Friday, April 01, 2005

Diane Arbus Exhibit at Portland Art Museum

King and Queen
Originally uploaded by Rozanne.
Diane Arbus is perhaps best known for photographing people who fall outside the norm: nudists, transvestites, the mentally ill, midgets, etc. All her photos have a sort of disturbing/unsettling quality to them. She had an uncanny knack for managing to capture people just as they allowed their masks to slip for a moment.

I don't know a lot about Arbus, but I think she was rather a tortured soul. At the age of 48, she committed suicide by slashing her wrists. I've always found her photographs to be riveting and thought provoking, though, so I was eager to check out her Family Albums exhibit at the Portland Art Museum. The exhibit is sort of a loose assemblage of photos of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, and people in other relationships that aren't strictly familial, like the photo in the corner, which shows a couple who had just been crowned king and queen at a senior citizen dance held in 1970.

Apparently, they'd only just met. They look monumentally dejected, don't they? When I see a photo like this, I crave to know more about the people in it. Often I find myself piecing together a backstory based on details I see in the photo. For example, with this one (which was one of my favorites), I initially presumed that the dance was something that neither the king nor the queen wanted to attend in the first place. Perhaps their well-meaning children forced them to go or perhaps they lived in a retirement home and attendance was mandatory. Then to their horror, they were chosen as monarchs of the dance and made to wear fake ermine capes and feign to reign over the rest of the senior citizens at the dance. Or--maybe not. Check out the snazzy leopard-print dress the queen is wearing. Maybe she had, in fact, been looking forward in great anticipation to the dance, going so far as to buy a groovy new dress for it. Once there, it turned out to be a crushing disappointment. No dashing older gentlemen to sweep her off her feet. Only the old geezer sitting next to her who smelled of Schlitz malt liquor and cheap cigars.

The possible scenarios for these two are endless. Is it a testament to Arbus' talent as a photographer that her photos make viewers (me, at least) want to know more about the subjects? I don't know, but she sure is able to strip away the false veneer most people slap on whenever they're in front of a camera.

I've managed to find a few of the photos from the exhibit online. So here's a brief virtual tour for you, along with my thoughts and impressions.*

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park
It's alarming enough just to see a kid holding such a realistic-looking hand grenade, but what about the expression on his face? This kid looks like his parents just told him to blow himself up with the hand grenade and he's pleading for mercy. Also, it's impossible to see in this small version of the photo, but the hand not holding the grenade looks like a paralyzed animal claw. This is one of Arbus' most famous photos, I believe.

Identical Twins
Another one of her fairly famous pieces. There's an intriguing contrast here. One twin looks like she's on the verge of laughing and the other looks like she's on the verge of crying. I looked at this photo for a long time.

Jayne Mansfield and Her Daughter
What Ever Happened to Baby Jayne? That was the thought this photo evoked. Sexpots seldom age well, and Jayne Mansfield was already well on her way downhill when this photo was taken even though she was only 32. Judging by that infantile bow in her hair it looks like she knew it, too, and was not making the most rational fashion choices. She died in a horrific car crash two years later. Knowing that adds a sort of gruesome overlay to the photo.

There aren't quite as many photos from the exhibit online as I'd thought, but I should mention the series of photos of Marguerite Oswald (Lee Harvey Oswald's mom). Arbus said that Mrs. Oswald wore an "eerie and unnatural" smile throughout the photo session that made Arbus wonder what she had to be so happy about. Good question.

*Note to anyone reading this who lives in Portland or Kansas: Nearly all the photos in the exhibit have been transported to Portland from the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, so if you live in Kansas and haven't seen the exhibit, it might be worth making a trip to Lawrence (once the exhibit has returned home, of course). It really is worth seeing the original, full-size photos. A lot of crucial detail is lost in these smaller online versions. If you live in Portland, the exhibit runs through April 24.


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