Archive for September, 2011


Arbus Speaks

When I first heard Diane Arbus’s voice, I felt as if I’d known it all along. It’s a voice that’s as singular as her pictures, girlish and definite in tone, a voice that conveys in its lovely trills and reasonableness the artist’s infinite ability to be continually thrilled, and to revel in the various mysteries her chosen medium had to offer. It’s a taped voice, obviously. The event: a lecture at the International Center of Photography, when that venerable institution was downtown. The year: 1970. Arbus is talking to the assembled about her work, and pictures ripped from newspapers and magazines that inspire her. (“I like to put things around my bed all the time,” she says. “Pictures of mine I like and other things, and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.”) A Japanese photographer is taping the talk so he can play it back to himself later on; he doesn’t want to miss a word of what she has to say, and his English is less than perfect.

The resulting tape—and the images she exhibited during the slide show—are all we have of Diane Arbus moving through time, as it were, and it’s that precious, forty-minute document that’s being screened at the School of Visual Arts theatre on October 6th. The slide show will be shown alongside the British-born photographer Neil Selkirk’s moving 2005 documentary, “Who Is Marvin Israel?,” an investigation of the life and work of one of Arbus’s close friends and intellectual companions, a pioneering art director and painter.

Arbus’s voice. Somehow one had always been prepared for the playfulness and charm and ready laugh, because it’s there in certain aspects of her work, and in the transcripts, interviews, and so on, that made up the introduction to “Diane Arbus.” In that extraordinary work, published a year or so after the photographer’s suicide, on July 26, 1971, we hear her voice on the printed page, framed by witticisms that always belied, at least for me, her reputation as the “dark lady of photography.”

In “Diane Arbus,” which remains Aperture’s best-selling photography book to date (and which is being reissued this year to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of its publication; the exceptional 1995 volume, “Diane Arbus: Untitled” is being republished as well), Arbus says, apropos of her experience of photographing a dog on Martha’s Vineyard, “I don’t particularly like dogs. Well, I love stray dogs, dogs who don’t like people. And that’s the kind of dog picture I would take if I ever took a dog picture. One thing I would never photograph is dogs lying in the mud.” In this and other similarly beautiful, goofy, and profound sentences, Arbus embraces—and imparts—the surreality of the photographic experience to her interlocutor, whether she’s behind the camera or not. What comprises a dog picture? A dog? The dirt the dog stands on? Or the photographer imagining how she’d photograph a dog if she took a picture of one?

Above all, Arbus knew what this exchange meant—that is, the dialogue between the portraitist and her subjects, their reality and her imagination. “I work from awkwardness,” she said. “By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.” That arrangement is about humility: you don’t change the subject, the subject changes you. Arbus’s pictures are characterized by a certain reverential silence; she listens as her subjects explain something of themselves. Listening and watching the slide show, one arranges one’s body not so much to fit the sound of Arbus’s language as to open oneself up to her enthusiasm for this or that image, and for the beautiful inscrutableness that comes with making anything at all. Indeed, one reason for Arbus’s continued controversy as an artist may have something to do with what she demands of the viewer: that they change their shape—their socially acceptable self—in order to meet her totemic drag kings and queens, nudists, soothsayers, and so on. Very few people are willing to give up all that they recognize, and construct, which is to say the comfort of the status quo, which Arbus indirectly criticized in her choice of subject matter, again and again. (Arbus was notoriously uncomfortable with her own privileged upbringing and considered it somewhat crippling.)

I first heard Arbus in Neil Selkirk’s kitchen. Selkirk knew Arbus, and is the only person besides Arbus herself who has ever printed her work. He is responsible for the delicate, resonant prints we see in “Diane Arbus”; “Magazine Work,” from 1984; “Diane Arbus: Untitled”; and “Revelations,” from 2003. (The prints in the recently reissued books are image separations by Robert J. Hennessey based on Selkirk’s prints.) We sat in a darkened area; the images flashed on a small screen. Arbus begins not with her work but with the clippings that inspired her. One slide: a newspaper image of a tornado. By way of description, she tells the folk at the I.C.P., “That’s a picture of a tornado,” and pauses. I laughed, because what more could she say? What more could be said? For pure photography to exist, it must live outside or beyond language, which means reducing it to its literalness. This is a picture of a tornado. Here’s a rock. Here’s a picture of me looking at a rock and imagining what kind of photograph I could make out of it.

Arbus is similarly amusing when she talks about one of her iconic images, “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962.” “That’s just a kid with a hand grenade,” she says on the tape, and her audience cracks up. My guess is that it’s the qualifying “just” that got Arbus’s audience; it got me. She didn’t “just” take pictures of kids with hand grenades, or girls in striped bikinis, or gay people in Washington Square Park, or a lady with a toy poodle: she inhabited what they shared with her. Working one summer in Washington Square Park, and fascinated by the social strata she found there, Arbus found herself stumped—at first. “I could become a nudist, I could become a million things,” she says not at all boastfully during this invaluable presentation. “But I could never become that, whatever all those people were.” She tried and tried. But sometimes trying doesn’t work, “and you just go to the movies.” Again the audience at the I.C.P. laughs, because art-making can, and quite often does, make you want to give up, and go to the movies.

Still, Arbus was primarily attracted to worlds she didn’t understand. She returned to Washington Square Park. The mystery of it appealed to her tenacity. “There were days I just couldn’t work there,” she says “and then there were days I could. And then, having done it a little, I could do it more.” That’s the lesson artists should run with: do it a little, do it more. Fail better and better. “I take rotten pictures,” Arbus announces in the slideshow at one point. “I think that’s another important secret. I used to think that you could just take the good ones. You could just be terribly efficient, and you just wouldn’t play unless you took the good ones. But it doesn’t really work that way. It’s just the thing of doing it so goddamn much.” Throughout her career, Arbus protected her right to retain the enthusiasm of an amateur with none of an amateur’s limitations. To fail better and more knowingly with each click of the shutter.

Diane-Arbus-Chronology.jpgWatching the slideshow, and listening to that voice, I couldn’t escape something she’d said once, and may very well want us to remember as we look at her images in the dark, or read the informative “Diane Arbus: A Chronology, 1923—1971,” a beautiful new, pictureless book of material culled from Arbus’s letters, diaries, and so on, which first appeared in “Diane Arbus: Revelations” (both book and catalogue will also be available at Arbus’s first retrospective in Paris, at the Jeu de Paume, which runs from October 8th until February 5, 2012; the show subsequently travels to Switzerland, Berlin, and Amsterdam): “I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”


Modesty: Lydia Davis and Duro Olowu

Lydia Davis writes stories whose central plot point is the very act of thinking. In a small and beautiful chapbook called “The Cows” (2001) she describes a field with cows across the street from her house near Pittsville, in upstate New York. Not a blink of the cow eye goes unnoticed by this author. Night falls on the cows, and then it’s a new day, and the cows are still there. Just recently, during a talk at Wellesley College, Lydia Davis mentioned how she feels she’s come to the end of her life as a translator; her most recent work, a new version of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” took three years to complete. “Now it’s time to get on with me,” Davis said. But her tone wasn’t that of a boaster; in point of fact, she offered this bit of information shyly, tentatively, like a girl who was new to writing, and had discovered something as liberating and frightening as the first person narrative. She would have to learn to say “I.” Even though some of Lydia Davis’ many stories are told in the first person, as is her beautiful 1995 novel, “The End of the Story,” her writing has rarely been about her personality. Indeed, she takes Renata Adler’s here-but-not-here fictional voice even further by making the white space between her paragraphs wide and then wider. It’s the white space–the pause of reflection–where Davis’ various narrators reflect on what has become before, and what will come after, and whether their consciousness has a right to exist at all. In the end, reading Davis is not like reading at all; one watches her stories develop right before one’s very eyes, like a photographic negative finding itself made into a picture. Her work as a translator was about her intellectual interest in making language be something other than what it was–French–and turning it into something else–English–and how that transformation can and often does transform the translator, too. But one got the sense, during her talk, that Davis regarded translating as a kind of forked tongue enterprise by now, a twice-told tale that suited her humility once as she worked behind the scenes, working her way up to an “I” that fights to know itself, quietly, diligently. Humility is rare enough in literature, and rarer, still, in fashion. But modesty was at the heart of Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu’s latest collection. He finds sustenance in heritage. His eye for prints, and the cut of fabric around the print the story has to tell on its own, makes a light that reminds one of his native land, where surface and form combine to illuminate if not help create a better being. Indeed, one is reminded, looking at Olowu’s latest, distinctive work, of the tenets of African style: one’s outside reflects the inside, while the inside emits something of one’s place in the world, the joy to be had in costuming as a higher form of communication. But Olowu has roots in London, too, and as the models shimmied not too ostentatiously in his lovely bits of there but not there fabric during his recent show, I was reminded of the prints David Hockney’s muse, textile designer Celia Birdwel, created for her late husband, Ozzie Clark, in the nineteen-seventies. Like Clark before him, Olowu is interested in style but not at the expense of personality; Olowu dresses the woman who knows how to say “I” without shrieking it.


West Indian Style: Two Views

The women captured here are West Indians, something I understood intuitively based on their costuming, posture, and gait. Both photographs were taken this fall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one in the health food co-op I belong to, and where the woman with the cart was buying bottled water and sorrel, the other as I was walking down Massachusetts Avenue toward Central Square, by far the most interesting part of town. I recall my father saying he had family here, but I don’t know them. Still, I see them.


Power Structures

Nothing calms the mind–my mind–like drifting. Stepping out the door with no particular place to go and getting lost in the process is, as Walter Benjamin and Robert Walser have pointed out, the action of a man who is interested in discovery but not reward: to be content to drift, one must not have a particular goal in mind, except to remain open in the world of elements. Fall is the very best time to drift on the East Coast: there is weather, but so much of it that it interferes with breathing, and the attention one wants to pay to nothing at all. Generally drifting is best done alone, or, if not alone, then with walkers who understand that silence and exhaling are essential to this utterly calming, “nothing” activity: to speak is to think (or it should be) and to think is to be engaged by one’s interlocutor, which then tips over into what one does for a living: listening and watching others be themselves, or a self they pull out of their heart, and imagination. No, drifting is best done alone, not even with a beloved, because that’s a shared world, and the drifter prefers to share his absent self with a world that will not ask his name, or how he feels. The best city for drifting is San Francisco, because it’s a vertical and horizontal town: your thoughts can float upward, or roll down into the ocean. The best drift in SF is near Twin Peaks where the wind and fog are constant, and so thick, and so troubling, that you find yourself being blown about into a kind of tumbled drift. Once, walking near Twin Peaks, I saw a porn star I admire very much in his convertible; his tiny, fine hair was being smooshed by the wind as he looked at this strange black man in a knitted cap smiling at nothing as his sweatshirt, drenched with perspiration and happiness, went nowhere. Perhaps that was stranger than anything he’d ever seen on the set of a stroke flick, I don’t know; the world is in the eye of the beholder. In any case, the element I like to drift through most is fog. I love it’s impermanence, and its shield. I don’t know where I’m going in it, but I go. And a similar calm affects me when I run into the only thing that causes me to pause when I drift: power plants. They calm me. I can walk around them for hours, and can see–Temple Grandin-like–how they work in a flash. Power plants have a hum I like listening to as well; there’s non-verbal meaning in the steadiness. (The other hum I love is emitted from disco speakers when the bass is particularly thick. The bass lulls me to sleep.) Pausing to take in a plant’s structure, I’m fascinated by the eerie light that illuminates the structure, a light that’s kept low, maybe, so as not to hurt the pipes, valves, metal steps, grates, and warning signs (“Danger. High Voltage”) that do not protect because there are generally no people around to warn, which must account for why I am so attracted to the plant’s architecture, the hum, the stairs leading to shut doors: there is no evidence of anyone near any of it. Or, if there are people in the plant, they are in the rooms beyond, not in plain sight, sporting white coats and gloves, discovering things I do not want to know. Just recently, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, walking and walking, when I came across a plant that’s attached to M.I.T. It was hidden in plain sight, behind a glass wall. But I could feel the hum before I saw it. And the hum that almost fall evening reminded me of a beat I’ve missed for a long while now: the disco bass that used to rock me to sleep as my friends danced on in this or that club, drifting through time and relationships and meaning like none of it was ever going to end up being a big deal at all.


Found Man



The Russian Baths, on East 10th Street here in Manhattan, hasn’t lost much of its beautiful funkiness, despite it’s new marble front, and slightly better laundered towels. Get there early enough, and the men’s locker room is actually clean, but I don’t think a spa-like atmosphere of tidiness and comfort is the point of the Russian Baths; the point or a significant point is its grittiness, and it’s improvised atmosphere of now a massage, now a beet salad (the food and juice bar to the left as you enter is delicious, and offers rough hewn specialties, such as herring and chopped liver). And, of course, there’s the basement, with its dry sauna and wet sauna and pool and wet air that smells of eucalyptus and flesh. Once, in the steam, I saw Puerto Rican men drumming while Hasidic Jewish men listened quietly to the beat, dressed in yarmulkes and towels. In short, the baths retains it’s air of lackadaisical health while pulsating with a kind of ache: New Yorkers are different, and difference creates a feeling of isolation, and at the Russian Baths everyone is different together. But there are temporary balms for that ever present, cut off feeling. The baths offer little rooms, and secret corners to be alone in, the better to contemplate mortality, or the too much food, too much liquor the night before problem. Indeed, it was after ingesting too many different kinds of consumables recently that sent me cabbing over to E. 10th Street. I hadn’t been to the baths in a long while. And after showering and toweling and robing, I was very pleased to see the things I’d always loved about the place, including Russian men sporting towels-as-turbans walking around the basement, offering a platka (massage/beating with oak leaves soaked in a frothy bath) but I rarely want a platka; what I like best is looking and not looking in their round or slanted, young-old Russian eyes–what have they seen in Moscow, in Siberia?–as they flirt with men and women alike, peddling their expertise, which is their body–and yours. An atmosphere of bodies: I I first saw the baths in Deborah Turberville’s iconic 1975 Vogue fashion spread. She got the place right in that the attitudes her models struck–they stretch and preen and are emotionally tough, or closed off; they’re not engaged in anything but their own self-consciousness–mirrored life as it was lived in a dirtier New York. Turbeville’s girls will never get clean. Their souls have been sullied.  Ten years or so later, Nan Goldin shot a lingerie story for the late, lamented “V” Magazine (a fashion supplement that came out once a month or so in the Village Voice, and was edited by the brilliant Mary Peacock, who had put the legendary “Rags” together in the nineteen-seventies) in the same locale, but already the world was changing. While Goldin was trying to contrast the fineness of the lingerie with the fucked surroundings, it was the introduction of such luxury items into a downtown fashion story that should have told us something about where fashion was going, and thus New York. Goldin’s models are dead in their contrived, disaffected moment of being. Only one model in that story undercuts Goldin’s literalness: a beautifully pregnant Rebecca, whom all boys, gay and straight, cruised as she ambled along in the East Village, pre-during-and post pregnancy. One marveled at her beautiful features–the large nose, the mouth that didn’t break out into a please love me smile–because Rebecca was New York, which is to say herself. And it’s important, still, to find the freaks; they let you know how different life is, and should be. During my trip to the baths, I met a middle-aged Russian man who sat outside the various saunas, near the pool. He looked sad, mournful. He’d had an operation he said, and showed me the scar on his belly. He had to lose weight. Then, shyly, like a con man who was used to hiding something but who had to reveal a little of himself a little in order to get what he needed, the Russian man with the scar and sad eyes asked me to scrub his head with his brush as hard as possible. The bristles were bent from frequent use. I took the brush. I felt as though I’d been dropped down the dark well of someone’s need, a need I did not share. But I brushed his shaved head just the same, because it was his heart’s desire. Harder, please, harder, and harder. But I could only go so far. I was a disappointment, as all desire is: it’s never satisfied. And as I was leaving the basement, and the bodies, and the sometimes articulated want one can find there, I saw the same Russian man asking a slightly bewildered but ultimately accommodating young man to pull his fingers as hard as possible. No one looked on with any great interest. This was New York.