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Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Crisp Focus: Hilton Als Talks Diane Arbus at the New Museum


 

Hilton Als at the New Museum, September 15, 2015. Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of the New Museum.

Hilton Als at the New Museum, September 15, 2015. Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of the New Museum.

“Texts were invented in the second millennium BC in order to take the magic out of images, even if their inventor may not have been aware of this; the photograph, the first technical image, was invented in the nineteenth century in order to put texts back under a magic spell, even if its inventors may not have been aware of this. The invention of the photograph is a historical event as equally decisive as the invention of writing.” –Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1983)

An impression: of the young woman staring with watchful eyes, lips pursed and short, tousled hair, a viewer is inclined to read circumspection and doubt, maybe distrust. This image of a young Diane Arbus, taken by her husband Allan around 1949, was projected onto an onstage screen through nearly the entire reading by Hilton Als of his new, unpublished essay “Diane Arbus in Manhattan” at the New Museum on September 15, as part of the annual Stuart Regen Visionaries Series. But as he read, his words constructed an alternative estimation of the legendary 20th century photographer, one that depicted her as open, inquisitive, skittish and all-embracing; in short, the consummate New Yorker. She lived her entire life in Manhattan, moving from apartment to apartment, sometimes uptown and sometimes downtown, on both the Eastside and the West. “You devoured the island of your birth and gave it back to itself,” Als read from the epistolary essay, “re-imagined but not reconfigured.”

Hilton Als at the New Museum, September 15, 2015. Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of the New Museum.

Hilton Als at the New Museum, September 15, 2015. Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of the New Museum.

Arbus did not fear what was different from herself, he argued, because New York was her small town, and the “freaks” (as her subjects were commonly referred to in mid-20th century parlance) that she photographed — drag queens, dwarves, the mentally disabled, interracial couples — were her neighbors, the people she lived among and with whom she not only empathized, but felt compassion for. “No artist worth their salt, pain, humor, steeliness, selfishness, generosity, love, ruthlessness, or plain interest in other people and things can turn away,” said Als, in what sounded like a direct rejoinder to Susan Sontag’s classic but truculent “Freak Show” (1973), an analysis of Arbus’s work in which she accused the photographer of giving nothing of herself in return for the portraits of vulnerability she regularly captured on film. But Als had a different tack. “You were in conversation with your sitters, a social exchange resulting in a kind of emotional documentary that became metaphysical as that terrible and beautiful alchemy took place; which is to say the sitter, you looking at the sitter, the cameras click, and sometimes flash.”

In many ways Arbus is a natural fit as a subject for Als’s writing. A longtime contributor to the New Yorker — he began publishing in the magazine in 1989, was made a staff writer in 1992, and has been the Chief Theater Critic for the past 13 years — Als has also published two ruminative books of essays, The Women (1996) and White Girls (2013) that are an audacious master class on the transcendence of race, gender, and physical difference. In both books, the classic profile narrative of one subject is most often turned on its head, becoming a mash-up of portrait, autobiography, gossip, and journalism. The writing is difficult: frequently opaque, occasionally navel-gazing, and once in a while outright caustic. But Als, like Arbus, tackles subjects that have either been marginalized, or else quite publicly “othered.” (Michael Jackson; Dorothy Dean, the doyenne of gay New York social life in the 1950s and 1960s; and Malcolm X’s mother have all been subjects of his scrutiny.)

A photograph is always subjective. Though the viewer might want for it to speak the truth, for it to be objective and documentary evidence, no photograph is ever absolutely honest. Decisions are always made by the one who presses the shutter button — what remains in the frame and what is omitted, what is brought into crisp focus, what is left to the shadows. “You weren’t treating the image as a kind of journalism but the record of a fantasy of magic ground through the glass of the real,” he said.  And so it goes with writing. “Diane Arbus in Manhattan” is Als’s textual photograph of the artist, an image of her that may not be empirical truth, but is perhaps even more genuine than the black-and-white photograph he addressed directly that evening. As he said, “Shaping metaphors out of the real is the work of an artist, or those artists who know there is something better on the other side of daydreaming.”

For those who missed Als’s talk, complete video of it can be seen here: http://livestream.com/newmuseum/events/4338723

Hilton Als at the New Museum, September 15, 2015. Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of the New Museum.

Hilton Als at the New Museum, September 15, 2015. Photograph by Jesse Untracht-Oakner, courtesy of the New Museum.


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