first off, i like photos.
i look at photos for hours and hours everyday.
seeing photos is powerful in many ways.
if they are your own and you walk the streets, they are reminders of the past and one’s own mind can walk around the edges of what is visible in those photos, picking up new details and remembering other things in the same surrounding moments — sounds, conversations, correlations. these are the extensions of memory and they grow stronger in extension.
but if they are someone else’s photos, we can only see up to the edges. but this is not always true.
sometimes, if there are enough of them, we can see into the past itself.
and this is the case with the show “in the beginning” at the GAP GALLERY aka the sfmoma. (and if you hurry, across the street, you can also get great views of moscone east center going up before it’s finished.)
as the name of the show indicates, there is a distinct time period that cages in the collection of photos on display. "in the beginning" goes from 56 to 67/69ish.
there is a noticeable gap period between 63 and 67 though. so some of the history is missing as she gears up for her career.
and they are historical photos — literally very small printed works. and i’m guessing they are the actual first print photos.
i’ll need to fact check that.
and next time, i do want to know more about the facts behind things — did arbus title the individual works? and as i’ve mentioned, are these literally original printings?
one warning i will lodge for the viewer:
DON’T GO SEE THIS SHOW ON A CROWDED DAY!!!
you will seriously regret that decision. and it almost made me wonder why we can’t see blown up versions of arbus’ work? they would be AMAZING!
when cindy sherman rolled through town, her work just got bigger and bigger like donald trump’s ego over the past two years.
personally, i’d love to see arbus’ work blown up to at least placemat print size!! or maybe even a poster? the photo of jack dracual [see above link and above pic] to show off the show looks fantastic all enlarged and mammoth.
as it is, the images are very difficult to really see in all their glory and it would make for a better coffee table book adventure in the same way that georgia o’keeffe’s tiny little flower paintings looked so sickly voyeuristic in those blown up book prints — her work looks best big and bigger and extra bigger.
so be sure and go when you can spend time just looking at little pictures.
and the show kicks off in 1956.
i decided i’d study her later, but for the first time through, the less i knew about arbus, the better. i just want to see the pics and see what they might mean instead of being told in advance.
like many people, i’ve seen arbus’ photos that were pushed to the top — the female impersonator smoking, the skinny kid with a plastic hand grenade in central park, and the shot of the giant with his ordinary parents in their living room. these were deemed classic by the david lynch school of “let’s remake american horror stories” murder art.
and i’ve heard bits and pieces, so i know she’s been being pushed hard by the corporates and she’ll be in the catalog of photographer history.
but her stuff then seemed freakshow to me and i feel kind of the same way about freakshow aesthetics as i do about nazi idealism — only a super tiny spectrum of the human spirit fits into these two categories.
they are both a fetish market and you have to be born into it for the most part unless you’re gay or transgender-certain or already a human member of some preconceived outclassed or outcaste system of hierarchy.
and i for one believe in a better world, a world where the fetish markets vanish out of disinterest, not punishment or abuse schemes. a world where everyone has been humanized by not being spotlighted or dehumanized.
it is the law of jante.
and the law of jante protects us collectively in a spiritual sense from becoming overwhelmed by the burden of “specialists” and “individual needs” and “how to cheat everyone by faking sht” secondary saddle bumpers who jump onto the fray the second they see an opportunity to take or make an advantage out of kindness or pity or remorse or regret.
all this to say that i never really DOVE into arbus in the same way that the “narcissism” of cindy sherman’s work never drew me in. i was not overly intrigued by sherman’s murdered dead girl scene at the brooklyn museum in 2003. and it was gigantic. like animated dead-girl porn on a bed of leaves.
it made me sad that art and death were aligned in the minds of some. it was beautifully sad.
but it was gigantic and that was cool.
big is always impressive in the moment.
it comes with its own awe.
so it’s extra cool in one way that the pieces are so small.
but i got hung up on the dead people shots.
and the almost dead.
this must’ve been a strangely traumatic year for arbus.
it seems to be a turning point.
shots of dead/dying people arrest my development.
such imagery makes me feel snoopy.
like i’m breaking my own rules about invading the privacy of my own mind from the outside world.
maybe it’s just because i don’t want to see art that way.
maybe it’s because i want to believe that there is no murder and death in art.
that’s good human history, but it isn’t art, for me.
it can be for many, but not for me.
if there is sex and/or murder in pictorial depiction, it is for me, the journalism of nature and human relationshipping. that’s just my opinion but i steadfastly have backed it up in my own art.
i made several pieces in the early 2000s that involved sex and/or murder. in my work, i keep sex and violence/murder/death distinctly separate. to my mind, any art or photography that involve both is truly manipulative, and that’s its own level. it’s a visual assault on the viewer and strategic/militant.
and photography has a very hard time being “artistic”. it is closer to a weapon than it is to ideals.
my paintings of murder and death were emotionally ladened by the veracity of the subject matter — i chose black and white news photos from famous newspapers and photographers of people in ruinous plight. i would “colorize” and “emotionalize” the plight that was being portrayed in the daily news. [examples posted below]
and i had a neighbor who stuck his head over the fence one day while i was doing some post-painting varnish work on my back deck and he went on and on about how much he loved the pieces. and i wasn’t so cool about it on myself.
the pieces were of two kinds of war-torn survivors — rwandan refugees in a camp and bewailing iraqi women holding their dead.
they were gut-wrenching works.
the colorization of black and white photos had a strange effect of locating the works in the now. it brought them to life in an unsettling way — you knew you were successful if your viewer felt emotionally manipulated.
and i felt that weirdly.
i’m just not that dude.
so i made a decision that i wouldn’t be the artist who saw a niche — human suffering — and went after it with a vengeance. i wouldn’t carve out my artistic career at the expense of showing off the personal despair of individuals. especially ones that i felt our united states foreign policy government was making strong political decisions about on a daily basis.
i made many pieces of this nature, but i tried to put more “protest” in them and sorrow without overdoing it. though how one starts to draw the line, i can’t tell.
for me, i’d rather be remembered as someone who painted flowers or naked people than to be a master of capturing and presenting other people’s despair or weirdness or separation from the whole, the misfit.
and right after making this decision, i met manhattan.
and manhattan was at last a place where my personal love of the darkness and my love of heated shadows finally found itself surrounded by an electrically lit island which had given birth to those illusional realities. manhattan was the black velvet color palette of the mexican-american paintings sold out of vans on the crossroads — bright crimson from the red traffic lights and brake lights, hot yellow white from all the oncoming taxis, lit up silhouettes and shadows racing as fast as the people themselves. popping neon greens and blues, ghosts in the windows leaping out from history.
manhattan is where the streets run gold if it rains, the lights swimming visual, a liquor of their own in the darkness. oh!!! all that rich and powerful darkness when the lights go down and the ordinary people vacate the island, leaving it to those who love the night sky.
manhattan forces the photographers who walk its streets to be more than who they are. manhattan forces genres onto the photographers.
for me, i was already in love with shooting material objects in windows. i could shoot windows all day in any city, parallel crossing planes together like ancient photoshop in real life, the layers merging.
and the ONE car shows up all over the metropolis in these quiet and estranging moments.
but there were things i’d never shot before — puddles, taxis, rush hours with people as the traffic, late nights and snow. and i got to walk those streets everyday for an entire year with no expectation except learning the city and making photographs.
and just as the puddle reflections of the street are foisted onto any manhattan street photographer worth their chemicals to print, the city speaks directly to individuals and draws them into their own temptations.
and don’t forget that back then you had to pay A LOT to print anything.
this comes through in the show.
you can almost feel the careful selection process that every single image had to go through to get to the point where arbus was like — “I’m going to pay to print that!!!”
and of course, i mention all these things about new york because this was the metropolis of interest for arbus. they say she was born there and died there in the text at the beginning of the show.
which starts, as i’ve mentioned, in 1956.
and it starts with a “less than successful” snap shot of a newspaper with its 50s headline layout in mid motion blur.
i think this shot is like a warning — caution, the photos in this exhibit are teeny tiny.
but it does kick off this “curated” timeline.
and the first room of the show is WONDERFUL.
i want EVERY SINGLE one of these photos to be blown up huge. to be murals. they are luxuriously delightful. they are a study in silence, too. a deep silence, as if when arbus is walking the street, she is lurking behind her own womanhood. there is a sheltered gaze. a vantage point that men don’t really share or adopt naturally.
men’s work from the same time is much more intrusively boisterous. at the end of the show there is a wall of contemporary and predecessor photographers, including weegee.
this addition to the show was a great idea and lends a greater idea about timelines, male photographers’ advantages over women, alternate interests, etc.
and arbus changes radically in this show in the year 1957 and 1958. you can literally see it in the photos themselves.
she goes from walking the streets of manhattan during the day and snapping random pics of passerbys or sitting in a dark movie house taking pictures of the film stars up on the big screen to a woman who suddenly is at gaming events, female impersonator shows, morgues and hospital rooms with old dying people.
and this transition is strange.
her photos in 1956 are big in content. they capture wonderful human moments of the ordinary and the acceptable and the laudable.
i want to see them enlarged, i want to talk about them individually, i want to write a poem about a person’s pose or their entire life which i could make up.
and, ironically, that was a question that i immediately had — did she TITLE her own work?
as a photographer in the digital age when i can photo process around 100 images a day, i can understand the value in titling an image “WOMAN WITH PEARL EARRINGS”, but only so far.
if that woman is sitting on a gigantic elephant in a three ring circus of flaming hoops through which wild impalas are jumping, maybe the title “woman with pearl earrings” is misleading?
but this query led somewhere and that’s how you know you’re in the presence of a great photographer — when a collection of their work is inspiring and creates something uniquely attached.
and this amazing thing is called THE DIANE ARBUS DRINKING GAME CARD DECK (DADGCD) — if you’re into da’vinci code math, break out your acoustic guitar and play the chords…) it is an unauthorized pack of cards that display her photos and then let players come up with great titles.
and it’s perfect because her photos are so GD amazing
sitting in a circle, the contestants receive their cards as one person deals the deck evenly.
because it’s a drinking game, there is a shot in the center.
each player holds the same number of cards in their hands and places one face down in front of them.
to start play, the first player turns over the card in front of them and makes up a title for the photo.
each successive player has to then, playing clockwise, come up with a better title for the photo. all the contestants judge whether or not they succeed.
if a player knows in advance they can’t beat the title, they can double down.
doubling down is where you flip the card in front of you and make a joke about one of the successful titles suggested for the opening card using your newly flipped photo to build a joke.
this will make more sense after you see the photos, but the titles are unlimited and very creative just by virtue of their content.
however, a player can only double down once in every three rounds.
penalties = shot for losing a round.
double shot on double down.
like the monopoly pot, shots will ad up as successful rounds occur.
if you double down you automatically are "second player" again in the next round unless another player doubles down. the next round is started by the person on the right of the last person to double down.
anyway, great fun to be had with that.
i’ll be compiling my unauthorized card deck next time in the gift shop from the postcards and the books and all the stuff that is the fun and guts of the modern materialistic arrow tip of art’s byproducts.
exit through the gift shop was really about the commodification of chi chi cool and the envy tango bandstands of the pretty off competition attendees.
but, in all FAIRNESS, my drinking game deck will be FREE online but not available in the museum gift store.
so a big thank you for the GAP GALLERY for throwing a great party at what must seem like a very low cost — those tiny precious framed photos ALL fit so neatly into a couple cardboard boxes for shipping. a real hang-and-go kind of show. and i loved the way that if you know photography and can see the invisible things, this show is FULL of oddities.
like that weird year in 57 and 58 where arbus is going into new places that show her descending into the world of weirdness that she fell in love with so devotedly. now, she is turning around in those same movie theaters and pointing her camera at the audience instead of stealing screenshots of the big screen. she’s lost interest in the beautiful starlets and the romance of love. the movies are boring her now as she discovers who she is.
she’s becoming engaged with the world she is waking up into.
simultaneously, we can see her relationship with the actual “craft” of photography. and this is why the query of the photos literal historicity is a curious one.
back then, you couldn’t just shoot off a gazillion shots and delete the ones you didn’t want. and the camera wouldn’t do any of the three point equational math for your settings. and the equipment sucked anyway, in comparison to modern imagery concepts.
it was stealth and there wasn’t the same level of forgiveness for failure, bokeh, motion tricks, etc. and you couldn’t see your results to know your equations anyway.
instead, you had to pay for every step of the way. chemicals and dark rooms. paper and printing supplies.
so each image has been put through that kind of filter.
and the early shots are more open and they become more and more focused as the years go by. by the time she’s shooting dead people and super old people in 59, it’s like she’s undergone an intellectual transformation of her own. through her relationships with the night, she has fallen in love with the formaldehyde jar.
after this, her signature is different.
in this show, the timeline just begins to radically taper until it has very little from 1962 until about 67. and the return is upon bizarre and uncharted territory — twins, little people in strange settings, and others i can’t recall.
at one point in her development she uses what we call the AV setting in a shot. and this jumps out from the rest of the show up until that point. arbus doesn’t use the technique of focusing on a single point layer and allowing the rest of a composition go vague. or, i should say, i haven’t seen it in her work and there wasn’t any in this show, but i’ll have to look at the research.
and this technique is like a filter for a photographer. it’s like the green or blue or red filters national geographic uses. or the completely fake colors that NASA makes up for their fuzzy black and white “photos” from space.
and like a filter, it can be very defining. in this case, i see it as technically developmental, so i’m looking forward to exploring her catalog of photos. it might’ve just been a fling thing.
for me, the show seemed to come to a crashing halt. i was suddenly in the exit hall looking at a photo of a rather handsome young man in a long cold weather jacket in hamburg or some other european city and i was “hly sht!! what happened to you arbus?! what happened in 69?!”
but it was the exit hall collection of photos from her contemporaries as i mentioned earlier. so i ran back to the beginning and studied it all again. it was just as much fun the second time.
i do wish the works had been reprinted in larger sizes so more people could see them more easily AND also have the originals. there is certainly enough space for that. but aside from that, i’m full thumbsy up this great collection and look forward to studying the backstory and see what was really going on.
lastly, i have complained greatly about the total proliferation of CONTEMPORARY art through the entire museum so i must now say, kudos for doing a show about a woman who was working in the actual allotted period for MODERN ART.
however, it SUCKS that the traveling shows end up in the tiny little rooms when the SHTTY crap cocaine art on the top floor gets the best spots. that’s just fking dumb.
wake up, GAP GALLERY.
overthrow your billionaire johns.
Tagged: , diane , arbus , photographer , collection , sfmom , GAP , GALLERY , scott , richard , torbakhopper , san , francisco , california , city , street , scottrichard , SF , scottrichardphotographer , SFMET , SFMoMA , sanfranciscomodernartmuseum , art , SoMa , cindy , sherman , freak , show , jante , nazi , ideals , thinkclub , essay , review , in the beginning , ishootwindows , window , reflection , jackdracula , tattoo , man , humbert’s , museum , jack , dracula , the unauthorized , drinking , card , game , add a title , double , down , contemporaryartmuseum , downtown , eastmoscone , east , FORMALDEHYDEJAR , formaldehyde , jar , syndrome , fetish , worship , writing , criticism , thought , thinking , writer , essayist , rigged , electioneering , rigged electioneering