Let me see your handbag, Jeremy Goldberg said to fashion icon Iman. He made her dump all its contents on a table. Then he instructed her to stand against the wall, and he shot her and all of the items she'd been carrying.
The resulting images are part of the Los Angeles–based photographer's Purseonal project. For four years, Goldberg has been asking women around the globe—famous personalities like actresses Emmanuelle Chriqui and Stephanie March and Facebook Vice President Carolyn Everson, as well as district attorneys, students, and commuters—if he can rummage through their purses and wallets and photograph the mysteries contained therein. He then pairs mugshot-style portraits of each woman with her purse(onal) cargo. To date, Goldberg has photographed more than 300 women in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Malaysia, and Singapore; he recently exhibited some of the results at Tokyo Photo 2014.
Goldberg is drawn to learn more about his subjects by exposing what they carry when they think nobody is looking. "Women's purses are generally off limits," he explains. "Even a husband would never dump out his wife's purse and go through the items, but that's exactly what I've been doing."
Goldberg generally shoots fashion and portraiture—actors, musicians, company executives, etc.—for publications ranging from Adweek to Gotham and advertising clients including Oxfam and Sony. He points out that magazines often include a "what's in your bag" or "what's on your desk" feature, but they're not real. Readers hoping to gain insight into the personal lives of celebs instead see photos that are typically staged with products the celebrities endorse. "I didn't want to see Zooey Deschanel's perfect lip glosses, but the hair tie used to hold her credit cards together," he explains. "I didn't want to see a model's perfect life, but her juvenile court summons....I'm much more interested in seeing someone's unpaid parking tickets, Starbucks receipts, etc."
Purses have long been symbols of status or style. For Samantha in Sex in the City, the trendy Birkin was a must-have bag because of its popularity among the glitterati; Meryl Streep, in her role as fashion editor Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, used her lineup of purses to reinforce her power and intimidate her subordinates. World leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Michelle Obama, or Queen Elizabeth II have used a well-selected bag to put citizens at ease with a feeling of normalcy or set a "get-down-to-business" tone. Last fall, "Scandal" star Kerry Washington accessorized with a purple Prada clutch she designed to raise awareness about "domestic violence and financial abuse."
So if the outside of a purse can communicate so much about its owner, what can the insides reveal? In Goldberg's words:
The outside represents how people want to be seen, but the inside represents who they really are—most people never expect anyone to see inside their purse, so there's no artifice. But it's open to interpretation. What does it say when someone carries a huge purse but it's almost empty? What does it say when they carry an asthma inhaler, almonds and a pack of cigarettes? What does it say when their purse and their face is perfect, but the inside of their purse looks like a crime scene? There are so many unusual little items. One person had a note reminder not to kill themselves but just to buy needles—turned out it was about knitting needles for an arts and crafts project.
Goldberg includes everything within his subjects' bags in his photos, but artfully arranges the contents to "hide or highlight" various items, balancing a respect for personal privacy with his own curiosity and desire for unvarnished truth. Identification cards or prescription information, for example, are judiciously covered in a way that does not expose drug names or account numbers. Viewers are invited to pore over the details and construct their own narratives from the objects presented.
Though the actual shoot with his digital cameras lasts a speedy 5 to 10 minutes (the majority of which are devoted to arranging the contents) and have the look of quick snapshots, it has taken Goldberg a long time to work out the tools and aesthetic for the images. He collaborated with German designer Thomas Schostok to create a presentation that combines the portrait and still life with salient details about the subjects—name, city of birth, occupation, location, date of portrait, and type of purse. The images and information are digitally collaged onto a dirty and distressed index card that could have been pulled from the bottom of the bags he photographs.
As for getting permission from his subjects, Goldberg says most people will quickly consent to posing for the portrait but hesitate when they realize they have to dump out their purse. "There's a moment of panic," he says. "I see them mentally cataloguing how embarrassing the contents of their purse may be before they agree."
Given the intimate relationship women have with the things they carry, strong reactions aren't surprising. Says Goldberg, "One woman said it was a bit of a thrill for her, as her husband got to see her naked, but even he wouldn't go through her purse."
This is part of The Photo Bank, a recurring feature on Money.com dedicated to conceptual photography on financial issues. Submissions are welcome and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com at email@example.com.