People Are Strange
Diane Arbus's photograph A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970 shows an enormous, ungainly young man with two tiny, doll-like parents looking up at him. The son is stooped forward, and you wonder if the ceiling is even high enough for him to stand up straight. He leans on a cane, and one huge shoe seems to have an extra-thick sole, to compensate for one massive leg that is shorter than the other.
It's a freakish image, defying our sense of scale and proportion. He looks like an adult in a children's playhouse. As you look at the photograph, you see the wry smile the son gives to his grim-looking parents, the plump mother in her neatly pressed dress, the father dapper in a dark suit with his hand in his pocket. This is no feel-good, triumph-over-adversity story; there is no happy ending. It simply is what it is. You imagine these people watching their son grow up from a baby, becoming ever larger and larger in this tiny room.
Diane Arbus photographed midgets, giants, transvestites, nudists and circus freaks. She also photographed suburban families in their backyards. In Arbus's photographs, strangeness is the great equalizer, and she exposes it in seemingly "normal" subjects. In her world, it's a short walk from the nuclear family to the circus sideshow, and she makes both uncomfortably riveting.
"Diane Arbus: Revelations," on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a retrospective of her work, with photographs from the 1940s up until 1971, when she committed suicide. The exhibition features iconic as well as lesser-known Arbus images, supplemented by installations of contact sheets, pages from her notebooks, books from her library, copies of correspondence and collages of collected images from her studio.
Arbus's photographs blended empathy with an almost clinical objectivity. Starting around 1969, she took a series of photographs at a home for the mentally retarded. An image of mentally challenged adults in Halloween costumes may sound like something cruel and exploitative, but in Arbus's hands it becomes something else entirely. Starkly posed in front of the camera, her subjects confront you with themselves. There's always an element of voyeurism in viewing Arbus's work, but you pass through that and get to the meat of the person. Sentimentality is absent, but in its place is a deep sense of the gawky, awkward humanity of us all.
Arbus's images of transvestites explore the mutability and incongruity of our identities, depicting subjects trying very hard to be something else. A young man with perfectly drawn eyebrows and curlers smokes a cigarette. A chunky man with bleached-blond hair sits with his male body squished into women's lingerie. Two slender female impersonators stand next to each other with their flawless makeup and pale, flat, hairless chests. These people make you want to know their stories, and Arbus photographed many of them repeatedly. Her images are powerful because her fascination with her subjects extended beyond their appearances -- she was fascinated by them as people.
By the same token, Arbus could hone in on the strangeness in the seemingly mundane. A flower girl at a Connecticut wedding is shot alone against a misty landscape. She wears a slightly ratty white fur coat and holds her empty basket in front of her. Her eyes are wide and shocked, like she has just witnessed an ax murder, not holy matrimony.
Arbus captures figures on the streets that seem even more tortured than another of her subjects, Ronald C. Harrison, the stoic Human Pincushion, who poses with pearl-tipped needles slid through his flesh. A society lady at a ball wearing a tiara looks more like a transvestite than the transvestites. A picture of a gawky teenage couple dressed up for a date makes you want to weep for their earnestness.
These are not comfortable photographs; they make you feel ill at ease, and there's nothing reassuring or nice going on in them. The compassion underlying Arbus's images seems to stem from her understanding that all people are equally strange. She has a soft spot for oddness, that sense of not fitting in and not feeling quite right in the world that's as likely to occur in a flower girl as it is in a circus sideshow performer. The fact that oddness is everywhere somehow makes it okay.
The exhibition's white-walled galleries of photographs are punctuated by darkly painted, intimate rooms filled with some of Arbus's possessions: collages of images, notebooks, collections of books both literary and photographic, cameras and enlargers. The artist's daughter, Doon Arbus, was 26 when her mother killed herself, and she became the executrix of her mother's estate. Thankfully, she and her then-17-year-old sister saved many, many things. Passing through the rooms is like going through the possessions of a deceased loved one, looking for clues, trying to conjure up the dead. Lists, notes, letters, pictures, things clipped from newspapers -- each item reveals a tiny fragment of the person. If only one could gather enough fragments...
Arbus was a wonderful writer, and reading her correspondence and project proposals is as satisfying as it is revealing. Among Arbus's books on the gallery shelves is the catalog for the 1955 "The Family of Man" photography exhibition, which included an early photograph by Arbus and her ex- husband, Allen Arbus. The show was organized by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it presented photographs from all over the world, idealistically and sentimentally focusing on our common humanity. You could argue that Arbus had a similar worldview -- just with a different, highly unromanticized focus.
Arbus waged an ongoing battle with depression and took her own life in 1971. Her autopsy is included in the exhibition catalog's chronology-cum-biography, compiled by Doon Arbus and Elisabeth Sussman. It's a seemingly morbid addition, yet somehow oddly appropriate for an artist with a talent for unblinking scrutiny. The chronology ends with the coroner's findings: "Final cause of death (9/14/71) Incised wounds of wrists with external hemorrhage. Acute barbiturate poisoning. Suicidal." As it does in her photographs, pathos seeps out from behind the clinical objectivity.
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