Ryan in the Tub

Collected Works: Art


Ryan in the Tub, Provincetown, Massachusetts

by Nan Goldin

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From above, we see a body positioned awkwardly within dingy bathwater. We seem to be intruding upon a private moment, stumbling upon closed eyes. But perhaps this is a pose, an act for the lens; it is difficult to tell. The frame of the woman before us is sharp, angular, and androgynous. Her forename, typically male, warns against gendered assumptions. The camera angle compounds the uncertainty; we are denied the soft, curvaceous outline of the idealised female nude.

This figure is Ryan, a close friend and one-time roommate of Nan Goldin. The photograph is lifted from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a slideshow exhibition of unclothed women, many of whom the artist knew well. Ryan in the Tub appears as a spontaneous snapshot, an intimate exploration of Goldin’s reconstructed family. Along with its parent work, it punctured the narrowly defined sexual norms of America during the seventies.

Some may consider the image to be explicit, but Ryan does not attempt to seduce us; she seems contentedly oblivious to our presence. Accordingly, the tub of the title evokes photo-album snaps of young children playing in shallow baths. Goldin places her nude at the centre of this complex of tensions, defying the hypersexualisation of adult women in commercial imagery, so often stripped bare and thrust forth as objects of pleasure.

Goldin aimed to present her subjects ‘without glamorization, without glorification’, but Ryan in the Tub remains a decidedly glorious image. Ryan is raised deliberately to the lens, celebrated through physical elevation. The only patch of light visible in the dimly lit, grainy photograph illuminates her face. The inelegance we may first perceive in her posture is supplanted by defiance, the watery surrounds channelled to affirm the fluidity of gender.

Words by Sophia Martin-Pavlou

More to discover

View more photographs from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency on Vogue. Rebecca Bengal has interviewed Nan Goldin for Vogue, as has Sean O'Hagan for The Observer (UK). Hilton Als has written about the series for The New Yorker, as have Ken Johnson for The New York Times and Elyssa Goodman for Hyperallergic.

Question of the day

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