How Nan Goldin’s Portraits of the LGBTQ+ Community Defied Diane Arbus

Photographer Nan Goldin portrayed the LGBTQ+ Community in the way it deserved, when few others would.


Photographer Nan Goldin’s pictures seem raw and real because they are raw and real. She didn’t insert herself into lives and worlds of her subjects: they were already her friends and the environment around her. The world she depicts is the scenery of her social circle and the events unfolding within it. Since a vast section of her friends are in the LGBTQ+ community, Goldin often shot pictures of them—which evidently had her compared to Diane Arbus, one of the first photographers to have work featuring trans people published.

By Nan Goldin
‘Jimmy Paulette and Taboo in the Bathroom’ By Nan Goldin

Although Arbus portrayed and worked with many individuals from the same scene, it did not make her particularly respected amongst Goldin’s friends within the community. In fact, although Goldin says she knew nothing of photography or documentary when Arbus’ pictures started getting attention in the public eye , she did know that all of her friends absolutely hated Arbus.


By Nan Goldin

There was a very specific reason behind their aversion towards Arbus. In her body of work that would later be known as a photographic series of ‘freaks and outcasts’ (, Arbus stripped down her subjects and portrayed them as men. The visual dialogue she was perpetuating didn’t sit well with Goldin’s friends back in the 1960s, as Goldin told The Guardian in 2014.

“To me, the queens were not men. My work was much more respectful to them. I’ve never thought of a drag queen as a man. That’s really the last thing I think about when I look at them. They weren’t women either, by the way, they were another species.”



Herein lies the difference. In a time when homosexuality was not accepted by the majority of the western world – in fact, it was still listed as a mental illness until 1973 – Diane Arbus’ gaze defined her subjects as objects, reducing them to function as sources of fascination or entertainment for her viewers. Arbus may not necessarily have thought of these people as freaks, but her camera did: she did not refrain it from exaggerating her subjects’ ‘difference’, mirroring how her audience already saw members of the LGBTQ+ community at the time.

Even the best photographers struggle getting past the veil of subjectivity that comes with portraying human beings. Most will not be able to completely do away with their predispositions towards the people they meet, but that’s what separates Goldin’s work from Arbus’: Goldin merged her internal assumptions with the complexities of reality—whereas Arbus left no room for reality to disarm the assumptions of her camera.

Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! undressing, NYC 1991 by Nan Goldin born 1953

One could question if this perspective was a result of Arbus’ time. Diane Arbus was born in 1923 and lived within a society that had little understanding of or tolerance towards anything considered ‘outside the norm’. We may never know to what extent Arbus’ work reflected her own world view—or if her work was seen through a lens coloured by society’s beliefs and therefore defined as a representation of them. However, we do know that Goldin added an empathetic and relatable element to her work which Arbus lacked. Goldin referred to photography as “a way of touching someone—a form of tenderness”. Ultimately, that tenderness discredited the dehumanization Arbus’ work perpetuated—opening up and legitimizing the queer community to a much larger audience than ever before.