Diane Arbus at the Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary St.

Self has never been here before.  Even though, she understands after talking to Stella K, it’s a landmark building for photographers and visual artists.

Each floor is divided up into gallery spaces.  Self headed straight to the 4th floor, because that’s where the Diane Arbus photographs were.

Here’s what the exhibit consisted of:  Stark black-and-white portraits.

No, portraits is too kind a word.  All right, stark black-and-white dissections of personality, assembled by theme:

The Mysteries That Bring People Together

The most striking photograph in this group was of an elderly couple, both naked, seated in a living room, staring frankly at the viewer.  The bodies were unspeakably not attractive.  The caption read:  Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, New Jersey 1963.

There was also:  Woman and a dwarf backstage at the circus, New York City, 1959.  The woman (of normal height) and the dwarf were locked in a passionate embrace.  What self remembers best were the looks of absolute disdain being cast in their direction by three men standing at the edge of the frame.

Winners and Losers

There was a large close-up of a baby’s face, a loser at a Diaper Derby.

There was a portrait of a muscle man at a body building competition.  Self doesn’t know why this particular photo was the lowest-priced of all the photographs in the exhibit:  Only $8,500.

People Being Somebody

Self was most struck by the portrait of students at a Santa Claus School in Albion, New York.

Interiors:  the Meaning of Rooms

There were shots of movie theaters and derelict hotels and . . .

Self didn’t get everything.

Many pictures were set in lounges and pool halls.  There were more than a few photographs of transvestites, midgets, and female impersonators.

There was not one iota of sentimentality in any of the pictures.  Self was particularly struck by how wrecked the faces of the old people looked.  They looked like shells draped in clothing.  (In contrast to the many elderly women portrayed in utter isolation, reclining on beds while draped in stoles or mink coats, the nudist couple looked quite cheerful)

Afterwards, self wandered over to the books section.  Many beautiful books of Arbus’s work, some costing a hefty $100 (Oh, did self forget to mention that one of the photographs in the exhibit was listed at $90,000?).  Self bought the cheapest book, an oddity entitled Diane Arbus:  A Chronology.  A book about or written by Arbus, without one single photograph.  Instead, when she browsed through it, the book seemed like a diary of some sort.  Years mark off the sections, and within each section are passages like (for the year 1971):

She places an ad in the newspaper for the class she has decided to teach, posts a notice about it on the bulletin board of The Museum of Modern Art, and mentions the prospect to friends and acquaintances.

Do you know, the tone reminds self of — one of her own short stories.  Self likes to write in just such a blank, detached way.  In fact, if self were to pick out a story at random from one of her oeuvre, dear blog readers would detect the resemblance immediately.  Fascinating, simply fascinating.  Self wants to find out if there is a Santa Claus school somewhere in the Bay Area.

Stay tuned.

2 Comments

  1. December 21, 2013 at 5:15 pm

    Marianne,

    Diane Arbus is one of my favorite photographers! I often teach her work alongside Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem or some of O’Connor’s short stories. Anyway — I am going to AWP — send me an email?

    Beth

    • December 21, 2013 at 5:20 pm

      I will e-mail you, Beth!

      So interesting that you teach Arbus alongside Didion. I feel she’s very attracted to the grotesque (Arbus). I see this in myself, sometimes.


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