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Germaine Greer vs. Diane Arbus: ‘If she had been a man, I’d have kicked her in the balls’

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Though Diane Arbus was famed for her photographs of “deviant and marginal” people “whose normality seems ugly or surreal,” she did not want to be thought solely as a photographer of freaks. This in part may explain why Arbus accepted a commission to take a portrait photograph of Germaine Greer for the publication New Woman. Unless, of course, the magazine’s editors thought there was something freakish about the Antipodean academic, journalist and feminist?

On a hot summer’s day in 1971, Arbus arrived to photograph Greer at the Chelsea Hotel. Greer was on tour with her book The Female Eunuch and had most recently taken part in an infamous head-to-head with Norman Mailer at New York City’s Town Hall. Seeing the diminutive photographer was overly laden with equipment, Greer helped Arbus up to her hotel suite.

Greer may have been showing consideration to the photographer, but the session soon turned into a battle of wills as Arbus ordered the Greer around the room, telling her to lie on the bed, and then straddling her as she snapped away. Greer later related meeting with Arbus to the photographer’s biographer Patricia Bosworth:

It developed into a sort of duel between us, because I resisted being photographed like that—close up with all my pores and lines showing!! She kept asking me all sorts of personal questions, and I became aware that she would only shoot when my face was showing tension or concern or boredom or annoyance (and there was plenty of that, let me tell you), but because she was a woman I didn’t tell her to fuck off. If she had been a man, I’d have kicked her in the balls.

Unable to deliver a telling kick, Greer opted not to co-operate.

‘I decided “Damn it, you’re not going to do this to me, lady. I’m not going to be photographed like one of your grotesque freaks!”  So I stiffened my face like a mask.

Greer would later claim the duel with Arbus as a draw, but as Howard Sounes noted in his superlative cultural biography of the Seventies:

The editors at New Woman evidently thought Greer vs. Arbus had resulted in defeat for the photographer, for her pictures were never used in the magazine. In a letter to [her husband] Allan, Diane discussed her attitude to the shoot, perhaps revealing her approach to her subjects generally. She wrote that she had liked Germaine Greer personally, considering her to be ‘fun and terrific looking…’ Nevertheless she went out of her way to depict her in an unflattering light. As she said, ‘I managed to managed to make otherwise.’

The picture from the session, printed posthumously as ‘Feminist in her hotel room, NYC, 1971’, is in fact fascinating, not least because in close-up, Greer’s neatly plucked and re-applied eyebrows more than a passing resemblance to the transvestite in curlers Arbus photographed back in 1966.

Arbus was not best suited to working as a freelance photographer—the hours spent pitching ideas that often came to nothing, or struggling to earn agreed fees from indifferent publishing houses to maintain her independence, caused her deep depression. Taking fashionable portraits of celebrity figures was hardly the work for an artist photographer who believed:

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.

 
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Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Masters of Photography’: Fascinating 1972 documentary on Diane Arbus
08.30.2013
07:12 am

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Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus
 
In 1971, the great midcentury photographer Diane Arbus committed suicide at the Westbeth Artists Community in New York City. She was 48 years old. A year later there was a major show of her work at the Venice Biennale. In November 1972 in The New York Times, Hilton Kramer, reporting from the Biennale, confirmed that Arbus had achieved greatness in her work. You can read a full-length article by Kramer about Arbus at Google Books—I’m not sure if it’s identical to the Times piece but it looks to be more or less the same material.

Around the same time an interesting 30-minute documentary about her life and work was produced. The combination of the Biennale success and the documentary served as the full-throated introduction of Arbus’ work to the general public. The documentary is introduced by Arbus’ daughter Doon Arbus, who explains that some of Arbus’ lectures late in her life had been recorded by a student, and we see a montage of Arbus’ photographs while her words resonate over them. Also testifying to the importance of Arbus’ work are Austrian photographer Lisette Model; John Szarkowski, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art; and American artist Marvin Israel. It was Israel who discovered Arbus’ body after her suicide. 

Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. … They made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. … If you’ve ever spoken to someone with two heads, you know they know something you don’t. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.

Diane Arbus, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962
Diane Arbus, “A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962”
 
When Steve Martin was a teenager, he worked at a magic shop on the grounds of Disneyland. This excerpt comes from his 2008 book Born Standing Up:

My final day at the magic shop, I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit. I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo’s breathtakingly romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.

Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment