I had a thing for Diane Arbus when I was thirteen years old. One day in the summer of 1974, I picked up a copy of her classic monograph in the photography section of the B. Dalton bookstore in downtown Spokane, and in that first fanning of pages, she had me. From then on, three or four times a month I would take a bus downtown by myself and head to the same quiet spot in the back corner of the store. Still, as much as I loved Arbus’s photos, I never considered buying her book. With its shots of topless dancers and nudist colonists, among other shockers, my parents would have regarded it, not entirely unreasonably, as smut. But that wasn’t my main concern. Instead, owning the Arbus book would have been far too telling, although at the time I could not have said, telling of what.
Thirty years later, I rediscovered her work while visiting the Arbus retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Her photos had lost none of their immediacy. Here, as startling as ever, were the images she is most famous for, the “freaks,” as Arbus affectionately called them: the giant Jewish man at home with his pocketsize parents; the albino sword swallower mid-swallow; the identical twin girls, posed as if conjoined; and the half-naked Mexican dwarf on his hotel bed, a bare foot jutting from the towel at his waist like an enormous phallus.
As a kid, I’d gotten a thrill out of being able to stare at these bizarre looking people, the likes of which I had never seen in Spokane. Arbus’s almost clinical title for each photograph gave the impression that she had found the world’s only specimen of a kind. “A woman with her baby monkey,” for example, or “Lady bartender at home with a souvenir dog.” Equally as important, her work evoked a specific location, New York City. For me, the photos documented the citizens of an exotic and lawless land a million miles from my sleepy hometown, a place where outcasts either consciously chose to go or just ended up. Did the world simply tilt one day, sending them all tumbling into Times Square?
I could easily imagine Diane Arbus bringing together her oddballs for dinner parties in her Greenwich Village loft, with the Jewish giant seated next to, say, the Russian midgets next to the tattooed man next to the hermaphrodite and the human pincushion. And, in my fantasy, I was there as well, though no one would have seen me. I was the boy who could make himself disappear.
Among the many photos new to me in the show was an image from 1956. In a New York subway car jammed full of passengers, a single person returns Arbus’s gaze, a small unsmiling boy of about ten. He is wearing a necktie and a long black overcoat, looking old beyond his years. What’s more, he appears to be alone, belonging to no one—no one but himself. As captured by Arbus, this young boy is exactly the kind I had wanted to be: independent, anonymous. Her “Boy in the subway” reminded me of the secret bus trips I’d take to downtown Spokane, the closest I could come to Manhattan. At Dalton’s, a single copy of the Arbus book was always right where I had reshelved it—or, purposely mis-shelved it. Sometimes, I would hide it in the automotive section, so only I could later find it.
For my fourteenth birthday, my mother took me to a pawnshop on the far edge of the city and got me the one gift I had asked for, a camera. That my mom even knew of this seedy place seemed somehow linked to her own exotic life before meeting my father; she had lived in New York in the early 1950s and been an aspiring painter. I chose a German-made 35 mm with a lens that collapsed to the thickness of a billfold, the kind of camera I imagined Arbus would have carried. (In fact, she used a difficult-to-master twin lens Rolleiflex, held at the waist, which allowed her to make eye contact with subjects as she snapped away.) I enrolled in an after-school photography class in which I learned how to use my camera and develop and print film. For the final class assignment, I paid homage to Arbus. I took a series of pictures of the hobos (the polite term at the time for homeless) who spent their days drinking and sleeping on the benches near the First Interstate Bank—Spokane’s version of Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, the site of many classic Arbus portraits.
Truth be told, the hobos probably could have taken better shots than I did. I skulked in the hedges, waiting until one of the men nodded off or wasn’t looking, then sprang up and snapped his picture. I never got to know my subjects—war vets and Spokane Indians, mostly—as Arbus did hers. Nor did my final prints ever have her crisp blacks and whites. Shortly after the photography class came to an end, so did my photography. My camera’s collapsible lens got jammed and I couldn’t find a repair shop in Spokane that could fix it. Back at the bookstore, I soon left Diane Arbus behind, too, and moved up a row to the poetry section.
Walking through the photography exhibit three decades later, I felt as if someone or something was missing. In my memory, the Arbus oeuvre had been filled with pictures of gay men. That, I had assumed, was at the heart of my initial attraction to her portraits; I must have recognized images of my hidden self. But, in fact, she had taken few, if any, obvious pictures of gay men—guys kissing, say, as in Robert Mapplethorpe photos—and the words gay or homosexual do not appear in any of her titles. The only blatant queer candidates are Arbus’s drag queens and transvestites, such as the “Seated man in a bra and stockings,” although as I now know this guy could as easily have been a straight fetishist. Seeing another photo in the show, “A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street,” I remembered how unsettling this particular image was to the unsettled me of thirteen. With his long lacquered fingernails, plucked eyebrows, and pockmarked skin that no amount of makeup could smooth over, this homely girly-man seemed like a nightmare vision of what could become of an effeminate boy. In a staring contest between us, I would always blink first and have to turn the page. Facing him again at the museum, however, where his portrait was the first displayed in the show, I saw a brave, regal creature. I nodded my respect and moved on.
Originally published in The Threepenny Review
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