I never went anywhere without red lipstick for 25 years! It was a form of self-preservation for me to continue to wear lipstick even though my face was broken.

When I started photographing my boyfriend of years ago, Brian, I realised I had no right to photograph other people having sex if I wasn’t prepared to take them of myself too.

The thing that drives me most crazy in the world is not to be believed. If I say something honestly, generally, I am being completely honest and don’t tell me I am lying. It drives me crazy to be told I set up my pictures. How does it benefit me to lie? I guess they are afraid to believe it and are afraid to look at it.

FS: I think you look different in every picture of yourself.
NG: I think that’s even more apparent in the portraits of Valerie. I took 15 pictures of her and you see so many different sides of her. Like the pictures I used to take of Siobhan.

FS: In this culture women aren’t allowed to display all their sides, for instance to show their anger, sadness, pain.
NG: One of the major things I really want to work on now is female rage because that’s not dealt with at all – and I have a lot of it. A lot of women I respect have it too, you know. I think it killed my sister as the times she was living in were so conformist. This is a subject I really want to deal with. I want to start making films about female rage.

FS: Is this going to be a documentary?
NG: I don’t know. I am going to collaborate with Valerie who is my closest friend on one about my sister for a big show in a mental hospital (“Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,”  at La Chapelle de la Salpêtrière ) next September in Paris where they invite an artist to show. This year it was Jenny Holzer. Usually people just do their own work. But I want to deal with the place and what it means to show in a mental hospital. This is what I am working on at the moment. I like using different mediums – not just photography and slide shows, but also film. There was a saint named Barbara and the story has some components which relate to my sister’s story, who was also called Barbara. There will be big cibachromes of empty spaces and still lives and a kind of emptiness.

I’ve become really interested in the landscape but not as landscape but more as it relates to mood and how we live and how the outside impacts on the inside. I didn’t really look at the outside world during the years I was photographing the Ballad as I  was  locked inside my house and I lived totally inside. The only time I went out was to go to bars at night and all the pictures were taken with a flash because there was no light at all. However now I’m very interested in light. It’s the first time that my work has become at all metaphorical – or allegorical.

FS: Do you feel the allegory when you are shooting the pictures or is it in the viewing?
NG: More in the viewing. But I’m very much interested in water and women in water. I’ve been photographing that for years although I didn’t really know it at the time.

I usually work really instinctively and it’s afterwards that I think about what it means. I don’t know consciously that I have these themes that run through my work. This show  (“Sisters, Saints and Sibyls”) I’m talking about is the first time I’m working on ideas really. When I put my big retrospective together in ’96 (for the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), I saw that there were all these pictures of people inside looking out. All these pictures of women in water and mirrors. I don’t know what it means.


Filed under Art, Interview, LGBT, Nan Goldin, Photography, Private view, Short stories, Transgender