Lynn Goldsmith, Through the Looking Glass

In high school, I was obsessed with Andy Summers, and how he changed the sonic landscape of popular music forever as a member of the Police. As a budding guitarist, I worked my way through every song in their catalog, and sought out every non-Police recording I could find of man who created a new vocabulary for six strings. As I pored over all available information regarding Mr. Summers, I came across Lynn Goldsmith’s first book on the Police. No stranger to photographing rock and roll artists, Goldsmith intimately chronicled the band from 1976 to 1983, often at times when tour support was minimal and tensions were at their maximum.

Although I almost drooled over Andy Summer’s now-iconic battered Telecaster, it was clear from the first page Goldsmith’s photos were more than something your eyes would skim over in the pages of a music magazine. Years have passed. Fender has issued a limited reproduction of Summer’s famous guitar, and Goldsmith released an updated version of her book on the Police. The photos still hold up. Even as a teenager I understood there was a depth to them. They were not just photographs of another band cavorting or looking hero-like. It was something more artistic, particularly in the composition of those black and white images, and the moodiness of the color ones, compelling me to look beyond what an average teenage fan sees in musicians. Like the guitar music which brought me to Goldsmith’s work, I was witnessing art I hadn’t expected.

None of this should’ve been suprising to me then, or to Goldsmith’s new audience now. By the time that first Police book was released in 1983, she had been working with musicians for a considerable period. In 1971 the Michigan native was employed at Elektra Records, and became the youngest member inducted into the Director’s Guild of America. The following year, she directed In Concert for ABC Television. Soon she “was tired of doing shows the way they wanted me to do them,” she recalls. “I suggested we do a documentary section to the show.” She partnered with Flint, Michigan’s Grand Funk Railroad for a documentary on In Concert, and eventually became their co-manager.

Andy Cavaliere had been their road manager, and knew the touring business, and Goldsmith knew creative marketing. It proved a perfect pairing, and Grand Funk Railroad soon had their first number one hit. With her marketing savvy, Goldsmith began constructing photo shoots for the band. Her creativity proved valuable, and soon she was providing magazines around the world with her photos. “I decided what I really loved doing was making pictures, because I didn’t have to have all the elements one needs when you’re a director, and I could just go out and do things on my own,” she says. Soon she realized she didn’t need Grand Funk, either. Photography had trumped the job she created for herself.

Goldsmith began photographing whatever she could, and sold her work to a broader range of magazines. Business snowballed, and she started a photo agency. Specializing in photos of entertainers, LGI represented over 300 photographers before being sold to Corbis in 1997. “None of all of this was conscious,” she explains. “It was just my energy and being passionate and enthusiastic about everything that I did, which also included seeing the work in print. So, I think we all have to follow our bliss. Sometimes it’s easier when you’re younger, because you just don’t think of things as a risk.” Goldsmith sold LGI because she missed what she loved most: taking photos.

Patti Hansen and Keith Richards, ©Lynn Goldsmith

The list of musicians and celebrities Goldsmith has chronicled is legendary, and there are perhaps a only a handful of other professional photographers who can boast such a long and substantial career with subjects in the limelight. She’s shot over a hundred album covers we grew up with, and has been in almost every major magazine you can think of, from covers to inside features. From the Beatles to the Beastie Boys, Goldsmith has had them in front of her lenses.

Bob Dylan listening to playback, ©Lynn Goldsmith

If forced to apply just one word to Lynn Goldsmith it would be “identity.” Never afraid of reinventing herself, Goldsmith has even been a recording artist for Island Records under her Will Powers persona. Released in 1983, Dancing for Mental Health was produced by Todd Rundgren and featured the single “Kissing With Confidence,” which peaked at Number 17 in the UK Singles Chart and featured Carly Simon on lead vocal. Also contributing to the album was Nile Rogers, Steve Winwood, and Sting, among others.

Her most recent and ongoing experiment with identity is a game-changer for Goldsmith, and may very well eclipse the large body of rock and roll photography she is known for. Entitled The Looking Glass, a series of 50 self-portrait images influenced by shopping, fashion and identity, has been under construction for ten years. By taking advantage of digital technology, Goldsmith has done something wholly original in the history of photography.

The United States is a country founded on trade. The Dutch came here to make guilders from beaver pelt commerce. With a long and documented history of fashion trends imported first from Europe, and later, other parts of the world, not to mention original American fashions, we are a nation concerned with how we look. None of this national history has been lost on Goldsmith. She addresses it directly with The Looking Glass. What American woman in the last hundred years has not been influenced by the latest fashions being hawked from behind the plate glass windows of a boutique or department store?

This intrinsic American drive of commerce and fashion and identity perception is with us today. In the 50 photos which comprise The Looking Glass book, Goldsmith and crew have created distinct and elaborate sets, all of which are based on the starting point of a display window with mannequins. Some, like “Strung Out,” can easily be imagined installed in the window of Saks Fifth Avenue. Others, like “Ringmaster,” or “Tea Cup Dream,” are as elaborate as a dreamscape sequence from any Hollywood blockbuster. Photographing the scenes in whole and in part, she uses mannequins as placeholders for herself, later inserting her face on them, transforming her identity time after time, often appearing up to five times in the same image.

Ringmaster, ©Lynn Goldsmith

“There’s no such thing as fixed identity,” explains Goldsmith. “That’s why I keep changing form. That’s why even in my career as a photographer, people like to identify me as a rock and roll photographer, but I have a much wider body of work. If anything, I’d say I’m more a portrait photographer than I am a landscape photographer.”

It’s clear the early decades she spent amassing a body of work featuring musicians and celebrities has directly paid off with the triumph of this series. “The Looking Glass is really a reflection of all of that,” Goldsmith tells me. “In the early days when women started making records, I wanted to make them look their best. When it was with the guys, like with Grand Funk, I redressed people and sometimes I would have other people cut their hair or do things, but when it came to women, no one was paying for hair or makeup or styling, so I had to learn how to do hair and makeup. That’s why in The Looking Glass series, part of what I do is the hair and makeup on myself before I enter the bodies of these mannequins, as well as play other characters. Some of those characters in The Looking Glass are characters who have appeared before in my Will Powers videos and performances. So, it’s all connected because the work I’ve always done has been about either making an individual physically look like what they thought they always wanted to look like, or I made them look more like what I thought their music or whatever they were about, or what their fans wanted to see them look like. Every photographer can make someone look like they’re a completely different person just by the way they approach that photo shoot. The Looking Glass series starts out really as self‑portraits and ends up being not about me but really a question as to what it is to be human.”

The Divided Self, ©Lynn Goldsmith

When I press Goldsmith for more details about the origin of this series I discover nothing less than her own identity was at stake. “It came about as I think most things do—out of pain and suffering. I really felt I needed to do something outside of celebrity portraiture and I didn’t have a clear idea anymore of who I was. I felt very lost and wondered where I was going, wondered ‘what am I going to do?’”

Taking solace from something of her childhood, Goldsmith went to Macy’s in New York City, with its famous wooden escalator. Triggering a Proustian flashback, she recalled the Detroit department store J.L. Hudson’s wooden escalator she rode as a child, which she always liked. While in Macy’s, she watched customers picking up clothing. “I would think, ‘No, no. Don’t get that! That’s not for you!,’” she recalls. “I figured out that if I know what people shouldn’t be wearing, or think I know, then I must have some sense of who I am.”

This realization got her exploring what shopping means. “Shopping is such an important pastime, particularly in our culture, because it makes people feel in some way that they know who they are,” Goldsmith says. “I started looking at the store windows to see what really brought people into the stores. In doing that, I realized when people see the mannequins in the windows—many of whom don’t have heads—they’re set to imagine what could be there. That body could be their body. There’s something that’s driving them.”

Soon she was photographing store windows late at night for reference. “I would sit down with an image and think about some kind of fictional narrative that would explore the things that influenced me as a little kid, just like the escalator,” she says. Recalling myths and fairy tales of childhood, she explored how they influence our identity. She also thought about what would happen if they were reinterpreted. What would a black or Latina Red Riding Hood be like, for instance?

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, ©Lynn Goldsmith

When I ask Goldsmith about the color and saturation of The Looking Glass, she’s quick to reflect on the nature of digital imagery. “The reason it’s kind of hyper‑color is because I do want it to appear real, but obviously it’s not real. That will enhance the question of what’s imagined and what’s true. That’s really in part what the digital world is about, and in the digital world—and that’s why I chose all my tools to be digital—nothing really exists until you manifest a print. So, was there ever really a photograph? Photographs, when we look at them, we think they are a single image. And they are, but are they? Some of my photographs are made up of over 50 images, and because the Photoshop work is what it is, hopefully when one looks at it, they only see one image. The mind will then ask me, ‘Well, what was there and what wasn’t there?’ And I’m not going to tell you,” she concludes with a smile.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, ©Lynn Goldsmith

Much time was spent on mentally exploring the narrative of each photo in this series. “There are things I learned about myself from every photograph, and about other people and about being human,” says Goldsmith. The other large time-expenditure was her Photoshop processing.

The compositing of each image was a gradual process, which grew organically as the narrative unfolded itself to Goldsmith. “It’s really different with each image,” she says. “For example, ‘Teacup Dreams’ took me a year, but that’s because I would stand back and look at it—not unlike what a painter does—and I kept saying, ‘Something’s bothering me. Something’s bothering me.’ Then I would go, ‘Oh! I forgot to light the candles!’”

Tea Cup Dreams, ©Lynn Goldsmith

Fashion remained central to the project, and never strayed from Goldsmith’s mind. “As I went through time, in terms of the clothing, I kind of went through a 1930s, ’40s period. Then we get into the 1950s, ’60s. Clothing starts getting cleaner and simpler as we move forward into modern times.”

Hitchcock Presents, ©Lynn Goldsmith

Clothing wasn’t the only thing which got cleaner and simpler during the ten years Goldsmith worked on The Looking Glass. Shooting Mamiya cameras during the length of the project, she started with a Mamiya 645 and transitioned to the DM40 before eventually using the new Mamiya DM33. “I knew I was going to be making my images hopefully 60 x 90 or even bigger, minimum 60 x 40. You have to have a really large file to be able to do all the things I wanted to do with it. Mamiya was the way to go.”

The lighting she used during the project was Profoto. “That’s the best gear in the whole world. I don’t think there’s any lighting that’s better than Profoto. But, to me that’s obvious. Don’t you know that?” I’m being teased by Lynn Goldsmith. I ask her how she triggers her lights. “I couldn’t live without PocketWizards. Are you kidding? That is true. Do you know anyone who doesn’t use PocketWizards?” Lynn Goldsmith is still teasing me. I love this job.

I ask about tripods. Goldsmith quickly replies she uses an Induro. I suggest it’s probably one of the carbon fiber models. “Oh, yes—it is. It’s got to be, because I need lightweight,” she says. “It’s the CT114. I love it.”

With the creative part of The Looking Glass finished, Goldsmith now turns her attention to the release of the photos in book form, and an accompanying gallery tour of the images. Details on both aspects of this stunning series of images are available on The Looking Glass site.

It’s been almost thirty years since I sat for hours alone in my parents’ home with a guitar and Lynn Goldsmith’s well-composed images in my lap. I still drool over Andy Summers’ iconic, battered Telecaster, and I still sit alone with a guitar, but soon I’ll have a new series of images from Lynn Goldsmith’s lenses to transport me to another place. It will involve not an iconic rock band, but will explore identity, sense of self, and one of the reasons the United States exists. This time the experience will be richer, more vivid, and timeless.

Lynn Goldsmith Photography
The Looking Glass
Lynn Goldsmith’s books

Written by Ron Egatz

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