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A revealer of souls

Diane Arbus’s striking portraits illuminate the small tragedies of life

Diane Arbus
Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1

“I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.” Diane Arbus’s photographs of people, many of whom were on the margins of life, were rooted in an understanding of the relationship between photographer and subject. Attuned to the small tragedies of contemporary life, she was to photography what Raymond Carver was to literature. As John Szarkowski, organiser of the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1967 “New Documents” exhibition, said: “The portraits of Diane Arbus show that all of us – the most ordinary and most exotic of us – are on closer scrutiny remarkable.”

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov to a wealthy Jewish family in 1923; her father was the son of a Russian immigrant and her mother the daughter of the owners of Russek’s Fur Store in New York. The large apartment, the cooks and chauffeurs led her to have a “sense of unreality”, further complicated by her father’s frequent absence at work and her mother’s depression. At the age of 18 she married Allan Arbus, an employee at her parents’ store, whom she had met when she was 13. It was he who gave her her first camera. They worked together in fashion photography until she went her own way professionally, after which their marriage broke down. In July 1971, at the age of 48, she ended her own life with pills and a razor. Like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, she was beautiful, tragic and complicated.

By the 1960s her portraits for magazines such as Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar had assumed a distinctive look. She would frame her subjects in ordinary settings, posed looking straight at the camera. Unblinking and quizzical, they assumed an air of disquiet, as if some secret was about to be exposed. No sentimentalist, she began to seek out the people she wanted to photograph: young children and socialites, nudists and dwarfs, transvestites and circus performers.

Arbus has been accused of being interested only in aberration, a poor little rich girl getting her kicks from life’s seamy side, from tortured sexual identities and the shock value of mental feebleness and physical deformity. Even now, many of her images seem shocking, in that they bring the viewer up close to experience the damaged humanity behind the glitter, the showgirl outfits and socialite dresses.

Why did people agree to let her into the privacy of their bedrooms and reveal themselves at their most vulnerable?

In this exhibition there are plenty of such examples – the stripper with bare breasts in her sordid dressing room in Atlantic City in 1962, who sits in spangled armbands, not bothering to disguise her spare tyre; or the “naked man being a woman in his room in NYC” in 1968, posing provocatively with his hand on his hip and his genitals tucked away between his legs; or the nudist lady in a flower-petal hat and diamanté swan sunglasses. There is something complicit in these images, as if the subjects needed Arbus as much as she needed them.

Most of her photographs depended on her subject’s active participation; being photographed gave a moment of colour to their otherwise anonymous lives. People must have been flattered. Inside they simply felt themselves, and did not realise that, in front of her lens, whether they were Mrs T Charlton Henry, a raddled dowager from Philadelphia in a negligee, or a Puerto Rican woman with heavily painted eyes and a beauty mark, they would end up looking like axe murderers.

But it is her photographs of people in residences for what is euphemistically called “developmental difficulties” that are the hardest to look at. Those with Down’s syndrome or with other deformities are dressed in masks, their faces painted as if for some medieval pageant. Arbus loved “freaks”. As she explained: “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 . . . Freaks were born with trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

Perhaps, in the end, this is the true power of her images – that they not only throw light on those who seem odd and dispossessed, but that they illuminate our own responses when faced with the different and the damaged. In that sense Arbus is a revealer of souls.

Until 31 August the National Museum Cardiff will also present Arbus’s work under the banner “Artist Rooms”, collected by Anthony d’Offay and acquired by the nation in February 2008

Pick of the week

Hereford Photography Festival
Edgar Street, Hereford
Photographs by John Bulmer, one of the “Young Meteors” of the 1960s, brought into focus.

Picasso: Challenging the Past
National Gallery, London WC2
The artistic revolutionary measured against the Old Masters. To 7 June.

Framing Modernism
Estorick Gallery, London N1
The heyday of Italian architectural modernism celebrated.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide