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Dana Goldstein’s Drag Queens

Sun 20th Jun, 2021

By Polly Gaillard

Kelly Valasquez-Lord ©Dana Goldstein

When I saw Dana Goldstein's (APA New York) Drag Queen series, I was first mesmerized by the glamour of the 1930's Hollywood-style black and white portraits; then, I was taken by the depth of character evident in each picture. Goldstein creates an homage to all Drag Queens in this series. Her love and respect for these subjects are apparent; their souls shine through, creating a timeless tribute to every Drag Queen in front of her lens.

Can you tell me how your Drag Queen project began? What was your inspiration?

DG: I’m fortunate to have grown up with a father who was a commercial photographer, shooting from the 1940’s-’80’s, everything from fashion to celebrities to advertising to destinations. As a result, he made sure that I was exposed to the very best photography of the twentieth century. He was (as am I) a huge fan of Avedon, Penn, and Arnold Newman, and a collector of monographs. We had every fashion magazine, so he could see what the best of the best were working on. In addition to this, I fell in love with classic Hollywood movies in my teens, and was fascinated by both the movies themselves and the way the studio system crafted the personalities and images of stars. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to shoot a series in this style, but I was worried that simply hiring models might not yield the results I wanted. It sort of came to me all at once: Who would understand what I was going for? Who really has that knowledge today of the classic Hollywood look? Of course! Drag queens! And I was not disappointed. 

You’ve stated that the portraits are photographed in the 1930s Hollywood style of celebrity photography. Why do you feel it’s important to add Hollywood glamour to these images? How do you capture such incredible beauty from your subjects?

DG: It’s the Drag queens themselves who bring the glamour! I have a huge respect for the work they do, which I consider pure performance art. They have created and perfected their characters over time, often designing their own costumes, prepping their own wigs, and writing their own material. As a result, each Drag character is unique and has “lived” a story arc which they bring to their performance. It’s quite similar to the level of detail that the studio system brought to the creation of each star’s public image. When you look back at classic Hollywood, there was only one Stanwyck, who could not be mistaken for Crawford, who was a world apart from Dietrich. It was in the interest of the studio to make each star one of a kind, and the Drag performers have done the same with their characters. My mission is to capture that individuality — I study their work, watch their performances online (I began the project during quarantine and thus couldn’t see them live), and see interviews to get a sense of their personality. Before we begin shooting, I sit down with the performer and a book of images of leading ladies. We discuss the feeling of the images, the sense of resolve and strength that the actresses conveyed by the force of those personas. Usually, they’re movie buffs and already familiar with the individual images! Because I approach their Drag work with respect, I feel I create a safe space for them to express their characters from a place of power and confidence. That’s what you see in the images — the force of personality. And personality is beautiful. 

How do you find your subjects? Are they absolutely willing to sit for you or do you have to coax any of them to take part? Do you get to know them before the shoot?

DG: I decided early on that I wanted to work with performers who had created their own characters, as opposed to those who did mainly impersonations. I also wanted to work with performers whose characters evolved over time, so I felt it was best to approach those who had been in the business for a couple of decades or more. Some of the Drag queens in the project have been working for as long as forty years in Drag!

I can confidently say that you don’t have to do much coaxing to get a Drag queen in front of a camera! They all responded to the concept and shared my love of Hollywood stars. I’ve discovered that the world of Drag is a little like a sorority — performers who have been working this long all know each other. The first queen I reached out to was Mrs. Kasha Davis, who couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming to me and to the project. She introduced me to the other queens in the Rochester area, and I worked with 5 performers over two days. On the strength of those images, I was able to approach other Drag queens around the country, who were then so helpful in making additional connections for me. I feel that by the time we are actually shooting, I’ve done a lot of research, so I’m able to speak intelligently about their character and ask the right questions to learn more. 

Mrs. Kasha Davis ©Dana Goldstein

You mentioned that there are personal narratives that will accompany the portraits? Are you interviewing each person? Can you give us some insight on the kind of things they write about?

DG: It became clear to me very quickly that the stories of these performers and characters needed a place in the project and were a big part of the decision to publish it as a book. After the shoot, I send each performer a shortlist of questions about the inspirations for their character, what their character’s message is, what they want their audience to come away with. I also ask a couple of questions specific to each performer’s history and their experience in the Drag world, and how they feel that has impacted their work. Lady Bunny, for example, writes eloquently about the sense of mentorship and camaraderie within the Drag world. Michael Lynch talks about paying homage to the amazing black actresses and singers he grew up watching. Darienne Lake discusses body image and how her character helped her feel a sense of pride and self-confidence that was difficult to feel in real life. 

Do you view this series differently than your commercial lifestyle work? Do you approach it the same?

DG: In all circumstances, I enjoy interacting with my subjects, whether they are models, or the artists I’ve profiled in their studios, or the Drag queens of this project. Everyone has a story to tell! I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds and outlooks. One theme in my life that applies to my work as well is that I’ve always enjoyed working with middle-aged and older people, even when I was quite young. I think that comes from my original teenage love of Hollywood. When I was growing up, many classic stars were still active — Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn. When I looked at them, I didn’t only see them at 70 or 80. In my mind, I saw them at 30, vibrant and glowing. I could see their youth inside, and I continue to see that in everyone I work with. 

Lady Bunny ©Dana Goldstein

How much control do you have over the styling - makeup and clothing? How much direction do you offer the subject?​​

DG: I encourage each performer to bring a costume or two that is really reflective of their character’s personality. Because the project is entirely in black and white, I suggest that they concentrate on pattern or sparkle as opposed to color, and take pictures of the costumes they’re considering in black and white on their phone. They usually send me a few choices, and I pick a couple of gowns and wigs because it’s important to see in person how a gown moves. They do their own makeup before arriving and get into costume at the studio. It’s thrilling to see someone anonymous in street clothes and sunglasses go downstairs to change, and Lady Bunny walk up the steps! While shooting, there’s always music and banter. Drag queens are true professionals who understand how they look on camera. I always shoot tethered, so they have the opportunity to see how the light is catching them and how we can take advantage of it in the line of a dress or the sparkle of jewels. 

Have you found a publisher for the book, or will you self-publish? How many Drag queens will you photograph before you feel the project is complete?

DG: I’ve reached out to many friends who have published, both with publishers and on their own, to weigh the benefits of going each route. My first choice is to work with a publishing house, as I enjoy the collaboration, but I’m prepared to do it either way. It would be wonderful to have it out in the world in time for Pride Month 2022! I’ve gotten wonderful recommendations that have led me to the editor and writer who are helping me put together the maquette of the book to shop it to publishers, likely featuring six of the performers. I’ve worked with close to twenty so far, and expect to work with about thirty altogether. Through one of my subjects, Linda Simpson, I was introduced to author and New York bon vivant Michael Musto, who has written a marvelous introduction, reflecting on the Drag scene that the performers “grew up” in. It’s a privilege to have his words introduce my images. 

Michael Lynch ©Dana Goldstein

Can you share one story from a session that stood out to you?

DG: A magical moment happened with Michael Lynch. He has a truly extraordinary, Broadway-level singing voice and performs both in and out of character. Although I don’t normally ask my subjects to “perform” as though they were in a club, I did ask him to sing because we were talking about shows he was looking forward to after quarantine. The studio is filled with a sound comparable to Sarah Vaughn or Pearl Bailey! I was able to shoot one of my favorite images of the project in that moment, one that I consider a spiritual child of the Avedon portrait of Marian Anderson, as she sings with eyes closed and face uplifted. 

What do you ultimately want to learn from this series?

DG: I’ve learned so much about perseverance and tenacity, and love. Each of these performers started long before Drag Race, long before Drag became a mainstream entertainment choice. They’ve worked in tiny clubs, without fame, without financial security, and very pre-Pride. Several are in recovery, and all watched friends and fellow performers succumb during the worst years of AIDS. They keep going for the joy of performing, the joy of making an audience happy, the joy of creating. 

What challenges have you encountered during the process of working on this personal project?

DG: I’ve been very fortunate, which has been thanks to the generosity of the performers themselves. Timing happened to be in my favor as well, as under normal circumstances, each of them would have been spending a great deal of time touring, and it would have been much harder to schedule the shoots. But in this very strange year and a half, they were home and available. Following all covid guidelines, we managed to make it happen! Now that live performance is opening up again, I have to be very strategic in planning my travel to coordinate with their once-again busy schedules. You can’t keep a Drag queen away from an appreciative audience!

Linda Simpson ©Dana Goldstein

What do you want the viewer to take away from this work?

DG: I hope that viewers — and readers — will gain a greater respect for the creativity of Drag performers and the work that has gone into investing their amazing characters with so much life and spirit. I want them to understand the inspiration behind the image and how much joy Drag queens derive from performing for them, and how much joy they hope their audiences feel in return.

Aggy Dune ©Dana Goldstein
Aggy Dune ©Dana Goldstein
Cacophony Daniels ©Dana Goldstein
Coco LaChine ©Dana Goldstein
Flotilla DeBard ©Dana Goldstein
Marti Gould Cummings ©Dana Goldstein
Paige Turner ©Dana Goldstein

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