i’ll be your mirror: reflecting on diane arbus and nan goldin

“I’ll be your mirror. Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know…”

Listening to “I’ll be your Mirror” unlocks the memory of the song’s place in Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” It articulates the relationship between her and her tightly-knit community of friends who lived hard and died hard during the late ‘70’s to late 80’s in what is considered to be the last great countercultural scene in NYC. In another radical New York that preceded Goldin’s by approximately 15 years, one can imagine Lou Reed penning the song he wrote for Nico in some downtown dive while Diane Arbus roamed the streets nearby, Rolliflex around her neck, searching for her own beloved misfits.

The song remains the same. The two photographers couldn’t be more different.

While both Arbus and Goldin used New York’s storied underbelly of outsider culture as their inspiration, there is an obvious distinction between them: Goldin shot her inner circle of downtown bohemians who were artists, musicians, drug dealers, and fringe dwellers. To any uptown rubbernecker who might have drifted down to the Bowery for kicks, these people were misfits, weirdos, trash. But to Goldin, her friends were the true insiders. They were the beautiful ones, and she documented them with love and respect, and with an unflinching honesty that can make her photographs as stark to look at as they are exquisitely rendered.

Arbus referred to her subjects as her “freaks,” objects of her “sweet lust.” They were not her friends, although she immersed herself fully into their lives, cultivating relationships with them in a manner that was obsessively curious if not downright microscopic in ambition. In this world, it was Arbus who was the outsider, born into a wealth she rejected — the department store Russeks on 5th Avenue was owned by her parents — and gaining insider status by willfully stalking her subjects before descending into their subterranean world. No Alice through the looking glass, a more common description of Arbus is “Sylvia Plath behind the lens.” In “Good Pictures,” Janet Malcolm’s review of the Arbus monograph “Revelations” (New York Review of Books), she quotes the late Jonathan Lieberson, who in 1984 in the same magazine complained that “(Arbus’) photographs call too much attention to her, one is too much reminded that her success as a photographer consists in her ‘figuring’ herself into a strange situation…” Here, the mirror is a distorted one: it reflects back upon the woman behind the lens, and her own desire to choose the very shot on the contact sheet that portrays her subject in alignment with the underworld that existed in her mind. Arbus’ subjects stare right back at her (and us) and the moment is shaped by an inner psychiatric discomfort, mostly on Arbus’ side of the camera. When you look at selected contact sheets in the Arbus monograph “Revelations,” you will find her methodology of choosing the frame that captures the moment where her subjects momentarily let the veil lift. She was a master at understanding the involuntary “micro expression” on the faces of her subjects. She is oft quoted: “You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”

Goldin holds a mirror up to her subjects in another way. She has stated that her camera always felt like an extension of her self, but she didn’t want to insert that self in her photographs of friends. It is not necessary that they make eye contact with the camera: her photographs are as confrontational as Arbus, but Goldin seeks to disarm the viewer with her honesty. She is unsparing in presenting the lives of her friends: we witness their hurt and longing, but also the palpable thrill of living an unfettered life. As dark as many of her photographs are, they are a celebration of individuality and how brightly her friends burned through their lives. Viewing the large and ever-changing body of work that makes up “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” slideshow, one cannot help but feel an emotional connection to her subjects. It hardly matters that she carefully staged some of her photographs. The fact that many of her friends died from AIDS makes the series even more poignant. Ecstatic and tragic narratives intersect with Goldin’s evocative musical playlist: Maria Callas performing “Casta Diva” nudges up against the aforementioned “I’ll be your Mirror” with Klaus Nomi’s inimitable “You Don’t Own Me” following on its heels.

Goldin’s documentation of her collective underground scene is a reflection of the individuals who are a part of it. Arbus’ documentation of her “freaks” is a reflection, not of any collective scene, but of her own singular view of the world. There is so much debate about Arbus and her dark-adapted eye. In my twenties, I fell in love with her work. She felt like a fearless psychological hunter, able to see through the lens and into the beating heart of her subjects. It is hard for me to accuse her of exploitation: her “freaks” seem at least to possess a self-awareness: they appear comfortable in their own skin. She places her most unforgiving eye on subjects who appear as well-born as her: she takes quite possibly the creepiest baby shots in the entire photographic oeuvre. (I’m talking to you, Anderson Cooper!) This alone seems proof that she saw more beauty in the marginal. And yet I still wonder about the kind of compassion she felt for her subjects. It feels quite different from what Goldin demonstrated. Looking just at the following two shots alone, we can compare the feeling and intention behind them.

left: Nan Goldin, “Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo in the Bathroom, NYC, 1991” right: Diane Arbus, “A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, N.Y.C. 1966”

First of all, the Arbus photograph of the young man in curlers is frequently misattributed to Goldin. One google search of her work will prove that. However, the Goldin shot of Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo is never attributed to Arbus. Anyone with any familiarity with Arbus knows that she shot in a square black and white format. But that oversimplifies the difference.

When we think of Goldin’s love and understanding of queer subculture, she presents the articulation of drag as a form of authentic self-expression. Jimmy Paulette is not quite dressed yet, but he is in a state of becoming. He is not vulnerable. He is relaxed and confident.

Arbus’ young man in curlers is relaxed as well. But the mood is different. Like Jimmy Paulette, he is not dressed yet and he’s in between his masculine and soon-to-be feminine expressions of self. Arbus is prodding at his psyche. She’s investigating the young man’s liminal state within his own state of becoming. She’s curious about him, but she is less invested in his authentic self than his naked self. Is an investment in one better than the other? It does raise questions about authenticity and intention, but the world of documentary photography is full of practitioners who have their own agendas.

It has always been tempting to demonize Arbus for creating a body of work that reflects more upon her own distressed spirit than that of her subjects (grab your copy of Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” for an object lesson on that.) The photographic depictions of Goldin’s relationship to her subjects feel more emotionally visceral than what we see in Arbus’ work. But as stated, that is because the subjects were Goldin’s intimate friends. Arbus may have kept in contact with many of her subjects and formed some version of friendship with them — however short — but her ability to strip her subjects of their defenses while pinning them under her microscopic gaze tipped the scales of emotional power balance in her favor. And yet the photographs themselves remain some of the most potent, unsettling and beautiful images to emerge in the 20th century. Add to that the cult of fascination that is devoted to excavating every granular detail about Arbus’ turbulent life and work. The more we know, the more we want to know. When she said “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know” little did she realize that this secret would also hold true about her as well. But then again, maybe she anticipated that it would.

For many years, I’ve documented a group of my friends getting ready for Pride and Halloween events. I’m not sure where these photographs fit within the emotional divide that separates Arbus’ work from Goldin’s, or whether that even matters. While I observe the pre-party of getting dressed and slipping into drag personas, I find myself looking for rare moments that are less performative. If I’m honest, I’ll admit I can’t seem to escape from a desire to mimic Arbus, if only for her attention to unguarded moments. But I hope that like Goldin, I’m showing how much I love my friends and that my photographs celebrate their pleasure in playing with not just satin and stockings, but their identity.

gordon, 201o / photograph: stephanie power