Nan Goldin, who takes pictures of things we do not wish to see, has been compared to Diane Arbus, for one, and Weegee, for another. You might also think of her in terms of Janis Joplin and Tom Waits. She's the whiskey-soaked wailer of life below the pavement. She's looking for the heart of some very dark Saturday night. Cracked toilets and bad wallpaper and grimy bar tops and soiled bedsheets and fiendish-looking tattoo tools prop her world.

But they're only the backdrop. The photographer's true subject is the face of the American lost and dispossessed. But don't cry so quickly; sometimes exile is self-imposed, not to mention glamorous. Goldin is a social portraitist, first and last, and often as not the faces she shows us belong to some of her best friends, her surrogate family. The names are unremarkable: Suzanne and David and Bruce. These are post-'60s souls, some of whom she's grown up with, chronicling their losses and lonelinesses and small victories and game attempts at survival for more than 25 years -- something like a generation.

She's no objective witness with the camera, which is how we used to think of people who freeze time in a rectangle. And she's far more a diarist than a documentarian. It's the totality of the work, more than the individual image, that counts. Her eye is ravenous. She wants us to see the world, her world, as it piteously is.

The faces of her photographs belong to writers and artists and addicts and drag queens and bodybuilders and gender experimenters. In the later pictures, the specter of AIDS is everywhere. But nearly every image has a little death in it.

She's good on men drinking, men in automobiles, men after sex, women after sex, women in showers, women in bed, women on the bidet, women weeping, men lounging, women with women, men with men, women putting on makeup at mirrors, men putting on makeup at mirrors. You could go through an entire room of Goldin photographs before remembering there is something called the outdoors. Ansel Adams this woman isn't.

But what you'll often find in a Goldin photograph, amid all her subterranean rawness, the Lower East Side punkiness, the tawdriness and unsentimentalized blueness of her personal demimonde, is . . . a tenderness and surprising vulnerability.

Yes. These are human beings longing for connection, it turns out. They are looking for love and the sense of belonging. You just have to peer a little harder to realize the fact. All her grit gets in your eyes. It's as though she purposely wishes us to have to claw past the seaminess of her settings before we can know what she's really after: people held together by the cement of the world's rejection.

Perhaps for these reasons, and some other reasons that are far less worthy, Nan Goldin has become the photographic woman of the hour. Not the least proof of her fashionability among the aesthetes of the art world is that one of New York's most celebrated museums -- the Whitney Museum of American Art -- has mounted a retrospective of her work, on view through Jan. 5, that goes on for room after room and wall after wall: almost 300 large-format and mostly color photographs accompanied by a doorstop catalogue.

The show is called, aptly enough in the age of narcissism, "I'll Be Your Mirror." It's a troubling, and sometimes triumphant, multimedia affair that includes, amid all the Cibachrome prints, the latest version of Goldin's slide-and-music show, "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency." That's the ever-changing piece about relationships that first put her on the map. A decade ago she showed it at places called the Mudd Club and Tin Pan Alley -- a famously seedy Times Square bar where she worked as a bartender.

No more, and not for a good while now has she had the need to tend bar for rent money and to show work on the walls of dives. As the Wall Street Journal said recently (the Wall Street Journal!), the "queen of downtown" has all of well-heeled uptown groveling at her feet. So what we seem to have here is the radical chic-ness of Nan. Which must appall her even as it thrills her. Unsparing Self-Portraiture

Generally speaking, no subject of a Goldin image has ever been more lonely and dislocated than Goldin herself. This is an important aspect of both her legend and her power: She has kept on recording herself, literally and figuratively, through all the ratty apartments and drug dependencies and switching affairs of the heart. (Again, roughly speaking, she seems to have gone in her never-boring sexual life from hetero to bi to lesbian and, currently, back to hetero.) She was born into a middle-class family in Washington in the '50s and swam to her alienations in the '60s. At 15, she picked up a Polaroid at a hippie alternative school in Boston and began her visual diaries.

Even when the lens isn't on her, it's very much on her. There's a heap of burning self-love in this, which is right in tune with the Zeitgeist, but there's also some rather amazing honesty. Consider:

At the Whitney, one of the most gruesome and riveting images is of the beat-up photographer. It's titled "Nan, one month after being battered 1984." It's what might be called an extreme close-up. The white of her left eye is bordello red, which perfectly matches her lipstick. Her face is puffy, and the welts on her nose and below both eyes are a kind of purplish brown. You get the feeling that the wounds -- spiritual and physical -- are just beginning to heal, recede from their pulpiest view, and that the photographer is now going out again. She's wearing a strand of pearls and big earrings and what looks like an evening gown. This is during a period when she had put on a lot of weight. So who would want to hang such a picture of oneself in a museum?

Goldin would. Wall text nearby informs us:

"For several years, I was deeply involved with a man. We became very addicted to the amount of love the relationship supplied. What you know emotionally and what you crave sexually can be wildly contradictory. . . . It ended in violence."

That neatly printed card is alongside a series of images of a man identified as Brian. Brian is gaunt, tattooed, hirsute, hollow-eyed, long-legged, tooth-darkened. Very photogenic. Goldin gets him in post-ejaculation languor (the photographer has masturbated him, which is clear from the previous picture), and she gets him with the collar of his black leather jacket turned menacingly up and his hooded eyes boring into you.

It's a face you wouldn't tend to forget. Brian knows how to lip a cigarette. Brian knows how to sit naked on the edge of a bed after sex in cheap-hotel light. The amber of the room is at once so beautiful and so depressing that had it not been captured by Goldin (who's in the picture, yearning for Brian), it would have to have been painted by Hopper.

One way to think about Goldin's work is that it is Edward Hopper sending postcards from a deeper shade of hell. Same raccoon eyes on some of her subjects. Same empty rooms looking out on hollow city spaces.

There are several images on the Brian wall of the exhibit which -- were they not mounted at the Whitney and being pored over by crowds of noontime cognoscenti -- you would swear were pornographic. You might say they were that in any case. It's one of the problems of work like this: Does it succeed in some part merely because it's shocking?

Puzzling, what we seem always willing to forgive, or at least overlook, in the name of art.

It's the same willingness with which we tend to overlook her gorgeous self-absorption. Goldin was once in a drug rehab clinic in Boston. This was the late '80s. A nurse stunned her with, "Get over yourself." In a profile in the October Harper's Bazaar, Goldin tells the story: "I'd never heard that phrase, Get over yourself' . . . It had never occurred to me that my experience, my pain, shouldn't be foremost in everyone's minds." Unexpected Humor

Sometimes the photographer's humor will catch you off guard. There is an image in the show titled, "Bruce bleaching his eyebrows, Pleasant St., Cambridge, 1975." Bruce has got white goo on his brows. Bruce is sitting on his thrift-shop bed with some erotic magazines splayed at his feet. Bruce's tanned legs are campily crossed and his hands are clasped at his knee and he's just fetching as hell in his torn blue silky robe. It's got white piping and big lapels. F. Scott Fitzgerald would have happily worn it, once he'd hit his crackup.

On Bruce's feet are big, furry, red, ridiculous slipper muffs. They look like dust mops.

It's Bruce's expression that endears him to you, makes you regard him and the photograph in another way: There is contentment amid the weight, there is a seeming acceptance of who he is. It's as if Bruce -- and the photographer -- are saying to the viewer: We are not afraid of who we are. The curve of his smile makes you remember something Hemingway once wrote of Fitzgerald: "The mouth worried you until you knew him and then it worried you more."

"I never saw the queens as men dressing as women," says Goldin in one of her wall texts, "but as something entirely different -- a third gender that made more sense than the other two."

Another image that seems to double back on itself with its sly sweetness: "Nan as a dominatrix, Boston, 1978." Whoa. You see it and almost wince. Here's Nan, propped against the stove in her Boston apartment years ago: all wet leather and big buckles and torture-bands on her arms. It must be the blackness of the getup against the whiteness of the porcelain that makes you start. Nan's eye shadow and penciled brows and ruby-red lipstick are hideous. Were she not clad in S&M gear, you'd say she was on a casting call for the role of Emperor Ming's daughter in an old Flash Gordon movie.

But look again. The picture begins to turn almost comic: a lady loaded for bear, framed by her pots and pans and colanders and little bottles of hot sauce. At the right edge of the shot, on a Formica table, is a red canister with white hearts painted on it, the kind your mom might have picked up at Woolworth's. Has this leather vision just filled it with sugar?

Look once more: There seem to be faint bruises on her upper arm and a small dark spot in the crook of her arm. Is it a needle track?

From a wall text: By the mid-'80s, "The intensity of the life she recorded had resulted in addiction and physical abuse."

In one of the interviews printed in the catalogue of "I'll Be Your Mirror," Goldin says: "When I was a teenager, I constantly thought I was in a movie. . . . Probably hallucinogens helped."

"Were you the star or the director?" the interviewer asks her.

"I was the narrator." Family Matters

Maybe it's unfair to the art itself, but you wander amid such disturbing and off-putting and often beautiful images, and you can't help wondering about her background. Who were her parents? What was her home life like? What occurred in her growing up that caused her to take the path of netherworldiness?

It's a generally frustrating line of inquiry; one is left with a lot more biographical questions than answers.

Narratively speaking, she has journeyed in her life from Washington to Boston to a loft in the Bowery to various domiciles in Europe. Last year she taught a course at Yale. But this doesn't connect the dots.

The museumgoer gets off the elevator and is informed by the first wall text: "Nan Goldin was born in Washington, D.C., in 1953. After the suicide of her older sister, her family moved to a suburb of Boston. Goldin left home while in her teens."

The handout from the museum's PR office notes that she left her nuclear family at 14. The release enthuses: "Free of biological family, experimenting with gender identity, Goldin created a world of self-definition in a self-constructed space, recorded by constant picture-taking."

As has been pointed out by other reviewers of the show, a footnote in the huge catalogue speaks of her father, apparently still living, as an economist who once worked for the Federal Communications Commission.

You get the idea she wants the world to think that her life began at 14; that all of the preceding is irrelevant. Which cannot be so.

The sense of calculation is more problematic than this, really. Consider: On one wall of the exhibit, along with images of a man masturbating, of a man shooting up, of a man face-down naked in a squalid room, of a woman exhibiting a heart-shaped purplish bruise on her thigh, of the photographer with her right breast exposed and nipple erect is . . . a picture of her mother and father. It's titled "The Parents at a French Restaurant, Cambridge, Ma., 1985."

The Parents, it says. But they're her parents.

They are so properly dressed. Their mouths are tightly (and sadly) set. Her mother is staring out of the frame; her father seems disappointed in the way the world has turned out. Mrs. Goldin's auburn hair is coiffed; Mr. Goldin's tortoise-shell glasses are visible in his breast pocket.

One has the uncomfortable sense, in juxtapositions like this, of the once- and ever-rebellious kid acting out against her middle-class roots. Okay, maybe those roots and that family life were monstrous for her -- there's no real way to know with what has been provided. But it's consternating to come on such purposeful calculation, presumably for some artistic effect. It makes you go against the photographer and for the folks, whether that be chic or not.

And yet . . . one leaves the Whitney with a sense that the artist is growing, going in new directions. Lately she has photographed children, landscapes. "For many years, it was hard between me and my parents," Goldin told the New York Times recently. "But I got clean eight years ago, and matured, and now I really appreciate them." In the last room, on the last wall, hangs one of the most affecting images of the show. It's titled "Lil laughing, Swampscott, Ma., 1996." It's her mom. Lil is sitting on a bed, squeezing a pair of blue balls, and she is laughing uproariously. Her old mouth, showing her yellowing teeth, is cocked open. Certainly pain hovers on both ends of the camera. But there is such love in the picture. Such joy. A Goldin Opportunity

"Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your Mirror," the retrospective of 25 years of work by photographer Nan Goldin, is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, at 945 Madison Ave. (on the corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street), New York. The museum is open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and on Thursday, 1-8 p.m. The Whitney is closed Monday and Tuesday. Admission is $8, $6 for senior citizens and students with identification. Admission is free Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. Information: 212-570-3676. CAPTION: "Nan as a Dominatrix, 1978," from the Whitney exhibit "Nan Goldin: I'll Be Your Mirror." CAPTION: Nan Goldin, in a self-portrait below, has found a gold mine of images in the urban underground. Among them are "Brian and Nan in Bed, New York City, 1983," above; "Ivy Wearing a Fall, Boston, 1973," left; and "Bruce Bleaching His Eyebrows, Pleasant St., Cambridge, 1975." Even her mother gets into the picture in "Lil Laughing, Swanpscott, Ma., 1996," bottom.