ESSAY Penny Simpson

NWR Issue 100

Brief as Photos

1. The Story Lens

Within a year of taking her life in 1971, Diane Arbus represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, the first photographer to do so. Vivian Maier took photographs on the streets of Chicago and New York for over fifty years, a fact that has only recently come to light after a box of 100,000 of her negatives was bought up by chance in an auction of unclaimed storage-locker contents. Both women achieved posthumous fame for bodies of work that gave visibility to a diverse number of anonymous individuals. And this might be the key to why their black and white photographs still hold such power over the viewer today. They are not the heavily processed images familiar from the magazine and internet pages of the twentieth century. Their power relies on some essence that isn’t delivered through taking a short cut, the air-brushed portrait of an over-familiar celebrity, or clichéd pose; it’s something more subtle, more layered.

When I look at Maier’s street scenes I’m reminded of Edward Burra’s detailed and evocative paintings of 1930s New York, the streets, bars and nightclubs alive with an array of characters captured mid-speech, or at an awkward angle by a counter as they wait on a drink or a pick-up. ‘Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind/That blows before and after time....’ TS Eliot’s words could easily stand in as a caption for some of Maier’s photographs.

With Arbus, I think of words too. She was influenced by what she read, but in an oblique way. In an interview quoted in Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, she explains there are stories she’s read which are like a photo- graph to her. She mentions Kafka’s short story, ‘Investigations of a Dog’, which inspired an early photograph she took of a dog in Martha’s Vineyard: ‘He would come and just stare at me in what seemed a very mythic way. I mean a dog, not barking, not licking, just looking right through you.’ Her human subjects do something similar; they hold the photographer’s gaze in a vice. They rarely offer a smile. Arbus goes in close, so close you can see every crease and fold in the skin. The picture ‘A Woman with Pearl Necklace and Earrings’ is an uncompromising take on a middle-aged woman’s face, set into a grimace that isn’t relieved by either costume jewellery or lipstick. ‘Lady Bartender at Home with a Souvenir Dog’ portrays a young woman with a towering bottle- blonde beehive that would be the envy of Marge Simpson. She sits cross-legged on a chair, dressed in ski pants and leopard skin jerkin, facing out to the camera with a hesitant poise, a poise gently undermined by the jokey, fluffy dog which echoes her elaborate hairstyle.

Arbus said what fascinated her was what she couldn’t see in a photograph, that elusive moment ‘between action and repose’. The subjects of her photographs frequently seem to hold back in some way, even as they are exposed attheir most vulnerable. Arbus liked going into people’s houses and dissecting with her pictures what she found there: ‘If I have to take a bus to somewhere or if I have to take a cab uptown, it’s like I’ve got a blind date,’ she once claimed. She took pictures in rooms but made them as far removed from domesticity as it’s possible to imagine. The few objects included are usually mundane and rarely in the foreground: a reproduction oil painting abandoned on a floor, an overfull pedal bin in a burlesque dancer’s shabby dressing room, or a plastic chair doubling up as a bedside table...

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