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Signs of the Times 

Her name was Diane Arbus, and when she was 48 years old she killed herself. That was in 1971, when her notoriety as a photographer of freakish people was at its peak. Controversial at the time, she remains controversial today. Some people hated her, or what they thought she stood for. Susan Sontag, the most fashionable essayist of the 1970s, accused her of portraying a "freak show" vision of America, "a wasteland." But that may be too harsh. While it's true she was obsessively drawn to unusual looking people, we don't really know what she was trying to do. Might it not be equally possible that she simply identified with them in some way?

A candid Gary Winogrand photograph of Arbus at work reveals a disheveled and eccentric looking woman in baggy clothes engaging her subject with her Mamiya twin-lens reflex camera. Her facial features suggest a mix of curiosity and pathos, a neurotic level of aggression that appears poised to implode at a moment's notice into some sort of torturous, Woody Allenish inner monologue, the lament of a tragic clown in the pursuit of other tragic clowns. Notoriously coy about her motives, she had mentioned wanting to photograph certain of her subjects because they were "really something." They are really something. Looking at her photographs can be a guilty pleasure, because we're never quite sure what that something is or why they are so intriguing.

Her images at A Gallery for Fine Photography include a portfolio from a local collection fleshed out with others from the gallery's inventory. The portfolio is the legendary Box of Ten that Arbus put together shortly before her death and that she intended to be the first of a series. Taken as a whole, the photographs in the show are representative; their subjects' idiosyncrasies range from the subtle to the striking, but all reflect her flamboyantly enigmatic vision. A Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y. , 1970, is somewhat emblematic.

The setting is in most respects conventional, a middle-class living room right out of a 1950s TV show. Only the relative intimacy of scale locates it in an older urban area and not a sprawling suburb. That diminutive scale extends to the occupants, a courtly couple near retirement age whose formal manner suggests roots in some nameless "old country." Only their son, an improbably towering mountain of a man who cranes his head down toward them from the ceiling as if speaking to toddlers, is out of place, a giant in a Lilliputian setting. The mother, barely more than half his height, cranes her head upward as the father gazes blankly ahead, as if pondering the imponderable, and the whole scene is fraught with eerie Arbusian pathos, a tragicomic poignancy. Another image, this time of a transvestite with hair in curlers as he poses with a cigarette, is more overtly comical, perhaps because of the contrast between his big bones, dramatic eye shadow and long, manicured fingernails, a study in extravagant campiness.

But she could photograph the ordinary with strangely similar results. Woman With Veil on 5th Avenue, 1968, is just that, an older lady whose plump veiled face under a pale turban is framed by the towers of midtown. A vintage-Cadillac of a woman, her eyes beam a sassy Mae-Westian majesty, and everything about her is sort of normal, yet extravagantly so. And how to explain the photo of a suburban living room with a sunburst clock and Christmas tree dripping with tinsel over brightly wrapped presents -- a perfectly ordinary domestic scene that somehow resonates all of the deadly ennui of the season? Look at it too long and you might cry, or turn into a pillar of salt. Somehow the effect is not that different from her Child With Toy Hand Grenade, Central Park, a photo of a manic looking lad who seems at least as ballistic as his toy bomb. It was taken during the Vietnam War, and with a single image, Arbus captured the unstable ambience of the time. That implicit instability was her mŽtier, her calling card, her season pass to a show that is really all around us but which most of us choose not to see.

click to enlarge In her CHILD WITH TOY HAND GRENADE, CENTRAL PARK, - Diane Arbus captured the loss of innocence and unstable - ambience of the Vietnam War era. - DIANE ARBUS AND DOON ARBUS, COURTESY OF ARBUS ESTATE
  • Diane Arbus and Doon Arbus, courtesy of Arbus Estate
  • In her CHILD WITH TOY HAND GRENADE, CENTRAL PARK, Diane Arbus captured the loss of innocence and unstable ambience of the Vietnam War era.


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Speaking of Through December, Diane Arbus: A FINE COLLECTION

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