The world of Diane Arbus.
PORTLAND - The world has got Diane Arbus all wrong.
She was not, as the late Susan Sontag would have had you believe, a narcissistic exploiter of the deranged and downtrodden. She wasn't mean-spirited. She didn't take advantage of her subjects, any more than does the average journalist who lulls people into sitting down for a story or a photo.
In saying this, I am planting myself on the minority side of a divide in American photography criticism, which more often than not holds that Arbus, a New York photographer who killed herself in 1971, was essentially cruel to the people she photographed - among them physical freaks and the mentally disabled - as well as to her audience, whom she meant to shock and to annoy.
Whether she was mean-spirited in her work has, unfortunately, become the central question that is asked about Arbus, whose photography deserves far better and more careful understanding and investigation.
The question arises at all because her work is so gripping and intimate that the photographs are almost impossible to separate from the photographer. How, we think, could she have possibly gotten these people to let her take these pictures? Unable to ask the people in the photos, we move quickly from skepticism to distrust.
This question has lingered, unflattering and unresolved, because the Arbus estate has kept a death grip on her works for the past three decades, shrouding a photographer whose motives were already suspect in layers of mystery and legend.
Now, at last, a new show of her work has been put together out of materials owned by outsiders not subject to the dictates of Doon Arbus, Diane's daughter and gatekeeper of the estate.
"Family Albums" - the title is a reference to Arbus' idea that we are all members of a giant family, as well as a jab at Edward Steichen's oversweet "Family of Man" exhibition - was put together by the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in Massachusetts and the Spencer Museum of Art in Kansas. Having traveled much of the country, it recently opened at the Portland Art Museum.
Modeling photos bored Arbus
Arbus was a New York fashion and commercial photographer who grew quickly bored with photographing frilly little models and turned her camera loose on the denizens of walk-up flats and back alleyways of Manhattan.
A protege of Walker Evans, whose documentary photography of Southern tenant farmers in the Depression is woven into the American conscience, she began photographing regular people - ordinary, fat, lethargic, old, pompous, irritating people, by contrast to her former models - with a directness and intimacy that has seldom been rivaled.
Soon, she began photographing nudists, transvestites, prostitutes and almost anyone who seemed not to fit in easily with her upper middle class background. While she looked to Evans as a mentor, she also worked along the lines of such earlier European photographers as August Sander, who simply documented types of people in Germany.
Did she mean to shock her parents or her husband? Perhaps. But she also seemed, by the great energy she invested into her photography, to care deeply about the people she worked with, people who were marginalized by the rest of us.
Arbus adored freaks. She photographed the midget actor Andrew Ratoucheff, star of Todd Browning's amazing and disturbing film "Freaks," which she went to see again and again.
"Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience," she said. "Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life.
Occasionally, she photographed celebrities, sometimes to their dismay. Norman Mailer, who posed for her, famously said that giving Arbus a camera was like giving a child a hand grenade.
Arbus' best-known single work is her haunting photograph of side-by-side twin girls, whose identical faces are just enough different that they seem like a paradigm of good and evil, darkness and light. Stanley Kubrick liked them so much he alluded to the pair with the creepy children who haunt the giant hotel in his movie "The Shining."
View exhibit from back to front
"Family Albums" is built around the slenderest body of material imaginable for a museum show that's attracted as much national attention as this one has. It contains little more than the contact sheets and a few prints from a single family portrait commission Arbus undertook - that's the material that ended up at Mount Holyoke - and the original photographs she submitted as a free-lancer for Esquire, the archives of which have gone to the Spencer Museum.
You'll want to see the Portland version of this exhibit from back to front. Walk on past the color portrait of Mae West - the one color work in the show, it greets you at the door - and head directly to the small gallery at the rear, where Portland photography curator Terry Toedtemeier has sequestered the contact sheets and prints from Arbus' 1969 portrait sessions with the New York actor and theater owner Konrad Matthaei and his family.
This is where you'll find the most revelation - not of Arbus' subjects, but of the photographer herself, whose work can be traced from one contact sheet to another.
Arbus spent two long days with the Matthaeis and their children, taking more than 320 medium-format photographs. Frame after frame of a young boy and the Christmas tree are followed by the adults on the sofa, behind the coffee table, and an adolescent daughter standing stiff and unsmiling in her crocheted dress. Everywhere, we see the expensive furnishings and art works that show class and substance.
You can see Arbus at work here, snapping the shutter time and again, clearly seeking something - what? you often wonder, as the something doesn't always materialize - and then moving on to the next possibility.
If Arbus was driven by any mean-spirited agenda in her work, you won't find it here. Photographing the Matthaeis could have been shooting fish in a barrel for anyone inclined toward the simplistic cultural politics of 1969.
Rich, powerful, uptight, the family would have been easy marks for a cool Manhattan photographer who, by then, had been exhibited to great acclaim at the Museum of Modern Art. But for Arbus, they were just another family, just like the freaks and transvestites she also shot.
Photos capture creepiness
Arbus loved the idea of family but was unsentimental about it.
"All families are creepy in a way," she once wrote.
The Matthaei family photographs capture some of that essential creepiness, but they never dwell on it. They are, in the end, perhaps not quite inspired - none of them approaches Arbus' best work - but perfectly presentable in polite society. And they are completely at odds with the photographer's vicious image.
From the Matthaeis, head back out to the main gallery, where you'll find original photographs from many of Arbus' assignments for Esquire. She photographed Bennett Cerf, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson (not to mention their singing son, Ricky), uber-atheist Madalyn Murray, Jayne Mansfield, Tokyo Rose and Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The Spencer Museum trove of Esquire material also includes contact sheets, giving you more opportunity to see Arbus at work, though nothing as extensive as the Matthaei photos.
Take a careful look at two large prints she made in 1971 of Ozzie and Harriet, the quintessential 1950s television family, posed in a scrupulously manicured yard at their home in Southern California. You'll have to look carefully to find the differences between the two shots, both of which she submitted to the magazine.
In the first, Harriet grimaces slightly, as though she doesn't understand something the photographer has just said. In the next frame, Harriet has her face back under control, but Ozzie's made-for-TV expression has wilted, infinitesimally, making his face relax into something more human - and more like a man who deals with the reality of family life.
Families like the Nelson's - like everyone's family - may be creepy, but Arbus herself wasn't. It was a tragedy that she succumbed to depression and died at the age of 48. It's a second tragedy that the world has regarded her since her death with so little generosity.
This show, in a small way, should help.
Bob Keefer can be reached at 338-2325 or email@example.com.
ARBUS: FAMILY ALBUMS
What: Photographs by Diane Arbus
Where: Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Portland
When: Through April 24
Admission: Adults $10, seniors and students $9, ages 5 through 18 $6, age 4 and younger free
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday - until 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday - and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Blaze Starr, the stripper and political paramour, posed for famed photographer Diane Arbus in 1964 in this portrait for Esquire magazine titled `Blaze Starr at Home.'
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|Title Annotation:||Arts & Literature; An exhibit of works by the shocking photographer proves that families can be freaky, too|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Feb 27, 2005|
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