Model, Lover, Friend, Muse—A Photographic Diary of One Man’s Struggle with Mental Illness Across Two Decades
Arlene Gottfried was a photographer when she met Midnight in a Lower East Side bar where he was doing his dancing. She was invited to join him for live music and poetry the following night. Miguel Piñero’s Nuyorican Poets Café. He would appear in his mask in that image, which would eventually become one of the hundreds of pictures Gottfried took over the course of the next 20 years.
Surrounded by Gottfried’s photographs in a Chelsea gallery, Midnight feels slightly overwhelmed. When he starts to tell the stories about many deceased people, he loses his air. “It is very difficult,” he says, “because they were very close friends—Miguel and Arlene.”
“I was about 25 years old at the time when Arlene came in and started snapping,” he recalls, “and that’s when I knew I was going to have a friend.” What captivated Gottfried is right there in the photos: an incredibly handsome, stylish, and sexually uninhibited man.
The date was set. “We made arrangements to meet the next day. I was to go see Shakespeare at Central Park. At that moment, we became very close. We went down to the lake, and we were kissing, and I told her I wanted to be her friend, and from that day on, we were, and she would take my picture.”
Midnight arrived in September. “Arlene had a Rolodex, a million friends, and invites every night,” recalls Midnight. Gottfried was busy with assignments for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, FortuneAnd LIFE. She attempted to train him as a photographic assistant. “She would pay the rent, and I would pay for food, clean, run errands like, pick up cameras, film,” says Midnight.
“We were deep friends when we weren’t lovers,” says Midnight. “Whatever she did, I wanted to do. It was one photo after another for our entire relationship.”
Things quickly got complicated in that first year. “I would disappear,” says Midnight. She wrote a book about him. Midnight (PowerHouse)Gottfried, 2003 wrote of the time he began to withdraw. “He was often so far away he wouldn’t say a word for days.” She described Midnight’s life as caught in a “cycle” of illness, hospitalizations, imprisonment, and treatment.
“My thing is, I suffer from a disorder,” says Midnight. “Paranoid schizophrenic, chemical imbalance, with acute psychotic episodes, and she didn’t know that I had to be hospitalized. I get one of those every time I’m under pressure.” he adds, joking: “not right now.”
Midnight was brought up by Mommie Margaret (a guardian) At 13, he ran away from home in Philadelphia to discover he could disappear into New York’s Times Square in the 1970s. “I had so many holes to crawl in and out of,” he says. He spent most of his teenage years in Port Authority’s bus terminal locker.
“I used to dance at the Gaiety when I was underage.” The Gaiety Theatre on 46th street was a gay male burlesque show that opened in the mid-’70s and ran for almost 30 years. “I would come out, and they would play that song, babyface.” He starts singing, “Babyface…you got the cutest little babyface….no one could ever take your place.”
“They would play that, and I would have a big taffy with spiral colors on it, and I would suck on it and use it as a prop. The cost was only a couple of dollars. It was a different New York.”
He began to use drugs later on that worsened the mental condition. “I remember I used angel dust, and it brought on my schizophrenia,” he recalls.
Midnight drifted in and out of Gottfried’s life in his twenties, running away on cross country trips. Gottfried was often hospitalized or arrested and ended up living in the streets for prolonged periods. But she was a faithful friend, who tried hard to get him on his feet again. She described it as an “exhausting commitment” at times.
Gottfried focused her entire career on the subject matter close to her heart – the disappearing communities and people of New York City that were suffering from poverty and being erased by gentrification. Her books preserve New York’s history, from its inception until her death in 2017. The Eternal LightMidnight is sometimes overwhelming, Bacalaitos and FireworksAnd her last book. Mommie.
Books Mommie And MidnightThese portraits are often taken over long time periods and centered on one subject.
MommieIn this interview, she tells Midnight’s tale. “I never thought I had a project there,” she says about the process of making the book. After showing him the work one night on a slide projector, she remembered, “He just stood up from the table, and he reached out and shook my hand. He didn’t say anything. It let me know he was touched, and he got it.”
After the publication of the book, Midnight returned to life. Gottfried died after a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
Flipping through the book with Midnight today, he nods at each page, affirming Arlene’s selections. “This is a good picture,” he says over and over. He recounts good times on birthdays at the Palladium and parties on New Year’s Eve, his favorite suits and hats. He gives liner notes like, “That’s my derby. That’s when you know you’ve won the hat race.”
Their collaboration is a delicate one. His stories show the complexity of their relationship: it’s a balance between what he records and what he shows. “She didn’t want me to pose for any pictures. Just stay natural.”
“I was always trying to look tough.”
His memories of drug therapy during the 1970s are vivid. “They wanted me to break my image. They felt I had the image of a tough guy.” Looking at a nude of himself in a ballerina tutu, he says, “I didn’t do it till I met Arlene. I appreciate that picture.”
Midnight (powerHouse), published in 2003, is reminiscent of works like Nan Goldin’s The Ballad for Sexual Dependency or Jim Goldberg’s Wolves raise the childrenThe heart of the art is in the lives that are depicted, even though documentary photos can be arranged into an artbook.
Over the years, Midnight remains the most elusive of Gottfried’s works, as a portrait of a man, model, lover, friend struggling to survive on the streets of New York with an invisible disease. Photographs show glimpses into his life during the bizarre experience of mental breakdown, delusions, and withdrawal. However, there are tender moments filled with joy, beauty and love.
Midnight lives in New York City today at an institution that provides care for the mentally ill. His handsome features, gentle eyes and sharp sense of humor are all the same. Arlene’s self-portrait shows that he still holds on to their memories with affection.
“It’s just half of a lifetime here,” he says with pride. The book is phenomenal, a quiet story with few words.”
It was a collaborative effort between two artists, he says. “It was well performed by the artist and the model,” he says. “I was challenging my own self-image—saying, ‘here I am. This is what God made.’ I want to share myself with everyone.”
The Midnight Show is at DanielCooney Fine Art, New York City until March 5, 2022