Insiders / Outsiders and Documentary Photography

_FJ11249The Abigail Solomon-Godeau Essay Inside/Outside

Solomon-Godeau in Inside/Outside ( i ) puts forward the argument that  that Susan Sontag and Martha Rosler ( ii ) are being simplistic when they categorise photographers into “good” insiders or “bad” outsiders, labelling outsiders as voyeurs and insiders as subjective and confessional. Sontag and Rosler’s perspective could be summarised as the photographer as an outsider is a tourist who commits an act of violence towards, and steals something from, their subjects.

She goes on to look at the work of a number of “insiders” including Nan Goldin and Larry Clark who in different ways photographed people with whom they were intimately linked. She asks whether the fact that they are, or are portrayed as, insiders removes the notion of voyeurism or whether they still risk only portraying the exterior of their subjects as opposed to revealing an “interior truth”. Charlotte Cotton (2) points towards many other photographers who are cast in a similar mould including , Richard Billingham, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Annelies Strba.

Outsider documentary photographers are obviously far more numerous but Diane Arbus is one of the more interesting artists to consider in this context as her subject matter has some cross over with Nan Goldin. Arbus’ work is admired and criticised in equal measure, but Sontag, who accused Arbus of of nihilism ( iii ) is quoted by Gerry Badger (8) as saying that “her view is always from the outside”  and according to John A. Benigno (7) “more that any other photographer before and after,  she forces us to question the morality of photography.”

Richard Billingham Ray’s a Laugh

I reviewed Richard Billngham’s Ray’s a Laugh (4) as part of TAoP (here), and tried to understand his motives when he captured the images of his chronically alcoholic father and how he retrospectively viewed these photographs.  It is relevant to note that he never set out to publish intimate photographs of his family. Billingham took these pictures as a way of studying gesture in the context of his fine art degree, and now believes that few people get beyond the obvious subject matter and identity or understand his intent. Unknowingly I addressed the subject of insider / outsider as part of my review:

“If the photographer had been from outside the family they might be perceived as being opportunistic, a voyeur, exploitive and merely creating drama from misery, and perhaps the publisher was guilty of these things. But, of all the challenging issues this work raises I find this the easiest to reconcile. There is a detached affection in these photos which are the work of a young man whose interest in nature and ambitions to be an artist appear at odds with his environment. I believe he uses his camera and sketch pad as his way of looking at and understanding a family that appear to be sliding down a slippery slope that he has stepped off or avoided ever being on. He may not be rejecting his family but his work has provided him with a screen through which to observe them, a way to translate them into something that he can understand and even use as part of the foundation of his work. ( iv )”

The relevant point here is that Billingham, although an insider, was not attempting to help us see inside his subjects, in fact quite the opposite, he was very specifically capturing their exterior. The art world has read many meanings into his work that were never intended to be there.

Nan Goldin

Cotton explains that also Goldin was, at first, not taking photographs with the intent to publish them. Goldin says “…. photography saved my life. Every time I go through something scary, traumatic, I survive by taking pictures.” (3) Her photographs are a diary of her friends, their lives, her life and a way of holding on to people, confirming their presence and, in her words, “about keeping a record of the lives I lost, so they cannot be completely obliterated from memory.” (3) Over time they became an exploration of sexuality, gender, addiction, violence, relationships and dependencies but this was not her initial intent.

Goldin’s photographic journey began in the 1970’s when she was introduced to the Boston drag scene. The subjects of transsexuality, subcultures and the people that lived on the fringes of society would all become major themes of her work. In the late 70s she moved to New York and immersed herself in the nocturnal world of punk-rock, a world of shared apartments and an endless round of parties, drugs, alcohol and sex. The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (11), her major work that came out of this time, is the archetypical insider documentary. An intimate diary of, what she called her tribe, of friends, family, lovers and their intertwined relationships with her. She describes the photographs as “stark”, “all flash-lit. “I honestly didn’t know about natural light them and how it affected the colour of the skin because I never went out in daylight “(9). The work was presented as slide shows, projected onto the walls of Tin Pan Alley, a NYC club, and not published as a book until 1986. Gerry Badger (8) believes that the layout of the book – women alone and together, men alone and together, children, marriage, sex, death highlights the underlying subject matter as relationships and the conflicting nature of relationships that can be simultaneously nurturing and corrosive.

Stylistically the work is held up as an example of “snapshot aesthetic” the images are often over lit with hard flash or blurred and casually composed. Goldin explains that this was no so much an intentional aesthetic as a desire to take the picture regardless of the available light. “Sometimes I use a very slow shutter speed and they come out blurred but it was never an intention. It (also) used to be because I was drunk (6)” but she identifies that the snapshot is something that people take of the people they love and that it was therefore wholly appropriate to her work at this time (8).

The slide shows that came out of this work became part of the social scene of the city, despite the intimacy and often unflattering  poses, friends and acquaintances came to see whether and how they were included and  far from being offended her subjects turned viewers were flattered to feature in her work. (6)

Badger (8) points out that she “photographs like a predatory voyeur” but that the results are not voyeuristic.  He believes her non-judgemental approach resolves this contradiction and explains her acceptance by her subjects but I prefer Mihaela Precup’s (6) idea that, by including and intimately revealing herself in her work “exposed, upset, naked, out of control, having sex”, she made it very clear that she was part of the greater scene that she was documenting, she was inside the group despite being the person holding the camera and therefore potentially in a position of power, most of her work “represents a democratic solidarity with her subjects” (6).  Goldin herself expands upon this idea “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing: this is my party: this is my family: my history. (10)”

At times Goldin’s photographs move beyond  the simply intimate and challenge her audience to confront taboos. Much of her work subverts our preconceptions of gender, especially her long term themes of transsexuality and drag queens, and her intense and moving narrative on the impact of AIDS in New York’s gay community. It is the extended series of photos of drag queens that tempt people to compare her with Diane Arbus who captured similar subjects but she herself dismisses this idea at two levels. Firstly and most importantly she recalls that when she lived with drag queens in the 70’s they “hated her (Arbus), violently” (9) because she stripped them of their identity and showed them as men. Goldin says that she neither saw them as men nor women but as “another species”. She puts great value on the ethic of respect and even today she still asks permission of her subjects before she publishes photos of them. She did not build trust with her subjects in the way that an outsider documentarist would have to, she automatically had their trust as a member of the tribe. She identified with the social alienation of AIDS sufferers, transvestites and homosexuals because she shared their space on the margins of society in both a physical and metaphorical sense.

Solomon-Godeau is asking whether, because she is an insider, we see behind the exteriors of her friends, whether we gain a real insight, see more deeply, understand better.

In some ways this question misses the real point of her work which, as pointed out by Badger, is self-centred and autobiographical, the rest of her tribe are a significant part of her life but we are seeing them from her viewpoint, not a planned and constructed viewpoint but seemingly, casual snapshots of her interactions with them. When they are happy we assume she is part of that joy, when they are grieving we realise that she is capturing her own grief, when they are naked we suspect that she is equally vulnerable behind the camera. Her photographs take us deep into her world and she communicates her emotional history to us via those images. We develop an empathy with her drag queens, feel sadness when we see Vittorio and Cookie in their caskets and share her joy in the children of her living and dead friends.

JeiJei (10) argues that the world that Goldin photographed was only accessible to an insider but I suggest that this is only partially true. An outsider could have accessed many of her subjects, Diane Arbus had previously done so with her photos of homosexuals and drag queens. The difference is that her subjects turned viewers and the rest of us, the real outsider viewers, know that she was part of the marginal worlds she photographed, her inclusion as a subject emphasises this point, and this assured her subjects of her motives and the rest of us of a real intimacy that is impossible to replicate as an outsider.

A question remains, perhaps to be considered at another time:  does the fact that she was not a voyeur prevent her photographs from being voyeuristic? Is voyeurism determined by the viewer or the photographer?

Diane Arbus

Nan Goldin is often mentioned in association with  Diane Arbus but, apart from characteristics that are shared by many contemporary documentary photographers such as their observational skills, a willingness to photograph subject matter that many would consider as taboo and a connection to their subjects, there appear to more opposites than similarities. Goldin herself rejects any such comparison arguing that whilst they shared an unusual degree of empathy  “she was a photographic genius and I am not.” (3) Guido Costa, Goldin’s friend and curator, argues that any similarities are superficial, “There is no covert documentary or ideological purpose to Goldin’s work, but a pure determination to capture the moment.” (13)

In the context of this discussion the pertinent difference to consider is between Goldin the sympathetic insider and Arbus the ultimate outsider, who is often portrayed as detached, cold, lacking compassion,  manipulative and, in Sontag’s view, a middle class voyeur (7). Sontag appears to be both fascinated and repulsed by  Arbus’ work and her writings have created an accepted view of her work that is often repeated by critics and lesser writers but this repetition often feels more like acquired wisdom than original thought.

In John Benigno’s view (7) Arbus’ suicide in 1971 gave her cult status alongside Les Enfants Terribles of the 60’s – Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix – a romantic, tragic, brilliant and tortured artist; Sontag believes her tragedy guaranteed that her work was forever seen as sincere, not voyeuristic, compassionate and somehow dangerous (1), descriptions that Sontag fundamentally disagrees with. There seems little doubt that death can radically alter an artist’s status, and suicide even more so,  but the debate regarding her motives may never be resolved.

Her own words in the preface to Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (14) are not always helpful. Quotes from the 60s and 70’s have the potential to mislead as much as they enlighten us. Her repeated description of her subjects as “freaks” and the use of terms like “big lesbians”, “hard-core lesbians”, “winos”, “whores” and “retarded” all help to create an image of a prejudiced and unsympathetic outsider but this is weak evidence given these terms, whilst undoubtably unpleasant, were in common use at the time. Overall her quotes reveal an ability to befriend her subjects, although she does describe herself as “kind of two-faced”, and that she never was a covert street photographer.

Time and again reviewers and critics ask how she obtained such unrestricted access to her subjects, John Benigno (7) wonders “why did they let her do this to them?” , what was it about this woman’s personality that she could bridge the divide between the outsider and her subjects with apparent ease? Several theories have been put forward, some simply relate to her looks and personality, Benigno describes her as “luminous, with large green eyes, a delicate, exotic face and a slim body”, “nubile” and that every photo of her contains a sexual charge.

A number of writers, who have studied extracts from her diaries, point out that she had a remarkable ability to form relationships with her subjects. Arthur Lubow, writing in The New York Times (16) describes how she could meet and photograph a person in Central Park and somehow convince them to take her to their home to photograph them again in more revealing circumstances. This theme is picked up by Carol Vogel, writing in the same newspaper (17) when she says that her diaries reveal that she formed long term relations with some of her subjects: “it could take 10 years for her to produce her best photographs of that subject”. More controversially William Todd Schultz, who wrote a biography of Arbus ( vi ) which was reviewed by Olivia Cole (19), interviewed a number of people who knew Arbus including some of her subjects and those interviews suggest that she had, on different occasions “participated in group sex”. Shultz says that “sex came to dominate her life and her work” and was so central that “her subjects could excite her physically as well as imaginatively”.

In a different context Lauren Trainer (18) also points out that many of her projects were far from snapshots of daily life in New York, she explains that Arbus had been photographing transvestites for eight years before a single photograph of them was made public and that it is possible that she never expected any of this work to be seen given the social constraints of the 50s and 60s. Even when it was displayed in 1967 in the New Documents exhibition at MOMA ( vii ) the photo librarian recalls coming in early each day to wipe the spit off her photos. Yet she continued to photograph these subjects, many of them the same people,  from 1957 until 1965. Trainer believes that this project was simply an example of her fascination with masks, which we see in many of her photos, and how external signifiers in general are used in an attempt to portray the image we have of ourselves. She starts by photographing the finished article, drag queens working in NYC clubs, but developed the theme as she became closer to her subjects by photographing the process of applying the mask, of dressing as a women or pretending to be a women even when naked. As ever this work must be seen in its historical context, homosexuality was considered to be sexual deviancy. Her subjects were on the outer fringes of society. This was not a place where a wealthy Jewish girl would normally be found.

These examples apparently contradict the image of the cold, distant, outsider and ask us to look at Arbus in a different light.

Turning the pages of Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (14) the subjects can be loosely divided into three groups; people who are on the margins of society (often the same margins frequented by Nan Goldin); people who are flouting the conventions of their time or people that would neatly fit into the norms of “middle America”. This is a quite obvious observation but it leads to the realisation that Arbus reserves her most subtle, dignified and respectful photographs for her most marginalised subjects. The Russian midgets are not photographed as circus freaks but as people in an ordinary domestic setting, Jenny Dubnau (15) points out that they do not look ashamed, they stare right into the camera, they appear quite comfortable with themselves and with the photographer. She is generous to the marginalised and the rebellious, the young women smoking a cigar in Washington Square Park is one of the softest and most flattering portraits in the book; for a women to smoke in public in 1965 was to flout convention, to openly smoke a cigar was to suggest “sexual deviancy”. ( v ) The Mexican dwarf is photographed, nearly naked on his bed, he is boldly displaying his physique, looking assured and confident. The transvestite at her birthday party is happily enjoying the moment. The burlesque comedienne in her dressing room poses to show her shapely legs and carefully made-up face. The hermaphodrite and a dog is not a photo of a person embarrassed by their gender.

The point being that there is no sign of ridicule, no sense that she is poking fun at these marginalised people, no carefully chosen angles to exaggerate any unusual characteristics (the Jewish giant might be the exception that proves the rule). But when she turns her camera on the “normal” people, comfortable in their safe place inside society, she often uses hard flash, ultra closeup framing and unflattering angles. It is these “normal” people that she lampoons in a style that Martin Parr made his own a few decades later.

We are left to interpret Arbus based on a limited amount of published work, a few quotes and the views of many observers. For me the most telling view is that of John Szarkowski in his introduction to the New Documents Exhibition ( vii )(20):

“Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand.” “what is held in common (by these photographers) is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorising.”

There is no doubt that Arbus was an outsider, she had a troubled upbringing in a wealthily family, married young and against her parent’s will, became and then became disillusioned with being a fashion photographer and, in a  concentrated ten year career, became one of the most influential documentary portraitists in history. She felt marginalised by society and gravitated towards other people, perhaps more obviously, on those margins. She ingratiated herself with her chosen subjects and built long term, but probably quite shallow, relationships with many of them. Her upbringing is likely to have left her emotionally dysfunctional, her reported obsessive sexual appetites would support this theory, and she was intrigued by the way we change our exterior to project the image we want the world to see which might hint at her own desire or tendency to do this herself.

To return to the central question of whether being an outsider prevented her from “producing a successful documentary project”, – quite obviously not. Her photographs are a captivating record of a particular group of people living in a particular place over a ten year period. They do not attempt to describe the whole of society, just a few unusual people inside and outside the main stream. All her subjects are interesting, even the most ordinary ones, and she offers an unique insight into human behaviour at a specific point in history. Against any measure it is a successful project and one that could not have been captured as an insider.

My final comparison was to look at The Ballard of Sexual Dependency and Monograph at the same time. Goldin’s approach could never have created Monograph any more than Arbus could have created The Ballard of Sexual Dependency. Both are valuable on an artistic level and as a testament of the two women’s times. Both are personal viewpoints, both are empathetic and engaged, both are books that can inspire, threaten, shock and ultimately force us to look at ourselves and our attitude towards those on the fringes of our society.

Notes on Text

( i ) Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s 1994 essay Inside/Outside is summarised in Ashley la Grange’s Basic Critical Theory for Photographers (1).  

( ii ) I considered the views of Martha Rosler in an earlier essay – Critical Debates Around Photojournalism, which looked at whether Rosler had been fair in her criticism of documentary photographers in general and specifically Lewis Hine. 

( iii ) The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philiosophy (6) defines nihilism as “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy”

( iv ) Extracted from my essay written for TAoP – Ray’s a Laugh – Richard Billingham.

( v ) Researching Diane Arbus’ times opened my eyes to the level of institutionalised homophobia that existed in America in the 50s and through to the 70s. The American Government believed that homosexuals were in some way linked to communism, a direct threat to the security and safety of the republic. Government documents talked of the threat of “sexual deviants” and “the influence of perverts”. See Laureen Trainer (18). It is worth noting that when Nan Goldin was photographing AIDS sufferers in the 80’s there were calls for homosexuals to be “exterminated” to eradicate the disease. See Mihaela Precup (6)

( vi ) William Todd Schultz’s biography was published in 2011, titled An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus. I have not had access to this book and have therefore not included it in my sources but I was able to find a review written by Olivia Cole in July 2011 in the Daily Beast (19)

( vii ) The New Documents Exhibition was held at the Musuem of Modern Art in 1967. Curated by John Szarkowski, the MOMA’s Photography Director it featured the work of three photographs: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. It is considered to be a millstone in the history of art photography.



(1) le Grange, Ashley. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Kindle edition. Oxford: Focal Press

(2) Cotton, Charlotte. (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. New edition 2009. London: Thames and Hudson.

(4) Billingham, Richard (1996) Ray’s a Laugh: Errata Edition Books on Books (2014) New York: Errata Editions

(8) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(11) Goldin, Nan (1986) The Ballard of Sexual dependency. 2012 re-Issue edition. New York: Aperture

(12) Durden, Mark ( 2014) Photography Today. London: Phaidon Press.

(13) Higgins, Jackie. (2013) Why it Does Not have to be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained. London: Thames and Hudson

(14) Arbus, Diane. (1972) Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. Fortieth anniversary edition 2011-2012. New York: Aperture.

(15) Bunnell, Peter C. (2006) Inside The Photograph: Writings on Twentieth-Century Photography. Papeback edition 2009. New York: Aperture


(3) Foto Tapeta (accessed 2014) Nan Goldin interviewed by Adam Mazur and Paulina Skirgajllo-Krajewska: If I want to take a picture, I take it no matter what. –

(5) Arbus, Diane (accessed 2014) Collected Works –

(6) Precup, Mihaela. Nan Goldin: The Wound Which Speaks of Unremembered Time: Nan Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio and the Autobriographis of Mourning. (accessed 2014 on American Suburbx) –

(7) Benigno, John A. (2011) Diane Arbus (accessed 2014 on Masters of Photography) –

(9) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) Nan Goldin: “I wanted to Get High From a Really Early Age” (accessed 2014 at The Guardian) –

(10) Fei, JeiJei (2007) The Ballard of Nan Goldin : Subversion of Gender and Photography. (accessed 2014)

(15) Dubnau, Jenny (2012) Rough Empathy: The Photographs of Diane Arbus. (accessed 2014 at Artcritical) –

(16) Lubow, Arthur (2003) Arbus Reconsidered. (accessed 2014 at the New York Times) –

(17) Vogel, Carol (2007) A Big Gift for the Met: The Arbus Archives. (accessed 2014 at The New York Times) –

(18) Trainer, Laureen. Diane Arbus: The Missing Photographs: An Examination of Diane Arbus’ Images of Transvestites and Homosexuals from 1957 to 1965. (accessed 2014 on American Suburbx) –

(19) Cole, Olivia (2011) Diane Arbus’ Dark Secrets (accessed 2014 on The Daily Beast) –

(20) The Museum of Modern Art (1967) press release for the New Documents exhibition (accessed 2014 at –

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