“The Wound Which Speaks of Unremembered Time: Nan Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio and the Autobiographics of Mourning”

Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, 1983

“I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone if I photographed them enough.”

(Nan Goldin)

By Mihaela Precup

Long before ACT UP started rewriting the sick bodies of AIDS patients as vital, strong, and fighting back, photographer Nan Goldin thought she saw an ill omen in the underground New York community she had chosen to inhabit. There was something about the lives surrounding her, including her own, which was profoundly frightening, as well as endearing, and she found her camera to be the only tender weapon against their vanishing. Goldin’s avowed intention was to use photography as a confirmation of presence in the middle of a high-risk population who lived and died too fast for the camera. It is perhaps inevitable that Goldin’s work from that period should be populated by ghostly people wandering about in carnivalesque outfits, glittering in the darkness of the New York underground, apparently glamorized by the on-site photographer from whom no form of intimacy was hidden. Goldin’s adopted family did not include her flesh-and-blood relatives, who became subjects of her work late in her career, most notably so her sister. This essay examines Nan Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio, the well-known series of photographs of her good friend Cookie Mueller from the beginning of their relationship (1976) until Mueller’s death (1989), in order to answer several questions about visuality, autobiography, marginality and death. I shall start by addressing the larger issue of how the representation of the AIDS crisis was transformed by the documentary endeavor of a photographer who was both subject and object of the gaze in an archival project constructed as a gesture of anticipated mourning. I shall also focus on the connections between photography, death and haunting which the Portfolio seems to invite, as well as on the larger dialogic potential contained within a visual narrative set in a small NYC underground community in the 80s, and which is undoubtedly both an autobiographical account (in the sense that by documenting Mueller, Goldin inevitably documents herself) and a memorial to a memorialist (Cookie herself wrote mostly autobiographical fictions, most of which are out of print now).

AIDS and the Pitfalls of Representation

During the 80s, everyone had apparently cooked up a method of stopping the AIDS crisis, ranging from the mind-numbingly brutal concentration camp methods of various degrees of conservatism (e.g. brand all the AIDS patients on their buttocks, quarantine everyone, kill all the gay men, encourage people never to have sex out of wedlock/with multiple partners again etc.) to the obviously much more productive activist group solutions, heavily relying on visuals and aware of the importance of rhetoric and relentless attacks on the Reagan and Bush Sr. administration policies (ACT UP, Gran Fury, Group Material etc.). Of all these visual discourses, it was ACT UP’s which is most remembered today, when staying alive has become a possibility in the Western world.

Perhaps a brief recapitulation of the main issues surrounding the visual representation of people with AIDS might be useful at this point. The most controversial discussion around AIDS representation has famously revolved around the portrayal of AIDS patients as victims, touched by an all-consuming malady which canceled not only life, but any willingness to live within the subject. Images of PWAs (as ACT UP has insisted AIDS patients be called, instead of “AIDS victims”) wasting away, and incorporated by some in the “AIDS = war” strategy, tended to backfire. In Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, Marita Sturken usefully traces the representation of contagious diseases as sinful and reprehensible to nineteenth-century representation of syphilis, related to the Christian sexualization of evil. At the same time, her review of the framing of contagious maladies inscribes the treatment of AIDS patients within the parameters of a long tradition; viewed as lab rats, PWAs keep the world safe if confined behind photographic paper bars: “In 19th century Europe, hospitals routinely set up photographic laboratories to create visual records of disease, physical deformity, and mental illness” (1997, 152). These photos “tended to dehumanize the patient. (…) even “well-intended” images of people marked by disease can serve to reinforce fear of contamination” (ibid., 153). There is, thus, a well-known tradition relating photography and allegedly objective documentation of the non-normative or contagious (the last two terms have often been read as synonymous).

While in Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of Tom Moran (discussed at length by Douglas Crimp in Melancholia and Moralism), the sick body’s staging as essentially and primarily sick signified a symbolic premature burial through utter de-sexualization and general de-personalization, other anti-AIDS activists responded by sexualizing the sick body as a strategy to fend off death, more precisely, to provide the sick body with the dignity of a sexualized body. One reason the public required such images, especially in the early stages, when fears of contamination through presence were still prevalent, was that the visibility of the sick assuages the fear of contamination through distanciation and elation, when one is presented with the proof that one is safe, and out of reach of evil, as pointed out again by Sturken: “Documentary photographs of the disfigured, drained bodies of those in the final stages of disease thus offer reassurance that the person with AIDS is detectable, not invisible or among “us” (ibid., 153). This initial public reaction was evidently in tune with the opinion that images cannot infect or kill.

Artists who used photography during the first stage of the AIDS crisis were also aware of another matter, which Wojnarowicz typically summarized as the “Susan Whatshername” issue, and which had come out in 1973: “Susan Whatshername said something about photographs being like small deaths which is maybe true. Maybe not” (Wojnarowicz 1992, 143-4). Aware that Sontag had pointed out the acquisitiveness and excessive inquisitiveness of the eye/I holding the camera, as well as the violence implicit in the photographic act, Wojnarowicz, Goldin, Hujar, and others, thought less about such matters and more about how to write a history which would not be a re-iteration of what was being issued by official power structures:

“To me, photographs are like words and I generally will place many photographs together or print them one inside the other in order to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness. History is made and preserved by and for particular classes of people. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.” (ibid., 143-4)

Flawed and naïve as their “alternate history” might have been, these artists felt that it was at least written by those most affected by the plague, and for some of them (Wojnarowicz included) it had testamentary value.

Goldin was thus by no means the only documentarist of the life of drag queens and/or underground New York artists. For instance, in the legendary Tin Pan Alley bar from Times Square, Keri Pickett photographed patrons and musicians from 1983 to 1987, a time period which overlaps with Goldin’s own presence around the premises. However, Pickett missed the countless deaths at the end of the 80s because she herself had to move out of New York City in order to get treatment for cancer (cf. Pickett). The downtown Club Kid scene was covered by Nelson Sullivan, who documented various social occasions where sometimes the Tin Pan Alley crowd was also in attendance. By the time Goldin curated Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing, everybody involved in the AIDS crisis was producing an autobiographical account of the widespread death and desolation, for personal reasons, which were obviously implicitly political as well. “These are not people who go quietly and obediently,” wrote John Russell in his New York Times review of Witnesses, a comment whose redundancy is surprising.


Cookie and Vittorio’s wedding, 1986

The genealogy of the illness and its visual production were intricate and broken in many places. The Cookie Mueller narrative stretched far and wide, and everybody seemed related through either illness or loss. For instance, Cookie Mueller published All about Putti’s Pudding in the short 2-month interval between her husband Vittorio Scarpati’s death and her own, and included some of the same drawings by her husband, drawings which would after her death be included in Witnesses. David Wojnarowicz took postmortem pictures of photographer and former partner Peter Hujar, who, had, incidentally, photographed Sontag who had also discussed AIDS in her essay “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1989). A geography of recuperation and mourning was being created even before some of the subjects met their deaths.

But probably the most visible and politically efficient were the activist collectives, whose strategies of visual representation sometimes coincided with Goldin’s: the staging/rehearsal of death included in ACT UP demonstrations where everyone would be lying down, holding a headstone above her heads, various attempts to build mobile monuments such as the Names Project, bitterly humorous approaches to the crisis, as well as innumerable protest and informative billboards. All these contained warnings against the perils of instituted sainthood, the morbid fascination with the spectacle of death, as well as the commercialization of the AIDS crisis through special stores and magazines targeted at PWA consumers (cf. Sturken). It was in the middle of this deep preoccupation with death and representation that Goldin’s own photographic urgency made its own comments on sudden disappearance and visibility.

Cookie Mueller and the Long Arm of the Camera

In 1988 Nan Goldin came so close to death herself that she had to go into detox, and take the first break in her life from the community of friends and acquaintances she had been photographing for about a decade. While in detox, she took only self-portraits, most of them on the hospital bed, in a strikingly septic and predominantly white space, dominated by a crucifix, and showing an increasingly composed and rested Nan, still inside, but in an inside space which was strangely not convivial, not garishly lit, and uncluttered. When she got back, one year later, many of her friends had died of AIDS or had become infected. Goldin kept on taking pictures. Of the same people she had been photographing since the early seventies, and some of the new friends who would never quite manage to become old friends. Sometimes her view of her lifetime endeavor to fend off death and “make a REAL record… of what I had actually seen and done” (1996, 451) can seem naïve and most definitely essentialist, but there is still something moving, which resists brutal dismissal, in the intentions of one who was never an outsider, and never too far from sudden death or destruction herself:

“Actually, I take blurred pictures, because I take pictures no matter what the light is. If I want to take a picture, I do not care if there is light or no light. If I want to take a picture, I take it no matter what. Sometimes I use very low shutter speed and they come out blurred, but it was never an intention like David Armstrong started to do what we call, he and I, “Fuzzy-wuzzy landscapes.” (…) I use a very low shutter speed. It used to be because I was drunk, but now I am not. The drugs influenced all my life. Both good and bad. I heard about an artist in Poland, Witkacy, who wrote down on his paintings all the drugs he was on. Depending how many drugs he took, that is how much he charged for the portrait. I saw his portrait at the National Museum, a kind of German expressionism, and I loved it.” (http://fototapeta.art.pl/2003/ngie.php)

Her audience was, for the first significant part of her career, made up of the very subjects who were photographed, and her slide-shows benefited from what very few artists get, i.e. immediate reactions to their work, from exactly the target-audience one has always had in mind, as Marvin Heiferman points out:

“Because they were respected rather than demeaned, the people in the pictures became the first serious audience for Goldin’s work. In the mid-1970s, Provincetown friends reviewed their summers by watching end-of-the-season slide shows Nan put together. In the 1980s, downtown New Yorkers came to watch the slide shows Goldin projected on the walls of bars like Tin Pan Alley, and at late-night haunts like the Mudd Club, Club 57, and The Saint. The slide shows grew in scope, scale, and reputation; they were now layered with soundtracks that not only gave the pictures a beat but helped shape their themes and narratives. The show defined a new hybrid form – as much performance as photo-novella – each one filled with outrageous characters, self-aware Lower East Side celebrities, and complicated plots driven by emotional and sexual entanglements. People stood in line for each new version, to see if they’d been included, to see how they looked, to clap for themselves and their friends as the images flashed on the screen.” (qtd. in Goldin 1996, 279)

As far as audience response is concerned, this was a nearly ideal situation, one where, despite the intimacy and sometimes unflattering nature of some of the images of people exhausted, lonely, laughing, making love, hating etc., Goldin was allowed access. She is apparently magnetic, extremely sociable, and, quite importantly, will not shy away from portraying herself exposed, crying, battered, having sex, naked, out of control. She insists that she has always shared with her subjects “a sense of recognition…of my own complicated sense of gender. Or… of something I loved” (1996, 448). By emphasizing the role of recognition in her own photographic record, Goldin points out one important component of the construction and recuperation of connections which, as Barthes would so memorably put it, can only be remade when the subject’s gaze is itself broken.

Starting from the first black-and-white photographs of her trans roommate and her friends, at various parties and beauty pageants, then moving on to color and new relationships, and gaining access to bedrooms and bathrooms where she sometimes posed for herself as well, Goldin and her audience shared the same aesthetic of poorly furnished, shabby interiors full of knick-knacks and junkyard sale articles, as one friend, Luc Sante, recalls,

“Life was bleak on the Lower East Side in the late 1970s, but it was a purposeful bleakness. We liked it that way. We were living a movie of youth in black-and-white that in order to be grand needed to be stark. We were scavengers, and the castoffs with which we dressed ourselves, our apartments, and our minds fortuitously matched our aesthetic. The inner movie might vary from person to person, but the styles overlapped: I was walking around in Paris Belongs to Us while you were in Ashes and Diamonds and she was in They Live by Night and he was in Flaming Creatures. The makeshift, the beleaguered, the militant, the paranoid, the outcast, the consumptive romantic, the dead-eyed post-everything – all the shifting and coinciding modes and poses played very well against a backdrop of ruins.” (qtd. in Goldin 1996, 97)

But out of all these lively characters stands out Cookie Mueller, who is obviously introduced as a flamboyant queen of the New York underground. Nan Goldin shows us the summarized story of a young glamorous woman who was probably loud, drank a lot, was the soul of many parties, had a son, a female lover, a husband, and many friends. Vittorio, the husband, died of AIDS, and then Cookie too died of AIDS. What we can find out from other sources is that she was an actress in several of John Waters’ films, and wrote some short stories and columns in Details and High Times. It is not at all clear from this photographic record how she supported herself, whether she was ever awake during the daytime, whether she ever went shopping or made breakfast for her child, what her hobbies were, if she had pets, where she holidayed and what her favorite foods were. Goldin wants us to remember her indoors, back in a time when Goldin herself was not accustomed to living or photographing in daylight, and when she had persuaded Cookie, whom she admired, to become her friend by taking photos of her. Photography, in the Cookie portfolio, began as a form of courtship. It went on for years, since Goldin loved her friend’s underworld glamour and was in awe of her zest for life.


Cookie at Vittorio’s casket, NYC, September 16, 1989

Cookie in her casket, NYC, November 15, 1989

Cookie’s face is always heavily made-up, smiling or laughing and lighting up an otherwise dark atmosphere with magnetic energy. The first picture in the Portfolio shows her in an armchair, in a more conventional pose, smiling politely, with her son in her arms. The rest of the photos, up to Vittorio’s death, are almost always of her partying. Either she is dancing with her lover Sharon, or laughing and posing irresistibly while Vittorio is chatting with someone else in the background (Cookie and Vittorio in the Forest), or she is smiling at Millie, who is sitting on a toilet next to hers, more prudishly keeping her knees together, unlike herself, with wide-open legs revealing matching red underwear. Nan only shows her serious or sad when in pre/post party mood, either when she is sitting on Nan’s bed, trying to open a beer bottle, her ashtray close by, or in the early Tin Pan Alley photograph, where she seems to be the last customer in the bar, right before closing time, with a fallen golden goddess aura given partly by the gilt movie star busts on the walls, and partly by the air of sad reverie in tune with the crooked smile of the golden bust right above her. Her marriage photos show us the figure of a happy easy-going Vittorio and a stern-looking, probably nervous Cookie, signs of exhaustion in her face, looking downwards, presumably at her hands, a mien which strikes one as incongruous and uncharacteristic, placed as it is after images of mad parties and obvious non-commital to monogamy. The photograph of her and Vittorio almost kissing, after the wedding, both wearing their wedding clothes, Cookie holding her bouquet, would be conventional if detached from the overall Cookie Portfolio narrative.

Cookie’s last smile is given to the camera the day of Vittorio’s burial, when she is posing for Goldin with her son, again. This time, it is the son that supports the dying mother, while they both smile “for the camera.” Cookie’s is a tired smile of complaisance, of polite obeisance in front of her (by now quite famous) friend’s camera. Just minutes before maybe, Goldin had taken one of the few photos of Cookie where all the glamour seems to have vanished: the one in front of Vittorio’s casket, where the emaciated unrecognizable figure of the husband is placed in an open coffin, thus creating a white cloudy space against a theatrical background of dark red drapes, structured by the crucifix hung on the wall above, which forms a continuous line with the edge of the open coffin. Still, the figure in focus is Cookie, who, dressed as she is in black, cutting into the white background, punctures the surface with a harrow haunted look which is not the bitterness in the Tin Pan Alley photograph, but one of blind arrested flight. We know from Goldin’s accounts of that period that by that time she had already lost her voice, and that Vittorio’s was not the first AIDS-related death she had ever witnessed. Poorly supported by a cane which testifies to her extreme weakness, her eyes bleakly and bitterly stare into a direction which is difficult to identify. The lines on her face and around her mouth carry an expression of tearful sadness and powerless indignation. Her husband’s coffin picture would be joined by her own, something which she must have found not very hard to divine, since Goldin was everywhere, taking photos. Her own open casket photograph reveals a once again glamorous Cookie, again heavily made up, adorned with pieces of jewelry and flowers, in a candlelit room. This, together with her wedding photograph, again strikes one as incongruous. The main points of the Cookie narrative thus seem to be unconventional motherhood, partying, marriage, sickness, and death. The question is, what part of this narrative do we really recognize today, when we have become twenty-first century subjects who have learned to live with AIDS as a global phenomenon, still a political crisis, the challenges of visibility and non-normativity quite different from those of almost three decades ago?

I would like to propose two strategies of interpretation in order to provide an answer to the questions posed within this paper so far. The first strategy relies on the fact that the viewer actively (and possibly with sympathy or love) seeks the actual possibility of recognition in order to productively use an important visual archive. The second strategy positions the viewer outside this circle of empathy, an exclusion (voluntary or not) which brings to mind Roland Barthes’ refusal to give access to the famous “Winter Garden photograph” where he finally recognizes his mother.

Speaking (through) the Wound: Cookie Mueller’s Laughter and Heteronormative Time

In keeping with the first viewing strategy, I would like to propose that a punctum may be locatable within Cookie Mueller’s laughter as the wound that speaks to us most memorably of her and others’ life and death. It is those images of Cookie laughing ruthlessly, mouth wide open, hands pressed on chest as in silent prayer or supplication, or trying to keep her balance against a staircase wall, that pierce the narrative of her life and early death. They do so by exuding the blunt unapologetic force that Goldin was afraid she would forget. They do so by contradicting the sense of inevitable doom that hangs over most of the Goldin photographs from the eighties, most of them of reclining figures in dark rooms, loving, leaving, ignoring each other, lonely, and captured with a sense of urgency and fear that hovers over them all. I am proposing that Cookie’s laughter arrests time and emits a non-verbal discourse that punctures the narrative of heteronormative temporality.

In order to attempt the second proposed reading of the Portfolio, one where a punctum does not exist for the audience, one where presumably the viewer is positioned outside or against non(hetero)normativity, I first need to say that in this scenario I am reading Mueller as a ghost, and evidently not as a ghost that invites compassion or sympathy. In this reading, I am using Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters. Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, where the author associates ghost stories with exclusions and invisibilities. At the same time, she claims that the implication behind writing a ghost story is that “ghosts are real,” i.e. “they produce material effects,” and have “a certain objectivity” (2008, 8). I am thus reading haunting as a permanent part of social life: “The ghost is not simply a dead or a missing person, but a social figure” (ibid.). In this case, haunting is the process through which visibility is given to that which is hiding in the shadows. To put it briefly, if the viewing subject allows her/himself to be haunted, something happens to presence. Just as photography is believed to be a confirmation of presence (cf. Sontag, Barthes), the ghostly haunt is a confirmation, Gordon says, “that something is missing,” and so, in other words, that something exists, but not within our visual range. At this point in the reading, I would also like to associate haunting with Caruth’s reading of trauma as the speaking wound of an other.

I am consequently contending that by taking these photographs, Goldin was rehearsing mourning and Mueller was rehearsing death (see Phelan 2002), and that, in the process of looking, even unsympathetic viewers are lending legitimacy to the intrusive image of a ghost, and their gaze inevitably writes the ghost into visibility. Although the viewer may not care much about the subject or author of these photographs, they are neither bland nor soothing, perhaps because they are also images of people in constant motion or who appear to have paused for the space of only a few seconds, people who were, in other words, difficult to capture. The only real stillness in these photographs is brought by the images of Cookie and Vittorio in their respective coffins, as well as the empty couch where Cookie had sat.


Cookie Laughing, NYC, 1985

I do not – again – mean to say that these photographs of the dead must inspire compassion or understanding even. I mean to say that, by being pictures of the invisible, they create a potential for haunting which allows the viewers to see and attain some form of recognition of that which they have never witnessed, as Gordon herself suggests when she associates recognition with the practice of simply looking at ghosts: “Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge but as transformative recognition” (2008, 8). The audience has access to unremembered time and unexperienced trauma, but, most of all, and even if some may be reassured by yet another narrative of non(hetero)normativity ending badly, they have already and even reluctantly been involved in a transforming dialogue.

Apprehending Ghosts

Gordon’s definition of haunting places it at the meeting-point of “force and meaning” (2008, xvi) because the strong impact of repressive systems can and will insist on making itself felt at the level of everyday existence, thus influencing knowledge and meaning-production and rendering the undesirable invisible. Haunting is often if not always associated with trauma, and possesses the capacity of “making itself known” (ibid.) through defamiliarization, loss of bearings, the return of the long-buried or repressed, and also, most interestingly for my own work, the return of visibility:

“I use the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over and done with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view. Haunting raises specters, it alters the experience of being in time, and the way we separate the past, the present, and the future.” (ibid.)

For my own purposes here, I shall extend Gordon’s application of the term to the larger field of post-traumatic experience, especially those instances which involve constant or sudden violence. Gordon’s vision is profoundly social, and it places ghosts in the category of the dispossessed, the present but not visible, those lost among the cracks of official narratives.

In Frames of War, Judith Butler identifies the ghost as someone “who is living but has not been generally ‘recognized’ as a life,” (2009, 11); she also asks an important question which locates presence not within but without general frames of recognizability: “In what sense does life (…) always exceed the normative conditions of its recognizability?” (ibid., 4). She answers by reminding the reader that “each and every construction of life requires time to do its job” (ibid.) and that “no job it does can overcome time itself” (ibid.). In other words, life itself is constantly in the making, its parameters shifting and breaking constantly.

Also, Butler’s usefully separates between “apprehension” and “recognition,” and if we apply this categorization, then it follows that Roland Barthes does not – as he claims, “recognize” his mother in the Winter Garden Photograph, when she was a child, but rather “apprehends” her. For my purposes here, this is an important distinction, and can also be applied to Gordon’s text. Butler contends that apprehension takes place despite the various norms of recognition we have internalized, and provides an implicit critique of these norms. In this context, I can start thinking about the intervention The Cookie Portfolio is making in terms of the framing of not only the AIDS crisis in the US, but also of norms of looking at non-normative behaviour from a place of non-empathy.

It might be useful at this point to further examine Butler’s contention that there is no life and death outside a process of framing, and no framing outside a process of reproduction in different contexts which alter the nature of the frame to such an extent that part of the very nature of the frame is a certain “breakage”:

“What happens when a frame breaks with itself is that a taken-for-granted reality is called into question, exposing the orchestrating designs of the authority who sought to control the frame. (…) When those frames that govern the relative and differential recognizability of lives come apart – as part of the very mechanism of their circulation – it becomes possible to apprehend something about what or who is living but has not been generally “recognized” as life.” (2008, 12)

Butler’s purpose in Frames of War is precisely to examine the “breakage” effects produced by the constant remaking of frames which every reproduction of frames entails. She identifies “a specter” which acts from both inside and outside these frames, an invisible presence whose vexing fleetingness she attempts to capture: “What is this specter that gnaws at the norms of recognition, an intensified figure vacillating as its inside and its outside?” (ibid.). It follows that this specter is whatever does not qualify as a life, and which manifests itself by silently (although sometimes violently) and invisibly changing the parameters through which we view the world.

The issue of communication with the dead, absent, or silent insistently insinuates itself, and one good place to start this conversation is the particular direction in which this type of interaction between two interlocutors/viewing subjects may take place. In other words, we need to ask how it is possible to reconcile Butler and Gordon’s position – which places the impulse of communication on the side of the ghost – with, for instance, Derrida’s equally justifiable lament upon the death of his friend Roland Barthes, the beloved ghost who can no longer be reached: “These thoughts are for him, for Roland Barthes (…). Yet they will no longer reach him, and this must be the starting point of my reflection; they can no longer reach him, reach all the way to him, assuming they ever could have while he was still living” (2001, 35). Derrida’s labor of love and recuperation is very similar to the archival and performative work undergone by Goldin, and also by Barthes himself, upon the death of his mother. Derrida decides to read Barthes’ first and last books (Writing Degree Zero and Camera Lucida) in hope that he might be able to identify “the point of singularity” of Roland Barthes which would enable him to have a similarly intense mystical experience of apprehension that Barthes writes about in connection with the Winter Garden photograph,

Yes, it was from a detail that I asked for the ecstasy of revelation, the instantaneous access to Roland Barthes (to him and him alone), a free and easy access requiring no labor. I was expecting this access to be provided by a detail, at once very visible and hidden (too obvious), rather than by the great themes, subjects, theories, or strategies of writing that, for a quarter of a century, I thought I knew and could easily recognize throughout the various “periods” of Roland Barthes (…). (ibid., 38)

Constantly hesitating and never settling on an appropriate (respectful and truthful or at least productive) strategy of communication, Derrida is searching for the punctum which would offer him access to “the image of the I of Barthes that Barthes inscribed in me though neither he nor I is completely in it” (ibid., 36). In the face of Barthes’ accidental death so soon after his own mother’s, Derrida is left to contend with Barthes’ unanswered questions. In a sense, Barthes’ Camera Lucida, by mapping a workable access route towards the beloved dead, should also give Derrida the tools for accessing his dead friend. And yet it does not seem to work a second time. Perhaps this is the most infuriating aspect and main source of the tantalizing pull of the imprecise art of communication mapped in Camera Lucida, i.e. that it appears to work for Barthes and for him alone, leaving the audience craving the experience but unable to replicate it. It is a unique performative gesture whose beautiful sad story we are told as if it were a fairy-tale that we are asked to believe at face value, because attempting to verify it would rob it of its magic. It is a fairy-tale Derrida takes most seriously, and which places his quest in the realm of that half-defeated promise to return we can find at the end of his text on Roland Barthes.

If we follow Butler and assume that it is invisible frailty that lies within the very structure of the frame, then it becomes easier to accept that the map one was hoping for on one’s route towards the unremembered or absent may just be constantly shifting within some unlocatable dimension. The hunch that the wound – or punctum – may lead the way is important but not sufficient. When Derrida notices that the “uncoded” punctum haunts the studium with its “homogenous objectivity” (cf. CL 55), he must also admit that this flexibility or fleetingness of the punctum contaminates the stable space of the studium and obfuscates visibility in favor of ecstasy, although, paradoxically, it is through vision that the punctum may become available to us: “We are prey to the ghostly power of the supplement and it is this unlocatable site that gives rise to the specter (…)” (ibid., 41). Thus, Derrida implicitly proposes the blurring of boundaries between – as Butler would put it – what qualifies as a life and what qualifies as a death, and although he fails to regain access to his friend, he undertakes this important theoretical gesture which places the location of the dead within the I of the living: “Ghosts: the concept of the other in the same, the punctum in the studium, the completely other, dead, living in me. This concept of the photograph photographs every conceptual opposition; it captures a relationship of haunting that is perhaps constitutive of every logic” (ibid., 42). At the same time, interestingly enough, Derrida reminds himself and us that Barthes places love outside any system of representation: “The suspension of images must be the very space of love, its music (CL 72)” (ibid.). What does this imply in terms of reconnecting with the ghost? So far, based on all these readings, the route towards apprehension begins in the wound produced in front of a visual representation such as the photograph but after the initial dismantling of existing norms of recognition that the punctum produces, the rest of the road takes one into the contemplation of invisibility within a space bordered by the constantly shifting visual evidence of presence.


The burden of postmemory (cf. Hirsch 1997) is difficult to orchestrate, since it is a work of imaginative intervention and vacating of self in favour of another. In this context, The Cookie Portfolio shows that it matters less if that is the “real” Cookie we see in her friend’s Portfolio. We know that Goldin believed, naively enough, but also with the clear awareness of the necessity of preserving her naiveté, that she could give herself and us a REAL record. Much as a photograph of Holocaust victims can change one irreversibly, as Susan “Whatshername” recalls in On Photography, and give one a different sense of living-before-birth, The Cookie Portfolio can – in both readings provided above – change the chronotopes of twenty-first century audiences, and give us a sense of the queering of our own lesbian/gay/trans/ hetero/bi/etc. lives, where “queer,” to adopt Judith Halberstam’s definition from In a Queer Time and Place, refers to “nonnormative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in space and time” (2005, 6). AIDS did change received notions of time and place, which, in the mainstream American space, and despite the Civil Rights movement, were still mainly those of the “waste not, want not” Ben Franklin rhetoric, and people like Goldin, Wojnarowicz and Hujar made sure that there was a face and a name attached to the changes in the flow of temporality which have in the meantime moved beyond the American national space. In a sense, it is through Cookie Mueller’s extra-ordinary face, laughing out loud in a dingy room, unable and probably unwilling to contain her laughter, that queer time erupts, and arrests conventional maturation (Halberstam 2005, 2).

Although Goldin never says what Cookie had for breakfast or lunch or dinner, the implication in Cookie’s Portfolio is that perhaps the day was not so strictly divided, and that prescriptive foods and activities were approached differently, that marriage was also a means of expressing non-monogamous solidarity and affection, and thus, incidentally, managing not to be thrown out of a hospital room where the “family only” policy excluded certain friends and partners. One could argue that Goldin merely proposes a differently normative space of the surrogate family, where the roles of mothers and fathers were not radically revised, but taken over by friends and lovers but the fact remains that, despite Goldin having the upper hand of the person holding the camera, the space of The Cookie Portfolio, and most of her work, is one of the democratic solidarity of underground marginality, where people came and went for good with such defeating speed that keeping track of names and faces was a hard task, and long friendships like the one Goldin had with Mueller were not necessarily rare, but they obeyed a logic of absence/presence which defied conventional logic.

I have proposed that within the queer time of the Portfolio a space of infectious dialogue also opens up. Although photographs are allegedly voiceless images, owned more by the photographer than by the subject photographed, I must agree with Butler’s proposal that some of them are also images which – properly embedded in a larger collection such as The Portfolio, whose associations do produce a more or less explicit narrative – speak more articulately. Contradicting Sontag’s idea that images of faraway suffering may reassure us through disidentification, Cookie’s ghostly laughter pushes her back into visibility by introducing her not as a victim of her irresponsible lifestyle, but as a person who lived unapologetically, and without making amends to the culture that decided her life to be ungrievable.


I would like to thank Prof. Tirza Latimer for reading the first version of this paper and making invaluable suggestions. The many talks during Prof. Laura Wexler’s extraordinary graduate class on Vision and Violence at Yale are also behind this paper. Also, Jim Hicks’s and Sonja Šoštarić’s valuable suggestions prompted me to think of two possible reading strategies for the Portfolio.

Refrence List

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(All rights reserved, text @ Mihaela Precup, images @ Nan Goldin)

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