Editorial Essay by Alan Catlin

Artwork by Gene McCormick

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Diane and Me

“There’s a quality of legend about freaks.
Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you
and demands that you answer a riddle. 
Most people go through life dreading they’ll
have traumatic experience. Freaks were born
with their trauma. They’ve already passed their
test in life: they’re aristocrats.”
   Diane Arbus.

My Dream Date with Diane Arbus

The place of our meeting decided well
in advance, after dark, in a theater on
forty second street. The feature we will see,
“Freaks”. I am the man too large for the room
I am confined in, and she, the lady in the wheelchair
wearing the fairy princess Halloween mask,
a pinwheel braided into her fright wig,
a magic flute hanging from a leather
strap around her neck she will blow
as I wheel her through the stalls,
down the long sloping aisles, entreating
the triplets and the twins to throw their sweets
into the wide open trick or treat bag held
on her lap. The movie is not the black and white
“Freaks” set in a traveling carnival, starring midgets
and dwarves,  pinheads and hydros, but the one
where all the actors are people from real life ,
wearing paper faces cut from pages of
the daily news, all of them frozen in stilled lives,
enacting crimes of the century: imperialist wars
of occupation, assassinations and atrocities,
ritual torture and extreme rendition,
the starkest of them all, a boy in short pants
holding a hand grenade, pin pulled, his face
contorted, anticipating what happens after
the momentary pain.

The original question, in the Pine Hills Review, was how does the poem they posted of mine, “My Dream Date with Diane Arbus,” represent my role as an artist. I formulated a short answer with the caveat, “this is really an essay question.”

Here is one, of what could be several, long answers.  I know, from talking to photographers about their philosophy of their work, there is a whole school, who totally reject her work on the basis of the subject matter.  Many, if not all, of these objectionable shots were posed to better represent her particular view of the subject. Often these shots are clearly meant to represent the grotesque side of human nature: the deformed, the lame, the physically and mentally challenged people, beyond the pale of what society considered normal.  Her personal life, according to her biographer, Patricia Bosworth, in later years, took a turn into the darker alleys of human existence, as well, as she relentlessly pursued encounters with people that could easily be regarded as sordid.  She came from a wealthy family, sellers of fine furs in NYC, sister of acclaimed poet Howard Nemerov (who was supportive of her work until her death), began her career as a commercial artist specializing in advertising, wedding  and family portraiture, as did her husband. The question, with regard to Diane, is: how did she end up as queen of the macabre?

The simple answer is, her later work rejects all the values of her upbringing, the artificial, superficial trappings of appearances for the sake of appearances.  No doubt a case could be made that her work was a rebellious act. To end the argument here denies the basic truth of her work: that as an artist, she tried to find beauty where no one had seen beauty before.  

There is an element of gratuitous superiority in the initial segment of her “freak work”. The artist knows that the arrogant face of the young street people staring at the camera will never exceed the trap of their lives, that their body language, body type, their clothes, their facial and body markings, have already defined them.  These people cannot, or do not see, what the camera and the artist sees, and therein lies the power of the work.  Her eye has captured the past, the present, and the future in one shot. There is genius in this, in the capturing of the extraordinary in the ordinary

She transcends her objects by defining them, by letting them speak for themselves. Her ”freaks” are objects, some say of scorn or ridicule, but how could an artist be scornful  who can say something like, “If you’ve ever talked to somebody with two heads you know they know something you don’t.” If she is being scornful, it is of the people who do not see that these “freakish” humans as extraordinary, not in just appearances but in experience, as well. I believe that when the artist looks in the mirror, she sees some of what her camera knows, what is inside herself.  Then she goes out into the world and captures the images for all of us to see.  As in the movie, “Freaks”, which tells a simple, timeless story of a traveling circus of “freaks”, deformed elements of humanity, who are confronted by the lustful, avaricious, corrupting forces of the regular, clearly ordinary humans, who run the circus.  The “freaks” exact a very specific, brutal revenge against the masters. You haven’t viewed anything until you’ve seen a human worm like creature with a dagger clenched in his lips, slithering in the mud under a circus wagon, to be part of a deserved, and vicious, retaliatory strike against the so-called human masters. Not only do we need to question our concept of what truly makes something human, but what we see as ordinary, and normal.  This is what Arbus does, and in a very real sense, the seeing it, the knowing what she knew about herself and her subjects, killed her.

I think, my connection with her work transcended the ordinary connection between artist and viewer, when I saw her revelatory, final book, Untitled.  Her subjects in this book, published posthumously, with a brief appreciative preface by her daughter, Doon, were adult Down’s Syndrome patients in a home at the time of a Halloween celebration . It would be easy to see her series of compassionate photos as an extension of her “freak” show photos. Here are these mentally challenged, simple creatures, dressed as children in costumes for a party, a kind of perverse trick or treating.  Given that the mental level of these people is that of a small child, the photos, for me capture the innocence, the joy of the special event, the outing that was an extraordinary event in the daily lives of the subjects.  She senses, sees, the true nature of the subjects and their lives and shoots them as they are without any attempt to change, manipulate or alter the effect. There is a physical distance in many of these pictures more akin to the fashion photos than the freak pictures in composition. There are as honest as a photograph can be without any hint of condescension. 

There is no answer to the question of how Arbus saw these photos once they had come to life before her eyes in the developing room. What were her motives in taking them? Did she see this as an opportunity to extend her notion of the darker side of human existence and found something else entirely, something that cast doubts about everything her life’s work has been about? Maybe. Maybe not.

We can only see the photos ourselves, view the lives they capture, and ask is this a work of compassion or is it something else? I see beauty and love here. It is my mission as a writer, if in any real sense that I have one, to find that kind of beauty where none had been seen before, in the most unlikeliest places, in the dirt and the grit and the deepest parts of hell of the human freak show of life. This is implicit in the poem, for me, and to a degree in all the poems of the Dream Date collection, all about women, many of them artist’s, doomed by their life and work. Ultimately, it is not the doom that is essential, it is the work, and the life.

Subnormals Dressed for the Halloween Masquerade

"The photographs appear to be documents of a world we've
never seen or imagined before-one with its own ritual and
icons, its own games and fashions and codes of conduct-which,
for all its strangeness, is at the same time hauntingly familiar and,
in the end, no more or less unfathomable than our own."
   Doon Arbus

They are the children of God, not quite
forgotten in their late, adult confinement,
all old and young forever, before their un-
natural time, dressed for the Untitled Halloween
Dance, the Fall Ball 196- whatever, princesses
and ballerinas, cowboys and athletes, women
decked out in taffeta gowns and dime store
lace, those confined to wheelchairs clutching
their evening tote bag in one hand and
the masquerade mask in the other, only their
smiles fully revealed. The ambulatory holding
cardboard strap handles, paper bags against
their waists, full face masks adjusted slightly
askew, as they stand or sit for group portraits
in dull grey afternoons in the institutional
courtyards, the males fully uniformed, as well,
no weapons or implements of play war or games
nearby to interfere with the primary function
of this dressing up: Trick or treating door to door,
in the community or the open ward, it makes
no difference.