Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Arbus: Paragons


Those with two heads know something you don't - Diane Arbus

Distrust everything - especially the happy face,
the successful face, the face with something solid
stacked behind the eyes. Locate instead the scapegrace,
the lost and the squalid,

those who have nothing to say with the eyes but the eyes
are open and inward or are lost down a well
where you look down the shaft to find them and their faces rise
like your own in the circle

of water, with lips large as dinner-plates: the man with a tail,
the man who smoked cigars with his eyes, the Siamese twins
in Hubert's or Huber's where there is neither male nor female
but paradigms and paragons

that tickle your guilt and your pity. You say: I don't want
to make you cry, but when the button's there you press it.
And it's true that those with two heads know something you don't,
only you guess it.

(from Blind Field, 1994)

The characters are all from Arbus's own experiences. She was a frequenter of freak shows at a place called Hubert's or Huber's. She also said: 'I don't want to make you cry, but when the button's there you press it'. What Mark Granier says in the comment to the previous post is absolutely true and justified. It is only that "their faces rise / like your own in the circle // of water".

I suspect it is our faces we see as if from the other side. The 'freaks' are not out there: they are within. Those in the photographs retain dignity and integrity, are in possession of themselves. We do not retain it. We, whose eyes have something solid stacked behind them, in that alternative moment become the scapegrace, the lost and the squalid. It is not appearance at stake, but condition.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

That circle of water is a fine image George. Yes, they are of course as human as we are, and photographers like Arbus can bring this home; part of her mission seems to have been to reveal the outcast/marginal/freakish as, essentially, normal. Other portraits of hers are the same mirror reversed, revealing the 'normal' as slightly off-key/disturbing/freakish. Her boy with a toy hand grenade is a perfect example: http://tribes.tribe.net/photoaesthetics/photos/410f57cf-cadc-4f4d-9ebb-28d0228bdd23
One friend of mine adamantly refused to see this image as in any way disturbing, insisting that the boy was just doing what children do, playing it as 'real' as possible. I think my friend had a point; part of the tension that makes the image memorable is the way it shimmers between everyday and deranged (with obvious echoes of the Vietnam War). In a sense, I think Arbus's best images have what many good & great photographer portraitists are aiming for, a subject that wobbles between worlds, as in Avedon's Beekeeper:

Arbus managed to nail something though, an atmospheric pressure that is as artistically distinctive as a Picasso skull. She was unique.