Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Diane Arbus

There was an article in Saturday’s New York Times about a Diane Arbus exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum. As I read about her life and her work, I realized how closely tied they were to New York and how much they drew me back there. I read the descriptions of some of the photos in the exhibit, and I could see them before me although it’s been 20 years since I last looked at them. I remember the chronological progression in her monograph, entitled simply “Diane Arbus”. The people with something unusual about them, the people who look normal but are hiding something mysterious, then the “freaks”, and finally, the mentally retarded. My photography teachers at Princeton knew her and one said he saw her a few days before she died, that she had her cameras with her and seemed excited about taking pictures again.

When I lived in New York my haunts included photo galleries and book shops, where I gravitated to the photography books like a bee to a flower bed. Sooner or later I always found myself with the Diane Arbus book in hand. I leafed through it so many times I nearly memorized it. I couldn’t afford then to collect books of all my favorite photographers, nor did I have room in my 160ft² (16m²) apartment to keep them. My brother-in-law used to call my apartment “the hovel”.

A friend once took me to a Diane Arbus exhibit in New York while I was still living there. I have never seen anything like it before or since. It was a performance. The space was divided into booths. In each booth were people dressed as the subjects of her photos, with the décor to match. Suddenly everyone snapped into position and there was a flash of light. An image was fixed on my retina. It was the image of a Diane Arbus photo. Then I went into the next booth.

There are parts of my life in New York that have never found an echo here in France. There’s no French counterpart to replace them. France is neither a continuation of them, nor an answer to them, nor the antidote, just different, something other. In some respects it has taken me a long time to open up to France’s otherness, or my experience of it as otherness, to allow a place for it inside me. When I have, usually through another person’s enthusiasm, the experience has been rewarding, first on an intellectual level, then on an emotional attachment level. There are wonderful things here, some that I have already discovered (it’s only been 15 years!), others that are waiting to be discovered.

Now I can afford those photography books and could order them easily from Amazon, but I haven’t got the courage to do it. I’m afraid to re-open a closed chapter of my life, apprehensive about what I might find inside.

But I still miss New York.

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2 Comments:

At 1:39 AM, Anonymous Joe Q. said...

Hi Steve -- I remember you as a photographer yourself in the old days. There was a college yearbook shot of you that was very much like a columnist's face-shot, crouching at the ready, cameras at hand and 'round your neck. Have you kept up with that at all? Any attempts to emulate Arbus? Have you found subjects in France to inspire you? Have you embraced the point-and-shoot family record philosophy (which is perfectly legitimate). A couple of years ago, for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, my siblings and I put their collection of family slides onto disc -- some 7,000 images or more -- for viewing on DVD or computer. We made copies for ourselves as well, and watching them now is a little surreal, like watching ancient history and being shocked to see yourself standing next to the pyramids or Shakespeare or Lincoln. The world in the pictures didn't seem old at the time -- why is it sepia-toned now? It takes time to look beyond the smiling faces and see the dated cars and clothes and other things we took for granted. But when you do, it's like discovering another planet. And the aliens look just like you.

 
At 11:20 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I'd say that back then I was obsessed with photography. It was my prop, my reason for being there.

Lately, I've been drawn towards two subjects in particular, now aged 10 and 6. They are a recurrent them in my photos. Other family members and friends are also prominent. Rarely do I take pictures of "strangers". Just doesn't interest me anymore.

No, no attempt to emulate Diane Arbus. That would be too depressing. But come to think of it, I do have one framed photo of subjects 10 and 6, then 4 and 0.5, where I printed the entire negative, so that there's a sort of fuzzy black border around it. That's something she used to do.

Finally, my digital photos are beginning to outnumber my silver ones. I don't like not having a negative, and I'm soon going to need a more robust storage system. But I love being able to shoot as many photos as my heart desires. So do subjects 10 and 6.

Thanks for your comment.

 

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