Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks; his eccentric star turn in the family classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”; and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” died early Monday morning at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.
Mr. Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: Don’t try to make it funny; try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.
With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”
Mr. Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and the director of four movies in which he starred….But he was best known for playing roles on the big screen that might have been ripped from the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
He made his movie debut in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s celebrated crime drama, “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which he was memorably hysterical as an undertaker kidnapped by the notorious Depression-era bank robbers played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He was even more hysterical, and even more memorable, a year later in “The Producers,” the first film by Mr. Brooks. Mr. Wilder played the security-blanket-clutching accountant Leo Bloom.
The part earned Mr. Wilder an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Within a few years, the anxious, frizzy-haired, popeyed Mr. Wilder had become an unlikely movie star.
He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as the wizardly title character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971). The film was a box-office disappointment, partly because of parental concern that the moral of Roald Dahl’s story — that greedy, gluttonous children should not go unpunished — was too dark in the telling. But it went on to gain a devoted following, and Willy Wonka remains one of the roles with which Mr. Wilder is most closely identified.
In 1974, he reunited with Mr. Brooks for perhaps the two best-known entries in either man’s filmography.
In “Blazing Saddles,” a raunchy, no-holds-barred spoof of Hollywood westerns, Mr. Wilder had the relatively quiet role of the Waco Kid, a boozy ex-gunfighter who helps an improbable black sheriff (Cleavon Little) save a town from railroad barons and venal politicians.
Mr. Wilder’s next Brooks film, “Young Frankenstein,” has never grown old.
Mr. Wilder himself hatched the idea, envisioning a black-and-white film faithful to the look of the Boris Karloff “Frankenstein,” down to the laboratory equipment, but played for laughs rather than for horror. He would portray an American man of science, the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, who tries to turn his back on his heritage (“that’s Frahn-kahn-STEEN”). Mr. Brooks’s original reaction to the idea, Mr. Wilder recalled, was noncommittal: “Cute. That’s cute.” But he eventually came aboard as director and co-writer, and the two garnered an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.
In his first major role on Broadway, Mr. Wilder played the chaplain in a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” The production ran for less than two months, and he came to believe that he had been miscast. The good news was that he met the boyfriend of the star, Anne Bancroft: Mel Brooks, who wore a pea coat the night he met Mr. Wilder backstage and told him, “You know, they used to call these urine jackets, but they didn’t sell.”
Mr. Wilder’s association with Mr. Brooks led, in turn, to one with Richard Pryor, who was one of the writers of “Blazing Saddles” (and Mr. Brooks’s original choice for the part ultimately played by Mr. Little)….The two men went on to star in the 1982 hit “Stir Crazy,” in which they played a hapless pair jailed for a crime they didn’t commit, as well as “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989) and “Another You” (1991).
In 1982, he met the “Saturday Night Live” comedian Gilda Radner when they were both cast in the suspense comedy “Hanky Panky.”
One evening, he recalled in “Kiss Me Like a Stranger,” he and Ms. Radner innocently ended up at his hotel to review some script changes. The time came for her to go; instead, she shoved him down on the bed, jumped on top of him and announced, “I have a plan for fun!” He sent her home anyway — she was married to another man — but before long, they began a relationship.
Of their first year of living together, he wrote: “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact. We just loved each other, and that’s a fact.” He left, only to find that he needed to go back.
By his account, Ms. Radner was needy, obsessed with getting married and, once they married in 1984, obsessed with having a child, a project that ended in miscarriage just months before she learned she had ovarian cancer in 1986.
Ms. Radner died in 1989. “I had one great blessing: I was so dumb,” Mr. Wilder once said of her last years. “I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it.”
Mel Brooks: “One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”
As Hillary Clinton’s not-so-great week of e-mail-cum-Clinton Foundation woes marches on, don’t expect Clinton to do any sit-down interviews or press conferences to clarify or calm. Clinton campaign manager Robbie Mook told Morning Joe that his boss is out there answering questions and will “continue to do that.” It’s all part of what some are calling the Democratic nominee’s run-out-the-clock strategy.
Then there are Donald Trump’s latest rebranding efforts. On Tuesday The Republican nominee continued to try to clarify his ‘TBD’ deportation policy. At a Fox News-hosted town hall event in Texas, Trump said “there certainly can be a softening” of existing laws for law-abiding immigrants, because “we’re not looking to hurt people.” His explanation of a new Obama-like plan comes as the nominee tries to move past the stigma of having a supporter base that’s largely perceived as racist. He didn’t indicate openness to considering legal status for those people, however, and reiterated that he intends to follow the law, which requires removing them from the country.” He also remained vague as to whether he would actively seek to deport them.
And then on Thursday, After stoutly denying for days that anything untoward had taken place at the State Department, the Clinton campaign went on the offensive on Thursday. Having been slated to make a speech in Reno, Nevada, about encouraging small businesses, Clinton changed the subject to Trump, and delivered a blistering attack in which she accused him of “taking hate groups mainstream” and “helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party.” At a moment when Trump appeared to be trying to soften his image, Clinton highlighted some of his incendiary comments, reminded people he has retweeted messages from white supremacists, and pointed to the fact that he now has Steve Bannon, the head of Breitbart News, a radical right-wing news site, helping to run his campaign. It was a powerful speech, well worth reading in its entirety, and much of what it contained could not be contradicted.
In no particular order, Trump has shifted his position on raising the federal minimum wage (against it, for it, get rid of it, leave it to the states, put it at $10 an hour); on fighting the Islamic State (bomb the “hell out of them” and take the oil fields, let our regional allies take the lead, declare war and send in troops, let Russia take care of it); on taxes for the wealthy (increase them, cut them dramatically, make the wealthy pay more, make everyone pay less); on his Muslim ban (exclude all Muslims, keep Muslims out except for members of the military and current residents, it was “just a suggestion,” ban Muslims from countries with a history of terrorism, impose “extreme vetting”); on the national debt (eliminate it in eight years, prioritize massive infrastructure spending, renegotiate debt with creditors, just “print the money”).
Now, concerning his defining promise to round up and deport 11 million undocumented men, women and children, Trump is undergoing a rapid, convulsive transition from Mr. Hyde into Dr. Jekyll. In the movies, this role would require hours in the chair of a highly skilled makeup artist. Trump has Sean Hannity.
For much of Trump’s fan base, these details couldn’t matter less. The Trump revolution is mainly a matter of personnel, not policy. Put the right man in charge who will hire the “best people” and fire all the corrupt, stupid failures. Trump’s primary appeal — and his main source of self-regard — is his skill as a negotiator, manager and talent scout.
Here we are also getting a good feel for the candidate. Trump’s campaign has been a roiling, noxious, dysfunctional mess from the start, characterized by public feuds, subject to sudden leadership changes and unable to fulfill key functions (like actually having a campaign apparatus in key states). And Trump’s personnel selections have been both instructive and disastrous.
Consider this list of Trump’s chosen: Former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had a brutal and demeaning style that resulted in a staff revolt, and his manhandling of a female reporter overshadowed the Trump campaign for weeks. Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was paid lucrative consulting fees by foreign interests and resigned after reports that Ukraine anti-corruption investigators were scrutinizing millions in alleged payments there.
Longtime adviser Roger Stone is a crackpot conspiracy theorist who asserts that Bill and Hillary Clinton are “plausibly responsible” for the deaths of roughly 40 people and that Hillary Clinton should be “executed for murder.”
Confidant Roger Ailes recently stepped down from his job at Fox News under a cloud of sexual harassment claims. And Steve Bannon, Trump’s new campaign chief executive, is known for his bullying tactics and for running a website (Breitbart News) that flirts with white nationalism.
There are a few exceptions to this pattern — Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pence come to mind — but Trump has hired and elevated some of the very worst people in American politics, known for their cruelty, radicalism, prejudice and corruption.
What does all this say about Trump as a prospective president?
First, Trump has managed to pick a team that directly undermines many of his campaign objectives. Need to appeal to women? Include a man in your inner circle accused by many of misogyny. Need to appeal to minorities? Elevate a figure associated with the racially divisive alt-right. Need to challenge the corrupt status quo in Washington? Hire a consultant for oppressive governments. Trump’s rhetoric is belied by his choice of friends and associates.
Second, ideology doesn’t seem to be the main criteria in Trump’s selections. The hiring of Bannon does make Trump’s appeal to the alt-right explicit. But Breitbart News is mainly known in this election for slavish devotion to the cult of Trump. This attribute may well guide most of Trump’s top-level personnel choices, including for the Supreme Court.
Trump, more than most, needs to surround himself with people who compensate for his alarming weaknesses. Instead, his choices demonstrate and amplify those weaknesses, becoming one more reason to utterly reject his leadership.
If you scrape away all of the spin and the political positioning that Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private email server has spawned, you are left with these facts:
- Clinton is the first secretary of state to exclusively use a private email account for official business.
She is also the first secretary of state to have a private email server housed at her home.
When asked by the State Department to turn over her emails, Clinton had a team of lawyers go through them to separate those that were purely personal and those that touched on some aspect of her professional life. The personal emails were deleted permanently off the server. The professional ones were turned over to the State Department.
Clinton deleted more emails than she turned over. Her team never actually read all of the emails, skimming subject lines instead. And there was never anyone outside of Clinton’s direct orbit brought in to oversee the process. The essence of Clinton’s argument regarding this email-sorting process was: Trust me. As in, my team of lawyers found all of the emails that were even tangentially tied to my day job as the nation’s top diplomat and turned them over to the State Department.
Now, the AP reports the FBI uncovered 15,000 more documents from her time as secretary of state that were not previously disclosed by her attorneys. We have no idea what’s in them. It could be something horrifying, or it could be utterly banal. My money’s on the latter, but it’ll be a while before we know.
But, the whole thing just makes it harder and harder for Clinton to sell the idea that her process for sorting emails into professional and private piles was effective. And that raises the possibility that Clinton got rid of lots of emails that she shouldn’t have via a process that was something short of transparent.
Clinton was wrong to use a private system for email while she was at the State Department. Among other things, it was a violation of departmental policy. It will also be remembered as one of the most colossal political screw-ups in modern times. In an effort to save herself the hassle of endless FOIA requests and lawsuits from the likes of Judicial Watch (Difficult to believe her assertion that she wanted to use a private system for the sake of convenience), she created monumental political trouble for herself, to the point that it’s the one thing that might keep her from winning the White House. And it did nothing to stop the flood of Judicial Watch lawsuits.
Speaking of which, Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.
|Chris Farrell, Judicial Watch|
The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access but didn’t actually get it.
And that’s it. If there were anything more scandalous there, have no doubt that Judicial Watch would have brought it to reporters’ eager attention. So: Nobody got special favors and nobody got “access,” except for the second-highest-ranking official of an important U.S. ally in the Middle East (Bahrain is, among other things, the site of an American naval base that is home to the 5th Fleet and the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command). While the crown prince has attended at least one Clinton Global Initiative event, where he committed to fund a scholarship program for Bahraini students, it’s safe to say that the crown prince meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State is not an unusual occurrence.
So why isn’t it on page A14 where it belongs? The most important reason is the oldest one: the “Clinton Rules,” which state that any allegation about Bill and/or Hillary Clinton, no matter how outlandish and no matter how thin the evidence for it, should be treated as serious and worthy of extended attention and unrestrained speculation. In 2016, that’s even more true for anything involving anybody’s emails.
And it means that the most common habits and occurrences will often be cast in sinister terms, even when there’s nothing out of the ordinary about them. Do powerful people, organizations, and countries donate money to the Clinton Foundation so they can rub shoulders with Bill Clinton? You bet they do. That’s the whole model: exploit Clinton’s celebrity to raise money which can then be used to make progress on important issues like climate change and global health. It’s also the model every celebrity uses when they try to raise money for their pet causes, whether it’s George Clooney or Peyton Manning or even Donald Trump.
|Huma Abedin, Hillary’s top aide.|
Likewise, a healthy portion of Huma Abedin’s job as Clinton’s closest aide seems to have consisted of fielding requests from people who wanted to get her boss’s time and attention. That’s the way it is with many powerful people, in politics or any other realm. If we were able to see all the emails from the office of any senator, Democrat or Republican, we’d see the same thing: a steady stream of people asking, on their own behalf or someone else’s, for the senator’s time. Donors, business people, advocates, constituents, they all want to talk to the person whose picture is on all the walls.
If we find cases where someone actually received some favor or consideration they didn’t deserve, then depending on the details it might actually be scandalous. But an email discussion of Bono’s wacky idea to send U2 concerts to the International Space Station is not a scandal.
The controversy is best understood by facts that are often left out.
What’s not said is that the foundation failed to produce. It has, in fact, delivered good works, including AIDS prevention and the introduction of farming techniques in Africa, tree planting in Haiti and early childhood education in the U.S.
What’s not said is that the foundation wasted money. A respected charity watchdog gave it a top rating for spending funds on programs rather than on administration.
What’s not said is that Clinton did anything substantial for a contributor. The foundation chief sought a meeting for the crown prince of Bahrain that took place — either because of the request or through official channels.
What’s not said is that foreign governments often donated in order to fund programs in their own countries.
What’s not said is that the 85 private sector donors who met or had phone calls with Clinton over a two-year period, according to an Associated Press count, appear to have included people with whom she had valid reason to speak. The late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel was among them.
This is a storm whose “quids” in terms of donations are substantial but whose “quos” are generally trivial, and whose “pros” are invisible.
In 1955, Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” premiered at the MoMA. Now considered an infamous exhibition because it set the tone for postwar photography’s sentimentalist politics of universality, which Arbus’s later work would upend with its focus on difference. In 1967, John Szarkowski, the influential successor to Steichen at MoMA, invited Arbus to appear with Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand in his exhibition “New Documents,” celebrating a pioneering style of unsentimental American photography rooted in the contingency of the street. (Arbus had a separate room in the show and received most of the press coverage.)
|Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967, in which two sisters dressed the same stand together as if Siamese twins, their very doubling revealing subtle distinctions.|
The exhibit was a watershed for the medium. But, in a wild reversal familiar to many artists, the triumph of the exhibit was followed quickly by the reality of Now what? Though Diane had become one of the most respected photographers in the country, she actually found herself less in demand for magazine work: Editors either feared that she’d give their subjects the “freak” treatment, or that, with all the attention, she must be impossible to work with, a massive ego.
Lubow traces Arbus’s lineage through Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott, and especially August Sander. But Arbus helped her medium vault past the gatekeepers who insisted the camera was merely for documentation, elevating it to the realm of fine art. In May 1971, she became the first photographer to have work on the cover of Artforum. The issue also featured five full-page photographs inside. ….If she was lousy with the technical aspects of camera work, she made up for it with an eye that seemed to strip reality bare.[ArtNews ]
Lubow makes crushingly clear the chasm between Diane’s prestige and visibility during her lifetime and any financial recognition of her work. Her standard rate for her photographs was a modest $100 (under $700 today) — but because there wasn’t yet a market for art photography, institutions argued down her price again and again. MoMA priced her prints at $50 to $75, and the Smithsonian bought five — at $25 per image. The Bibliothèque National de France asked for 20 of her “best and most famous photographs” — for $30 each. Diane eventually agreed to the price, only to have the curator ask if she might throw in a couple more for free. Arbus tried her hand at teaching a few times to pay the bills, but she hated it.
Yet she hesitated to partner with any of the galleries interested in selling her work. Walker Evans asked her to teach at Yale, indeed to replace him as chairman, and she said no. She was asked to publish a book of her photographs, and said no. She was asked to do a one-person show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and said no.
Somehow, Diane remained convinced that she wasn’t ready. She had ambitious ideas about how each of her loose photographic series (on “freaks,” on “family,” on “winners and losers”) might take decades to complete — and these ambitions were at odds with keeping herself afloat in the short term.
Life seemed to be closing in on her. She had a second bout with hepatitis, which weakened her. You have to be very strong to be a photographer and wander around the city carrying all that equipment, making people pose for hours. That she was easily fatigued upset and depressed her very much. Also the fact that Allan got married again — she depended on him not only emotionally, but also for his dark room skills.
Like her mother, she battled depression throughout her life and she could be laceratingly self-critical. Now middle aged, she felt she was losing her looks. [But] there were also many satisfactions in her life. She was a good if harried mother. She made and kept friends. She took deep pleasure in her work and sank into despondency only when it was over.
Around this time, another, more personal stress was eating at Diane: a betrayal by Marvin Israel. According to Lubow’s interviews with a few of Diane’s close friends, Israel, with whom she had been seriously involved for about ten years, began sleeping with her daughter Doon.
In those late years, however, there had been grace notes of a surprising kind: photographs of mentally disabled women, many of them in an institution in Vineland, New Jersey, not far from Atlantic City. The residents were, she found, “the strangest combination of grownup and child”—as she herself was often said to be. “Some of the ladies are my age and they look like they are 12,” she reported to her daughter Amy…. Many of the subjects were photographed at play, masked for Halloween, and Arbus did not hesitate to register their joy.
On Monday, July 26, 1971, Diane wrote the words “Last Supper” in her diary. She placed the appointment book on the stairs leading to the bathroom. She swallowed a large dose of barbiturates and, still in her clothes, laid down inside the tub. Then, with great determination — the wounds were deep enough to sever the tendons — she slit her wrists.
These first prints of hers — many of them in the new Met show — make visible Diane’s transition from the uptown, private-school-educated wife, the quieter half of a polite professional couple, into someone longing to take risks, exploring the streets, staring down strangers to teach herself how to see. You can see her slowly realizing that she can talk to people, that they will stop for her, that she might even be able to follow them home, ask them to take off their clothes, show her their tattoos and their scars, or how they hid their male parts under women’s panties.
Starting out, she avoids real human contact, photographing wax-museum displays and stills of movie screens or stealing shots on the street and in the showers at Coney Island.
When her subjects stare back at the camera — a barber through his shop window, a woman across a deli counter — it’s usually with a look of surprise or suspicion. And then it happens: They begin facing her dead-on, from a man with a bottle and baby at an Italian fair to a crew of boys roughhousing on the beach to a stern middle-aged woman in a fur jacket. They’d entered into an agreement with the photographer; their body language says so.
Diane is no longer pretending to photograph life uninterrupted. These people are aware that they’re being photographed, and the images are more loaded for it. Here I am, their faces seem to say, so what do you need to know?
In the summer of 1959, giving in to pressure from Allan’s new, not-so-polyamorous girlfriend, Diane and Allan separated. They decided to rent two apartments in the West Village, with Diane and the girls moving into a carriage house on Charles Street. Their lives remained closely intertwined: Allan came over for Sunday brunch, balanced their books, and continued processing Diane’s film.
In keeping with the rules of concealment by which she had been raised, Arbus didn’t tell her parents about the split. It took them three years to find out.
|They appear identical, all three with curly, black, shoulder-length hair, all three dressed in matching clothing — the same white headband and white shirt (buttoned to the neck), the same dark skirt. They are seated in a row on one of three identical beds, each with a country-style white headboard and a quilted comforter; a thin, ruffled curtain, like a tiered skirt, covers the window — [a metaphor of the repressed life of the fifties.-Esco]…From left to right, their emotions read wise, happy, sad, their differences as blunt as a row of ancient theater masks. It’s as if these three young women are aspects of one person — Diane gives us an image that transforms each aspect of ourselves into someone wholly separate, as if to acknowledge how much we can be at war with ourselves.|
Something significant had shifted for Diane. Her new place, though dark and cramped, was completely hers; she placed her mattress on the floor and slept with her photos pinned up nearby. She cut off her hair, transforming herself from an overgrown girl into something more androgynous and severe: a working artist.
On her own, she was braver…. now she moved in closer, building more deliberate relationships with the radical outsiders she was meeting, following them out of their tents: [She] chose to stare [at her subjects], and she specialized in tracking down those who would plant themselves, on center stage, and return the look with interest—midgets, musclemen, twins, transvestites, hermaphrodites, bathers, strippers, and a woman with a monkey, swaddled like an infant, on her lap.
She convinced Jack Dracula, “The Marked Man,” to pose for her at a bar and in an overgrown field; she snapped Miss Makrina, the Russian dwarf, in her home, sweeping up her kitchen, and “The Man Who Swallows Razor Blades” cradling a newborn infant.
When it came to nudists, Arbus went unclothed. Her job was to join them, not keep her distance...Time and again, she crossed into their territory—as a guest, a pal, a playmate. She pushed farther into places her husband would have been terrified for her to go (as he told Lubow), spending late nights in Times Square and at strangers’ apartments on the Bowery. The chase for images became the axis of her life. As a close friend said of Diane, “Once you’ve become an adventurer, because Diane was really an adventurer … you’re geared to adventure, you seek out further adventures, and your life is really based upon them.”
We used to go in the park in the afternoons to play games and climb rocks. Whenever there was something a little dangerous or daring to do, like jumping over a wide crevice between rocks or playing a trick on the teacher or teasing one of the strong girls I would be the leader and the first one to do it. I was always considered the most daring but I am sure I was more afraid than the others. [ ibid. p.125 ]
Allan put it more simply, decades after her death: “The main characteristic of Diane,” he said, “was courage.”
Within months of moving to Charles Street, she met the art director and painter Marvin Israel. A mercurial personality, and a married man who made clear that he would never leave his wife, he was Diane’s choice. A year younger, and also the product of an upper-class Jewish family on Central Park West, Marvin made his name at Seventeen, and later at Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle. A gurulike art teacher, he spoke about art as if it were an emergency, and would throw a fit when someone didn’t follow his creative advice.
This was a man of loud opinions who pushed very hard — and Diane wanted to be pushed. He may ultimately have been a frustrated artist, but he was her intellectual equal, instantly understanding her work. While Diane the woman craved constant affection and support, it’s likely Diane the artist refused herself that much of a crutch. She would not re-domesticate herself.
The early nineteen-sixties saw a change of tools. Having worked principally in 35mm., Arbus turned to a Rolleiflex: a twin-lens reflex, with one lens placed above the other. You hold it, hang it around your neck, or fix it on a tripod, at waist level, then peer down into the viewfinder. The image you perceive there is reversed, with left becoming right, but there are compensations. One, the camera changed Diane’s relationship with her subject. Rather than lift it to her face and quickly focus, she had to hold the Rollei close to waist level, stare down into a window, and carefully adjust the image from above. She’d then turn back to whoever it was — a flower girl at a wedding in Connecticut, a stripper in her dressing room — with her face unobstructed, each getting a clear view of the other. She’d talk to her directly, coax her gently into place, and look straight into her eyes as she snapped the picture.
|Stripper Blaze Star|
Two, With larger film, the Rollei produces images that are much clearer, sharper — each pencil line of a woman’s drawn-in eyebrows, the tiny shaving cuts on a cross-dresser’s legs, the long spittle hanging suspended from a sobbing baby’s lower lip.
And three, that area is two and a quarter inches square: a blessed change from the landscape format that governs our visual experience, starting with the majority of paintings, proceeding to movie and TV screens, and ending, these days, with laptops.
Young or old, people tend to dominate the frame, with no idle space next to them. Even when they get shunted off to the edges, as in her 1963 shot of a retired couple—the man seated on the left, his wife on the right—the center doesn’t go to waste, for there, like an altar, stands a television, topped with a lamp, two photographs, and a clock. These pleasant folk, apart from their Biblical nakedness (for we are in a nudist camp), could be welcoming us into any well-kept American home.
The move would define her most classic images.
“She preferred to represent the irregular and peculiar,” Lubow writes. Or, as the British Sunday Times Magazine art director Michael Rand, who hired her for multiple stories, more bluntly put it, Arbus was “good on freaks and ugly people.” Most of her subjects were marked by difference; they lived on the margins, far from the norms of society, sexuality, physicality, or gender. To photograph them, Arbus visited parks and suburban backyards, but also asylums, nudist colonies, circuses, movie houses, freak shows, wax museums, apartments of the insane.
In a note to Israel, Diane writes of a day spent observing people on the street and finding them “all odd and splendid as freaks and nobody able to see himself, all of us victims of the especial shape we come in.” Her images show us, again and again, people striving to become what the viewer knows they will never be — a phenomenon she famously described as “the gap between intention and effect.” Diane recognized that the official freaks, the permanent outsiders, have a self-awareness most of us don’t possess. They know they are destined to lose the game of public appearances.
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.
Whatever empathy or awe she felt for her freaks, Diane knew there was a limit to this sense of connection. She was not really a comrade of the people she photographed or their communities; she was a curious sympathizer, a professional, an artist whose greatest loyalty was to her work. In choosing these people to shoot, she said, “I don’t mean I wish I looked like that. I don’t mean I wish my children looked like that … But I mean that’s amazingly, undeniably something” — an image worth snatching.
This leads to the crucial question in any consideration of Arbus’s work: Did she exploit her subjects? Some commentators, including Susan Sontag, have argued that she plainly did. Sontag famously criticized Arbus’s “coy and sinister” naïveté, “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”
(Certainly many viewers felt that way. From Bosworth we learn that at one moma show, an assistant had to go around each morning and wipe the Arbus photographs where people had spat on them)
That otherness is, of course, the point. Lubow argues that Arbus’s choice of subject matter was not a dissociative slumming in the streets of difference. It was an attempt to connect, as she looked to find and preserve invisible bonds: “Arbus was responding to strangers who reminded her of herself or of people close to her, people looking for self-definition and emotional regeneration.”
[Exploitation, an accent on otherness, and emotional connection are not mutually exclusive. Nor are they the only considerations. Below, Arbus, sixteen years old, writes the following in a high school paper.:]
There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth. Individuals all different, all wanting different things, all knowing different things, all loving different things, all looking different. everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life…I see something that seems wonderful; I see the divineness in ordinary things. [Revelations, ibid, p. 70]
And then, countering this empathetic approach, she could also wear people down in daylong sessions that seemed choreographed to pinpoint that exhausted moment when the subjects stopped projecting their ideal selves. This is particularly the case for her celebrity portraits, most notably of Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, and Warhol superstar Viva, and her photographs of the upper and artistic class.
If she’d had her way, none of Diane’s subjects would ever have seen the photos she took of them. Perhaps she worried they might not find the image worth the personal price. But she had another cause for concern: Few of her subjects understood that she was more than some petite, amateur lady-photographer; outside of her work for hire, she rarely asked for releases. She fumbled with her equipment, she giggled and whispered and spoke in a little-girl voice — she gave a false impression of incompetence.
And it went further: Occasionally, during a magazine shoot with a nervous subject, Diane would lie outright about what she was photographing. “Oh no, never,” she told one suburban housewife when she asked if pictures of her family would ever be sold (it became one of her best-known portraits of family dysfunction).
Most notoriously, there was the shoot for the fourth-ever issue of New York at the East Side apartment of Viva. The Warhol “superstar” claimed that Diane used the head-shots-only line on her as well — but in the published image her breasts were exposed, her head thrown back, …she’d likely been caught mid-eye-roll. When the issue hit newsstands, Viva threatened to sue. That never happened — Warhol advised against it — but founding editor Clay Felker watched advertisers run off in droves. He believed that one too-edgy image ultimately scared off about half a million dollars in revenue, nearly sinking the magazine.
Diane did not feel conflicted about her approach: She was in pursuit of an image that surprised her. Besides, she believed…what our look and our manner communicate is a language for others to decipher.
Israel said she saw the printed photograph as “her trophy; it’s what she received as the reward for her adventure.”
Lubow writes of a conversation Diane had around this time with a close friend: “She complained that she had rarely felt anything in her entire life. She was untouched by the ordinary joys and pains that make people feel alive.”
In the mid-’60s, Diane began trying to photograph sex — before, during, after. She photographed couples in their beds, group-sex events in the city, and swingers’ parties in clean suburban houses where the hostess served cheap snacks before the orgy.
She also took part — after all, the sexual revolution was in full effect. She’d found it easy enough to strip down with her New Jersey nudists, and this was just another kind of immersion to go along with the work. But her wide-open sexuality also pervaded her personal life.
She took lovers regularly, while married and afterward. She seduced waiters and editors and film producers..“ ..She slept with many of her friends, colleagues, collaborators — She once said that she had sex with any man who asked for it, and described a pool party at which she worked through the various men, one after the next, as if they were canapés. As far as Diane was concerned, she was expanding her collection of life experiences, and everyone had a right to that.
Even Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant, said that she “came on” to him, and he was at least eight feet nine.
By the time she was in her late 30s, sex seemed to have become a bona fide compulsion, each come-on almost a reflex — another way, beyond her photographs, of cataloguing human types. It contributed to the instability of her life, confused some of her friendships (both social and professional), and possibly made her sick: She became seriously ill with what was likely hepatitis B (often contracted through sex), causing the Guggenheim to delay her much-needed fellowship funds and leaving her emaciated and physically weak for years. And while this flinging herself at the world drove her deeper into her new identity as an explorer of the underground, it also seems to have served as a barrier between herself and individuals. She was sampling everything she could, then moving on.