A Volume of Loss

T Clutch Fleischmann

The opening image of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is “Nan on Brian’s lap, Nan’s birthday, New York City 1981.” Nan wears pearls and a green dress, her arms slung across Brian’s shoulders and one hand on top of the other. She smiles: red lipstick and her hair done. It’s the type of smile you expect to see in a snapshot, not entirely sincere, the lips pulled back a bit too tightly and the eyes too directly facing the camera. What really betrays it, however, is Brian, his white shirt unbuttoned and his skin pale. Brian isn’t smiling, but instead his mouth hangs slack, his eyes unfocused. More than Nan’s, Brian’s look reads as sincere. It’s what they imply together, a washer and a dryer in the unfocused background. Domestic, a birthday, not really joyful. She sits on his lap, kind of smiles, and they look forward.

Is it possible that preserving the past ensures a future? Nan and Brian appear to all the world like a straight couple, his oxford and her pearls on the anniversary of a birth. But as the slideshow progresses, other lovers enter and the Ballad is queered. Two people fuck wearing matching lingerie, women lounge in Nan’s bed, and in its intimacy Goldin suggests sex while insisting that sex does not define us. Photographing this particular past is not preserving something static. Instead, it preserves a challenge, asking you to leave it for something different. In the introduction, Goldin says “the accumulation of these pictures comes closer to the experience of memory, a story without end.”

The only reason a narrative concludes is so that it might be told again from the start, made into a tight package. I thought I was falling in love with my ex-boyfriend when he fell ill and broke off contact with me. That’s the story I told, over and over, until the memory fit and I could live with it. But Goldin’s memory does not end, it shucks off narrative. When she originally began photographing her friends, she was interested in preventing loss, in saving the images to save the people. This was her mode even before the unthinkable devastation of AIDS and of heroin abuse. And then those deaths became the reality, and she ceased to believe that the photos could save at all. Instead, as she says in the Ballad’s afterword, “the pictures show me how much I lost.” That precise switch, between saving what we had and showing what we lost. The pictures are yellow and white and pale brown, eggshell colors. The might break or they might hold birth inside of them.

Yet, there is a future in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. It is insistent and hard, and Goldin unflinchingly sees it in every image. A community marked with track marks, violence, and illness, hers is a world built within loss. Still, the people she loves find each other, find her, and embrace. In every photograph they are remaking their relationships, their coupling perpetually in process so that it cannot be pinned down or defined. This is where the loss is, those things that they no longer are, and this is where the future is, those things they are becoming.

I find, lying on the trodden grass of a pathway, a dead baby possum. It is young, pink and embryotic, and should still be in its mother’s pouch. Its eyes are such pale grey slits that I am not even sure whether they are open or closed. I stare and try to understand. Did it slip out, crawl out? Was the mother ill? The possum’s body was clearly not ready for the world. Then, a few feet away, I find another pink, abandoned baby. This one is somehow still alive. It has the heavy, arhythmic breath of a dying mammal, taking in gasps that don’t carry oxygen, no noticeable exhale before the next sharp intake. There is no way this animal is going to live.

Searching further, I eventually find seven abandoned babies. Four are dead and three alive. They are scattered in a zig-zag path, roughly two or three feet between one sibling and another. My friend helps me track them down and confirm that there are no others, searching the brush for a solid ten minutes. With nothing else to be done, she takes the ones that are already dead and poses them together for a series of photos. I take a rock and bash in the heads of the ones that are living, knowing that a quick ending is better then their extended, laborious breathing in the heat of Tennessee summer and sunlight. The gashed head of one is too gruesome for the photo, but the other maintains its peaceful stare despite the blood leaking from its ear. Like six old men in the clover, pink and still. We dig a small hole and bury the family together.

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There is a question for which I cannot find a satisfactory answer. Why would a mother possum, seven babies in her pouch, so methodically dump them? The babies were close to a house where three dogs live, and it seems likely that they might have chased the mother. But what instinct is it that tells her, in that moment, to scatter her children? It hardly seems that the lessened weight would allow her to run more quickly, and even if that were the case, the abandonment still seems cruel, counterintuitive to what I understand about the instincts of mothers and biological preservation. And anyway, had the dogs been chasing her, wouldn’t they have gone also for the babies, slurping them up on the chase or curiously pawing at them later? Was the mother selfish, ditching her young in the hopes of saving her own life? Three feet apart, like she dug into her pouch and tossed one out, kept running, rummaged again, tossed again.

My inability to find an explanation bothers me. A month later I find more possums scattered in the same way, although this time older, with grey fur so that I might have thought they could make it had they not already been panting, unable to crawl or react to my prods. Rocks to the heads again, but something about the older age or the repetition of event makes a photo seem unkind. Instead, I set them one at a time in the creek, where they float off like loosened lily pads.

I was raised by my mother, who kept her photographs in the bottom shelves of a wooden cabinet. Half were in those old photo books with the cardboard pages and the sticky clear protective sheets, the other half in boxes. We did not talk about my father, of whom I hold no memories, and I imagined that any photos of him or his side of the family had been tossed away. Still, I would return to the photos once or twice a year, flipping through them slowly and trying to logic out whether the unnamed men in the backgrounds might be him. I never cared to meet him or felt any particular emotion at his absence, but I would still return to these images. The photos, by their existence, implied that he might be there. Were there no photos, I wouldn’t have bothered to care.

A photograph holds that amazing ability to collapse the future and the past together, one flat ruin of who we are, Goldin’s “memory, a story without end.” In its rebellion against time, it offers that collapsing again and again, so that every time we look at a photo we are denying the past its end and the future its independence. But those glances, fingering the glossy edge or staring into the screen, are little rebellions, unsuccessful and sentimental (my ex-boyfrend’s arm is not around me again, I will fall for my girlfriend and forget him). Instead, the purest moment of rebellion is when our own photo is taken. It is when I pose. Then, my entire body becomes something new, my muscles tightening and relaxing and my spine and shoulders positioned in sudden relation to one another. I am creating a body for the future, and while I want it to reckon to this body of the present (the past), in both intention and instinct I will it to be something different. I craft a memory of a best self that was never here. Were there no photo, I wouldn’t have bothered to care.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about this moment another way, as a moment when he is “a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter.” The subject trotting forward into a future, the object there in a past, curled and pink in the pathway. For Barthes this is a death, but a death that produces a ghost, which not all deaths do. Ghosts do not respect our divisions of time, and like photographs they live out the same old dramas and gestures, lifting teacups and moaning their mourning even when the house has moved on. If my pose is meant to create a better version of myself, an untrue representation, then the person I really am will not last. What future for my slumped shoulders, my tired eyes drifting toward something absent? My ghost, whenever I have a hand in its summoning, lies.

The first seven images of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency depict pairs of people, pairings that appear to be male/female. Following that, there are twenty-five images of single people, all with feminine names or bodies or looks. Between the photos of pairs and the singular photos there is a blank page. These white pages break every section, offer a breath between the singular feminine objects and the twenty-five singular masculine objects. Pairs again: a white page, men mostly with other men; a white page, women mostly with other women. Eventually, the space precedes groups, children, and parties. Then a series of embraces, fucking or kissing, and finally a series of couples and of images without people.

These images are not chronological, as the dates in every title attest. We could, if we wanted, use the years and names to map out a stretch of Goldin’s life. We could see that she falls in love with David, that he batters her, and then he disappears. Cookie and Sharon are in love, and then Cookie marries Vittorio. But the arrangement of the photographs discourages this, asking us instead to consider the images as shifting into each other. The scarf on which the past and future are sewn has been crumpled and tossed under a sofa.

This form of time is familiar and honest, nodding toward the verifiable truth of events, yet summoning also the gentle rock of memory. It is rare, after all, that we can place our friends’ dresses, laughter, and bruises on a clear timeline. Instead our recollection gives us a blur of argument and embrace, one that prevents any simple narrative even as we try to enforce it. This is why “Nan and Brian in Bed,” one of the most recognizable images from the book, can appear toward the conclusion, many pages after Nan documents her swollen yellow eye from Brian’s battering. They are sadly in bed together even after they have parted ways. I broke up with my ex-boyfriend three times, and because of that repetition, crying on the drive to Iowa and smoking peacefully with his other partner have become the same irrational day in my mind. It ceases to be important, whether she is dating him or her or them. Everyone is wrapped up in the same big mess of it until they leave.

This is not a process of deconstruction—if it were, it would reach completion by the second image, wax statues of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Instead, the Ballad is a long and hard stare, focused on the reality that we need to love one another and that some of us will insist on that love even as it is unrecognizable, even as it is turning away from the camera. The photos of individuals are somehow also about couples, and not simply the couple formed between Goldin and her photographic object (although that, too, is vital). The individuals are preparing their faces in front of a mirror, lying in someone else’s bed, blowing out the candles of a birthday cake and showing a new tattoo. Goldin loves her friends and she loves that they love each other. Isn’t it sad, she seems to say, when it appears as though we don’t?

To celebrate the dead this year my friends and I have constructed a shack out of old barn wood, the purlin that was torn out months ago and replaced with green timber. This wood is older than any of us, the barn itself having stood at least a century, fragrant with the memory of drying tobacco. The planks are a hard gray with bends and warps, rusted nails pointing out every hands-width or so. The house for the dead stands taller than any of us, its front open to expose what we have placed inside. On the shelf that we are calling the second story rests a goat head, centered with its horns curling up to the roof—Papa Goat, who died with the end of summer. A rocking chair at the bottom, a guitar. Some objects represent people I knew only in the slightest way, but I knew them because my friends loved them, and this link feels for the moment intimate as I look on the assembled objects, charms or gifts or whatever language we might each use.

I have placed together a brooch and a vodka drink, and to match them a Miller Light and some shoe polish. These are for my grandparents. Although neither has died in the past year, they are the most resonant losses of my life and so I give them their place. I also copy out a page from a Leslie Scalapino poem to note her absence (“on the night—waking, on its edge—seeing image—is the mind collapsing into the sky”). I consider all the other people who have died in my life, but they are all years past and I no longer sense that they are gone. If it is cruel that I have forgotten them, it would be more cruel to pretend to remember, to ignore the absence of mourning.

After a song, a few words, and some silence, we light the structure. The flames crawl slowly, catching occasionally on a piece of cloth or igniting some alcohol. One string of a hanging lamp snaps, then the other, and its fired clay falls into the red center of the heat. The shoe polish becomes its own source of fire, eventually spreading to the vodka, two small pyres for my grandparents. The fire does not catch all on its own—we have to splash gasoline for it to spread.

The mood shifts from pensive to celebratory, although how exactly the shift comes I’m not sure. It might have something to do with the joy inherent to destruction, the pleasure of creating and nursing a fire, of watching those things you had agreed to destroy succumb to collapse. We laugh and drink, sometimes tossing a splash of booze onto the flame so it will rise higher yet. I still feel the sadness now and then, but it pangs, fading nearly as quickly as it comes on.

For many of those living in the United States a decade or so younger than I am, a generation further removed from Goldin, the reality as it was once dictated by AIDS appears, falsely, to have faded. A dangerous lie. Like all changes in queer life seem to be, the changes in relation to AIDS are tempered, not entirely progress. They are benefits only available to a few, those society has deemed will have the proper access to resources, those living in the right neighborhoods on the right continents. Of course we should be gleeful that most of our community is not vanishing in front of our eyes, that perhaps fewer people are positive and that those who seroconvert will often live for decades to come. The survival of queer people after AIDS would be miraculous were it not rooted in so much real, difficult labor and sacrifice, in the rallying of queer women to support the dying. Losses as vast as those that occurred during the early years of the epidemic, strategies and sacrifices as grand as those that pulled some populations through—these do not seem like things that could be easily forgotten. Yet here, short decades later, the ignorance of this past is breathtaking, and in turn we falter at developing new tools to continue the fight.

This, for instance: In 2008 I went to a party in Chicago. It was in a loft in Boys Town and nearly every person there beside myself (thirty total, maybe) was a gay man in his twenties or early thirties. I had gone with a friend and only knew one or two others at the party, although, unsurprisingly, someone I did not even know lived in the city had shown up, brought by a guy he met online that evening. People drank and smoked and we went into the bathroom and eventually one thin boy with dramatic, bright makeup crossed some line. He vomited loudly and then returned to the living room, where he passed out on the hard floor where we had been dancing. People started to complain about him, talking about what a mess he was, calling him “pathetic.” In this public ridicule, his body still in the center, it became gossip that the drunk boy had recently seroconverted. This information was offered as another aspect of his shame. I remember that an ex-boyfriend of his was there, that they all seemed to know him so well. They found him to be unworthy of their pity.

It was vile. This community of friends, living in a gay neighborhood, come together in a way they must have never dared imagine in their youth, yet only to act with such cruelty. To look at one of their own, taken by a plague that all but wiped out the part of their community just a decade or two older than they were, and to find only disgust. It must be that the future has returned, that the sense of a lost future has passed. Otherwise, how do we explain this scene, the spectators feeling so immune to the boy’s status that they can behave unashamed of their cruelty? Or is the salient moral of this story not that the future has returned, but that the past is so quickly severed?

The ritual for the dead did not end when the fire burned down to its smoldering core. Instead, when little flames were still licking upward, someone tossed a roll of crêpe paper over the pit, holding on to the end. Another person caught it, loosened some slack, and tossed it once more. The heat from the fire lifted the paper, higher and higher, yards and yards into the air. Hot enough to lift, cool enough not to burn. We kept tossing, unrolling greater lengths, watching the strands float even higher than we imagined. “The ghost!” I said. “Look at the ghost!” And it was fluttering at the tops of the trees. When we released the ends it stayed a moment, held to the earth by branches we could barely distinguish in the darkness. Then segments tore themselves free again, unfettered toward the sky.

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Nan Goldin describes her photographs as “anti-revisionist.” She wants them to be a record that you can’t revise: like look here, this happened. I prefer to stay in the process of remaking my photographs, of ironing and hemming them. There is, of course, the slipperiness of interpretation and media to which we are all so inclined. But this acknowledgment is useless to me when I talk about photography. I’m with Barthes again, who seems to say sure, subjectivity, but who cares? Look at this other thing. This happens, too.

Instead, the remaking that excites me occurs after the object of the photograph is established. It occurs when we show it to someone, and we show it to ourselves, and our sense of that moment of our life clarifies, just like the chemicals and the light come together and we have the image. It is not so much that I need to know why the possum abandoned her babies; I just need to live with the fact of it, to share it with someone and make it a little beautiful.

The ghost is flying, something is resonating and maybe this is one way to figure out what. It’s not really, I’m sure it’s not, that different from what Nan Goldin is doing, even if we talk about it differently. When she discusses the vastness of what has been lost, she says that she is “trying to maintain the lives, the traces of the lives… and keep them among us.” Keeping traces feels right to me, the best way to say it. Maybe the only difference is that I have this ridiculous privilege, that so few of those I love have died, that I walk down the street with one hand in each pocket of my dress and that is how it is. I’m thinking, oh, let’s revise it, that’s fun, but if I had witnessed that death Goldin witnessed then I would insist, too, on the truth of the snapshot: That we have all been, even if you tried not to see us.

For the past few months, I’ve been trying out a new face in photographs, giving up that happy lie of my old pose. Rather than smiling, tilting my face to its good side, I twist my lips a bit. I half-close my eyes, snarl, give a thousand yard stare straight into a wall. It’s a drunk face, regardless of whether or not I have been drinking. I look ugly and sad and now that I’ve started I can’t give up the pose.

If the point of it all is to preserve ourselves, to summon the ghosts because no one else cares, then we have to be ugly sometimes. How weak, to look so nice. As though we fall asleep with mascara in our hand. The sentimental is dangerous—it robs us of the lessons that are rightfully ours. That is why in all the inspiring stories of community coming together, of healthcare organizing and nurses working eighty hour weeks, it is equally important to tell the stories of failures. AIDS activist Larry Kramer recently saw his play The Normal Heart revived on Broadway. It focuses on the early plague years, with the Kramer-esque character ranting about all the people, queer and straight, who refused to help, preferring to watch everyone die. After the revival shows, Kramer sometimes stood outside, handing out flyers. Things haven’t changed, he wanted us to know. We’re still failing.

It’s not one way or the other, not inspiring stories or heartbreaking failures. Nan does love Brian, you can see it on her face. And, halfway through the Ballad, there is the truth, also, of her battered eyes, yellow and red as she stares straight into the camera. It is the most difficult image for me to look at. I always struggle not to flip the page. But this is part of it—we tell each other so many lies and we love each other so deeply, and sometimes we leave one another to the dogs and the heat of the sun. I love my ex-boyfriend, yes, still. Now let’s burn the dead.

“I make no emotional distinction between my friends and my lovers,” Goldin says in the Ballad’s afterword. She makes this statement while explaining the way her understanding of the photographs as objects has changed following so many deaths. She says that it is now a “volume of loss, while still a ballad of love.”

A friend picks up my worn copy of the Ballad, which has been sitting on a chest in my room for weeks. She flips through: the bodies on each other, the eyeliner, the floral print. And she says the thing that so many of my friends say, that the pictures “look like pictures of us.” I start to talk about the book, explaining some of its history. I talk about how everyone is queer and trans, how they’re struggling and addicted and expanding their lives in order to survive. Because of this all, I say, it feels to me like they really are pictures of us.

And then I say something else that I often say while describing the book, that it’s about love but with an unhealthy edge to it, hence the “dependency” in the title. “Why is dependency unhealthy? Why is that bad? I think of that as a good thing,” my friend says, scolding me. And of course, she’s right. That’s the point of the whole thing, isn’t it? We depend on each other. It’s not simply that I need my friends and my lovers to nurse me through heartache, to give me a bed. It is that we actually, quite literally, depend on one another in order to live at all. And then, of course, the other part. That we are going to leave one another. That we are going to die. That eventually we are going to exist only in images, in photographs and memories.

Sometimes a loss will be so profound that it will make us so that we are not ourselves. We will as ghosts walk and eat and do other un-ghostly things. And in the time that follows such a loss, there will be no reason to come back. Coming back will not undo the absence. But there will be those others, entwined as we are in dependency. And it is not that we need them, nor that they need us. It is that together, many years ago, we came to be, and if we slowly come together again, then we will be ourselves once more, and then we will see what is gone.

 

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Goldin, Nan. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture, 1996.

Goldin, Nan. Nan Goldin: In My Life. ART/New York, 1996. DVD.

Scalapino, Leslie. New Time. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.

Touzeau, Elyza. Photo: Possums. 2011.

Woodward, Phil. Still Image: Fire. 2011.

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