Photography

arbus

I’d planned another kind of day, that day. I’d been running around all weekend, catching up on my errands, post office, dry cleaning, bank, well, driving around, which is exhausting. Because in between each stop, there’s the careful parking and parallel parking, and getting out of the car, and locking the door and walking into the store, and reversing all the steps.

Somehow or other, I’d picked up a copy of “Filmmaker”, the magazine of indie film, and read it pretty much cover to cover, including all the techy specs on cameras and lighting. There was a great piece about Little Children–which was haunting and stimulating when it didn’t go over the top–and a beautiful interview on Fur, the essay of a sort on Diane Arbus’s beginnings as a photographer at age 35. I like Filmmaker because it only selectively writes about what it loves. I hate film magazines that write about mediocre movies or tear down the work of artists. What good does that ever do?

So when I wandered around Borders, I just grabbed all the books about Arbus from the photography collection and read the whole liner notes, spoken in Arbus’s quiet, simple, unassuming voice. They were as haunting as her photographs. Little moments of thinking “yes…yes…that’s exactly how life is. That’s exactly what it feels like”.

I’d found it hard before to understand the reach and pull of Arbus’s photos because they’re not of classically beautiful things. I suppose it depends on the individual but they’re not an “easy wow” like Ansel Adam’s very pre-and post-meditated landscapes (which may not be everyone’s cup of tea either). Dwarves and hermaphrodites, transvestite prostitutes, homeless people, nudists, children with down syndrom, circus freaks. So particular, such utterly specific worlds are Arbus’s, true to what she believed, that the more specific you make a photograph, the more general it will be.

And they are. I found myself looking at the large prints of these photos that were uncomfortable, after having had a tour of Arbus’s vision, and seeing past their representation, deep into what they were saying to me, these people I’d never met or might never meet. She felt a tremendous responsibility, in a sense, to go out and see things and take pictures of them that no one would ever see if she didn’t. And these people who’d been through probably what people would never want to live through–disfiguration, prostitution, abuse–had emerged on the other side, so universal, knowledgeable to everything that is human.

Diane Arbus just gave everyone the tool to stare at the people one always wants to stare at but never dares to because it’s “impolite”. And what happens when you stare at them? You realize what you might have suspected all along, that where you thought it would be monstrous, it isn’t, and you relate to the human condition. You relate, that is the human condition.

What moved me even more was her gutsiness. At 35 she followed her unique, unusual, very quiet inner voice with so much determination. She speaks simply, I can almost hear her voice. Possibly one of the things that stayed with me, was her definition of her inner voice, or the closest she came to it, explaining how she felt she had a corner on something about the quality of things. Seeing them in her own brand of way, or seeing things that no one else in the world would see. And of sometimes, when she saw a picture, hearing a resounding “no, no” inside of her, that told her for certain, “that’s not the way it is”.

I’d never heard an artists voice being carved out so unglamourously. Usually they trace out a vision as grand as the starry sky, something real, something crazy beautiful and grandiose that they have to usher into the world as their great destiny, but not this short passionate woman. She just had this “no” inside of her, and this “private feeling (of) how different it really is” when she would look at photographs and paintings.

Anyway, it really just blew me away, in a quiet, unassuming sort of way, like being the only person who saw that once-in-a-lifetime rainbow, and when everyone else turned around, the sky was just blue, and you just couldn’t explain it.

Except I just wrote a whole post about it.

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