Germaine Greer on posing for Diane Arbus
October 8, 2005 9:11 AM   Subscribe

Wrestling with Diane Arbus "She set up no lights, just pulled out her Rolleiflex, which was half as big as she was, checked the aperture and the exposure, and tested the flash. Then she asked me to lie on the bed, flat on my back on the shabby counterpane. I did as I was told. Clutching the camera she climbed on to the bed and straddled me, moving up until she was kneeling with a knee on both sides of my chest. She held the Rolleiflex at waist height with the lens right in my face. She bent her head to look through the viewfinder on top of the camera, and waited".
posted by matteo (25 comments total)
In her viewfinder I must have looked like a guppy or like one of the unfortunate babies into whose faces Arbus used to poke her lens so that their snotty tear-stained features filled her picture frame (eg, A Child Crying, NJ, 1967). I knew that at that distance anybody's face would have more pores than features. I was wearing no make-up and hadn't even had time to wash my face or comb my hair.

Pinned on the bed by her small body with the big camera in my face, I felt my claustrophobia kick in; my heart-rate accelerated and I began to wheeze. I understood that as soon as I exhibited any signs of distress, she would have her picture. She would have got behind the public persona of Life cover-girl Germaine Greer, the "sexy feminist that men like". I concentrated on breathing deeply and slowly, and keeping my face blank. If it was humanly possible I would stop my very pupils from dilating. Immobilised between her knees I denied her, for hour after hour. Arbus waited me out. Nothing would happen for minutes on end, until I sighed, or frowned, and then the flash would pop. After an eternity she climbed off me, put the camera back in her bag and buggered off.
posted by matteo at 9:12 AM on October 8, 2005

Previous Arbus thread.

Extra ordinary
Photographer Diane Arbus saw herself as a journalist first and an artist second, says her former editor Peter Crookston - capturing all that was strange and mysterious on the streets of New York

Diane the Coed

child with toy hand grenade in central park, new york city, 1962 (gelatin silver print)

and: Flickr Square Format
posted by matteo at 9:19 AM on October 8, 2005

I've always wondered what Arbus' career would have been like had she not killed herself. Dare I say it but my guess is she would have sunk into obscurity only to be trotted out every so often to receive an award.
posted by photoslob at 9:24 AM on October 8, 2005

That article would be enhanced significantly if we could see the photo which resulted from the sitting.
posted by dash_slot- at 9:36 AM on October 8, 2005

I think that Arbus' work is not about something that can be put into words. Her images are not about something. They are that thing. If thing is even the right word. Maybe all one can say about it is Seeing is believing.
posted by donfactor at 9:42 AM on October 8, 2005

Nonsense, photoslob. I saw the extensive Arbus show mounted at the SF MoMA a couple of years ago, which contained many never-before-seen images, including several photographs in genres for which she is not not known, such as landscapes. Frankly, I always found her a somewhat limited photographer before seeing this show, but my mind was changed completely by seeing it. Original genius and comprehensive vision showed in almost every image. While her suicide played some role in the mythology around her, she would have been considered a master -- of particularly contemporary relevance -- had she died of old age in a nursing home.
posted by digaman at 9:45 AM on October 8, 2005

I've always liked her work. But what I wonder is : did she have pants on ?
posted by troutfishing at 9:59 AM on October 8, 2005

dash_slot- is this it? (NSFW)
posted by j at 10:29 AM on October 8, 2005

Digaman: it's all subjective of course but everytime I hear of some exhibition of her never-before seen work that seems to happen every few years I cringe. I've always thought her contemporaries like Winogrand, Friedlander or even Meyerowitz (who came just a little later) deserve so much more praise for pushing the envelope on how they saw the world.

Anyway, I should just be happy that people are at least talking about a form of work that there doesn't seem to be much of a place for anymore.
posted by photoslob at 10:31 AM on October 8, 2005

j: i believe that's her.
posted by photoslob at 10:42 AM on October 8, 2005

oops - forgot to add the link above is NSFW!
posted by photoslob at 10:46 AM on October 8, 2005

Here's an interesting story which catches up with the subjects of some of Arbus' pictures, including the hand-grenade kid and the eerie A very young baby, N.Y.C., 1968. If you don't know who that baby grew up to be, boy, will you be surprised.
posted by barjo at 11:04 AM on October 8, 2005

From barjo's link:
"Long after Diane Arbus photographed them, twins Cathleen Mulcahy, left, and Colleen Yorke are still recognized by strangers. They are photographed in New York."

I can't believe people actually recognize them from that photograph. They don't like anything like those two little girls anymore.
posted by soiled cowboy at 11:24 AM on October 8, 2005

j and photoslob: that's not the portrait of Greer that she's writing about. I can't find it online anywhere, but it was in last Saturday's Guardian. It's a very close crop of just Greer's face, with a finger resting on her chin, in black and white.
posted by Len at 11:25 AM on October 8, 2005

In fact, that's not even a portrait of Greer; it's someone else entirely.
posted by Len at 11:30 AM on October 8, 2005

It's wonderful when MeFi seamlessly overlaps with my own interests. I've been reading Patricia Bosworth's biography of Arbus and find it a compelling read.
posted by aladfar at 11:39 AM on October 8, 2005

I can certainly understand that the photo shoot Greer experienced was decidedly unpleasant. But it's sad how little she understands the process of Arbus' work. From the description I would guess that Arbus got as little out of the shoot as Greer. I don't remember ever seeing a portrait of her by Arbus (I'd like to find it), which is probably telling. Most of the unpublished work I've seen (such as the book that came out last year by John Pultz and Anthony Lee) has been crap. I think she edited her work pretty well (except for the mental institution work which I've never liked). Greer fought back and they both lost.
Arbus' best work was nearly always people she knew well (like "Jewish Giant") or those who wanted what she gave (like Mae West). Anonymous work of famous people who didn't really want to be photographed usually came out looking exactly like one would expect - distant and glazed. Think of a bored and hostile looking Norman Mailer, for instance. Sometimes that was good. Usually, it wasn't.
posted by johngumbo at 12:20 PM on October 8, 2005

Greer fought back and they both lost.

Where's the art in that?
posted by VulcanMike at 12:38 PM on October 8, 2005

A very young baby, N.Y.C., 1968

Ah yes, none other than Gloria Vanderbilt's son, CNN's news anchor Anderson Cooper.
posted by ericb at 12:47 PM on October 8, 2005

Could have been in the I Once Met feature from The Oldie
posted by IndigoJones at 2:37 PM on October 8, 2005

I guess if you believe everyone (else?) is a freak, you'll do what you have to do to show them that way.
posted by HTuttle at 4:22 PM on October 8, 2005

Seems that Germaine Greer has the same feeling about Arbus that I had from the first moment I saw her work -- a very good photographer but an awful person.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:30 PM on October 8, 2005

" Think of a bored and hostile looking Norman Mailer, for instance. Sometimes that was good. Usually, it wasn't."

Ol' Norm was bored and hostile usually.
posted by bat at 2:50 AM on October 9, 2005

I can't believe people actually recognize them from that photograph. They don't like anything like those two little girls anymore.

I think the writer was taking a bit of liberty with the fact they were recognized *at* this exhibit. [And the thought of adult twins dressing in similar clothing makes me long for the running/screaming smiley used on message boards. Although they may have done it just on that day for the purpose of being featured at the exhibit.]

Oh, and I too thought the baby Anderson Cooper shot looked like laid-out-in-a-coffin images from the 1800s.

For the second time in as many days I will use the word "disturbing" to describe the subject of a thread. Only in this case, arty-disturbing.
posted by NorthernLite at 9:14 AM on October 9, 2005

Just to clarify - the image of the naked woman is actually a photograph of the author's wife (well, ex-wife) - I used to work with him. He's a bastard.
posted by strawberryviagra at 11:40 PM on October 9, 2005

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