Thursday, February 14, 2008

Arbus, For Example

I always thought that Robert Frank was my favorite photographer. The Americans was a seminal book in my own development as a poet. After I saw the Diane Arbus show last year at the Metropolitian Museum. I had seen many Arbus photos in books, but had never seen them in person. The show was, for me, kind of an "ah,ha" moment. This is when I realized that the language of photography is human pathos, and Arbus was a master at capturing it.

As a person with cerebral palsy and all the misunderstandings that go with that, I was particularly interested in Arbus's photographs of the mentally retarded women at a home for people with disabilities. These photos, needless to say, were very controversial. I observed the audience looking at the photographs (which were segregated to one room) and they were clearly uncomfortable. The most obvious argument against the photos is that Arbus was taking advantage of the women. But, clearly the women were enjoying themselves. I think a more immediate issue is that "normal people" have a difficult time looking at people with disablities. Many (most?) people are prejudice against PWD because we show a fraility that is best ignored. After all, many people are disabled twice in their lives -- at infancy and at old age. People want to believe the illusion that they are in control of their bodies ansd minds - particularly in America's image obsessed culture. Art that shows PWD provokes prejudice that people don't want to admit to having because it makes them uncomfortable. This is why a certain TOP museum in NYC refused to buy my friend Jim's piece with images my labored running -- too controversial.

Maybe Arbus was a creep and she meant to "exploit" the women. But, when you look at the photos, it is much easier to believe that the women are being celebrated in their own strange beauty.

The best Arbus photograph, though, was another that no one wanted to look at for different reasons -- because anyone but a poet would find it boring. It was an image of a drive-in theatre at night with clouds at night on the screen mirroring the clouds in the actual sky behind the screen. What brilliance. How can I explain it? You've got a fake image (the photo) recording another fake image (the movie screen) which mirrors the reality of the sky.



Unknown said...

Have you seen the Herzog movie Even Dwarves Start Small- it raises those Arbus-esque squirms of discomfort even more than she does.

I love her too but she was one of those artists that it was easy for me to grab onto when I was teenager- so she had a big impact- in the same way I could grab Plath's Daddy or Lady Lazerus- then Plath has opened up for me- now I ignore those poems and focus on ones like Morning Song - which I totally didn't get then. The problem with Arbus is that she hasn't opened so much as I've gotten older. I should have seen the show, that likely would have done it... like you I've seen only tiny amounts of her work in person.

Jennifer Bartlett said...

Thanks for your comment Andrea.

I haven't seen Herzog's film. Although I am huge fan of documentaries, I never got into him. Seeing the Arbus show in person did make a HUGE difference. It's (just a little) like seeining a Van Gogh in person which I found very flat in person.

Oberon said...

......fur.....the movie.