Dec 23, 2012

What can Diane Arbus teach you about writing?

I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do - that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse. 
-- Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was an American photographer and a student of human diversity, often described as a "photographer of freaks." Maybe one should admit that freakishness comes from within and 'normal' is a mirage. Join me now, fellow freak, and let us contemplate the normalness of strangehood.*
*Or normalhood of strangeness. Which do you like best?  

I wish Robert Downey Jr. would play more characters
with hypertrichosis.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006), starring Nicole Kidman, paints Diane as little more than a dissatisfied housewife who takes up photography to the detriment of her husband's serious -- if uninspired -- professional efforts. A chance encounter with an epically hairy neighbor will arouse in Diane a longing for the unusual and the unexplored. Her involvement with the bipedal fur coat upstairs puts her on a collision course not only with her unsmiling husband, whose black eyebrows must be made of dead spiders, but also with her self-delusion. Diane can't sustain her facade as perfect wife and mother. It's an act. It's a betrayal.  

Curiously enough, for a movie that champions the discovery of your true self, Fur is not a little patronizing to the main character. Allan Arbus treats his wife like the eldest of his children and even goes so far as to suggest she shouldn't touch a camera. Diane's family belittles her aspirations, too. Let men, who know what they're doing, worry about photography. Photography is unladylike; art, a daydream for loose women.


Diane did not orbit Allan like some apathetic satellite. Before she struck out on her own as a fine art photographer, she ran a commercial photography business with Allan, serving as art director. But Fur owns the imaginary part of the title, so give it a pass. (Or don't.) That's not Diane Arbus you see on screen, but an invention that tiptoes around her life. Fur presents a woman looking for a key to unlock her greater being. It seems that a man holds that key. A man is the catalyst and adultery, the crisis that sets events in motion. This imaginary portrait hardly seems fair to Diane Arbus.

Who was the real Diane?

Born Diane Nemerov to a Jewish couple who owned Fifth Avenue department store Russek's, Diane grew up as the Depression spread its wings. The Nemerovs were wealthy, so the specter of the Great Depression didn't hound them as it did the men and women who flocked to the Hoover Dam construction site or applied for work visas to Soviet Russia.

Diane married Allan Arbus at the age of eighteen and studied photography under two remarkable women, Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) and Lisette Model (1901-1983).

The year was 1923. The place, Paris. Abbott plunged into the world of photography, as luck would have it, because Man Ray was looking for a totally inexperienced darkroom assistant. Man Ray used creative methods to get highly unusual effects (such as extreme solarisation) and would have felt miffed at more knowledgeable assistants who objected to his 'mistakes.' Ray wanted someone to do exactly as they were told. Berenice impressed Man Ray, and he let her use his darkroom for her own work. Before long, she'd be photographing the likes of Joyce and Cocteau.

1929. Returning to New York, Abbott saw a world of people and things waiting to be photographed. She'd spend six years documenting the city at her own expense. Abbott's work displays a concern with uniqueness and honesty that Arbus would later echo and amplify.

1935 NY photo by Berenice Abbot. Click to enlarge and get a better look
at the man and woman's expressions.
The woman's moping behind the pole. The man looks ornery.
No attempt to make this shot picture-perfect or avoid the human element.
Berenice Abbott was an advocate of straight photography.
Penn Station, Manhattan, by Berenice Abbott.

Lisette Model, pupil and admirer of Arnold Schönberg, influenced Diane's camera technique and most definitely her gaze. Model's work is vivid, dynamic, unsentimental. It bursts with energy. 

A Broadway singer, captured by Lisette Model

Coney Island bather, also by Lisette Model. "Pretty" does not represent the photographer's
aim; beauty is the goal. And beauty can be understood/represented in a number of ways.  

Lisette Model claimed that photography is the easiest art form, and therefore the hardest. When the click of a button freezes a moment in time, when you try to capture the right moment, then you realize the full import of Lisette's words. You can stage a photo but you can't break the laws of physics. You can't make the same thing happen twice.

Diane left commercial photography behind and went in search of something raw. Something real. Something that hides in the shadows cast by tall buildings covered in neon lights and billboards. What can Diane teach you about writing a novel, story or play?  

"I never have taken a picture I've intended. They're always better or worse."

The story you want to tell feels perfect in your mind because you experience the unmediated power of your ideas. Committing ideas to the page, the screen, to photo paper... that taints them with the reality of your skill. Everyone feels like this at one time or another; professional artists forge ahead despite their dissatisfaction. Hence my constant mention of the Cult of Done Manifesto and especially item 2, "Accept that everything is a draft. It helps to get it done."

(Cult of Done Manifesto poster by the amazing James Provost.)

Diane Arbus claimed that when she couldn't arrange the subject in a picture, she "arranged herself".

Photographers rewrite, too. It's just that their process involves thinking with their entire bodies. Whereas writers move essentially across an abstract landscape, playing with concepts and chains of events, photographers need to use their feet. Ansel Adams once told a young aspirant that the best photographic lens was one step forward, one step back, until you hit "aha."

"You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw."

In other words, average doesn't grab you. Seth Godin recently noted that ridiculous is the new remarkable -- you pay more attention to the people who invest a ridiculous amount of effort in their art.

Diane Arbus: Child with a toy hand grenade

Read "ridiculous" as huge, humongous, Herculean. You remember people or characters because they stand out. How does this come about, how do you achieve it in your writing? Let's consider two extremes: chess master Garry Kasparov and French-American wrestler, Andre the Giant. One is intellectually (psychologically) remarkable, the other one physically.

To say that Andre Roussimoff towered over his schoolmates is an understatement -- at the age of 12, he'd grown to 6'3" (190cm), too big for the school bus. He dropped out of school after the 8th grade to become a farm laborer. A Parisian promoter noticed Andre, who could definitely kiss the sky on a cloudy day (as an adult, he stood 7'4"/2.24m), and trained him as a professional wrestler. The Giant's height was the result of acromegaly, a disorder where the body produces an excessive amount of growth hormone. More often than not, the sufferer's life ends prematurely. Andre enjoyed his retirement for a year and died in his mid-forties.

Azerbaijan-born Garry Kasparov became the youngest-ever world chess champion at the age of 22, beating his rival Anatoly Karpov. The World Chess Federation (FIDE) ranked him no. 1 for 255 months. Two hundred and fifty-five. Kasparov began his formal chess training at the age of seven and rose to the rank of Grandmaster at the age of 17. (I won't claim to understand FIDE requirements for this award but trust me, getting there is quite a feat. Once you earn the title, you're a chess grandmaster for life.) Two years later, at 19, Garry had already ranked second player in the world. Just imagine what that feels like!

Ducks are clumsy on land, graceful on water. A flaw here is a virtue over there.

Diane Arbus: A boy in a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade, NYC, 1967 

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

My major problem with Tolkien and Tolkienian fantasy is that certain things are best left unexplained -- but JRR would have burst into a hundred bloody chunks if he hadn't sneezed all that world-building of his onto the martyred page.* Awe and mystery, those wily kissing cousins, lose all their potency when you shine a floodlight on them.
*To me, Tolkien is somewhat like the young man who built a working calculator inside Minecraft, except I admire the latter.

Fortunately, a photo frames reality so that you can't say for sure what lies outside that frame, that moment abstracted from a larger, unwieldy hole.

Diane Arbus: Identical Twins, New Jersey
One of them is clearly the pessimistic twin from a joke about a nonexistent pony. 

A book -- a story of any kind -- shouldn't, I believe, try to give you the whole picture, explain everything to you and for you. As a reader, I must plead: Don't tell me everything! Don't show me everything!

You see, an excessive number of revelations and insights leaves no room for the reader's imagination and what's more, it reveals the artificiality of your fictive world. Do readers want to lose themselves in a story, or scavenge-hunt your mistakes and contradictions? Because you will make mistakes and contradict yourself: Nobody I know is an expert on everything.

When you can't skate, a bigger ice ring just gives you more room to slip and fall.

Consider, if you will, this picture of the albino sword swallower (above). They say that pictures do not lie, but in that apparent objectivity you can find more meaning than the photographer intended, and discover also that the picture brings you more questions than answers.
Who is the sword swallower? What circumstances conspired to bring this person into the world, what powers shaped her choices as the years passed? Why swords and not fire? Where is she now, does she swallow swords still? Perhaps she's trained a daughter?

Diane Arbus: A young man in curlers at home on West 20th St. NYC

No verbal ornament or circumlocution surpasses the might of a well-composed image, the raw, elemental power of a moment that shows you everything but denies access to its ultimate truth. That's what the arts are for, so we can come face to face with the unknowable and demand that it nurture us, that it bring us novelty.

So -- wherever you take your reader, add shades and hues of mystery. Plant hints. Say little, suggest more. Don't worry that your hidden message will go over the reader's head; we're not all Kasparovs. I'd say if you can write for half a dozen people you know, you can write for dozens more. 


This is a Mamiya C-33, a medium-format twin-lens reflex camera. Diane Arbus used one of these in the sixties.
One is the taking lens, the other one is used for the viewfinder. These cameras are usually held at waist level, which
increases stability. You can't see it here because it's capped, but the viewfinder is placed horizontally.
The photographer looks down at it as she composes an image.
Photo by Remi Kaupp
Diane also employed a Rolleiflex 3.5F with a 75mm planar lens, pictured to the right. These cameras may look archaic to you, especially now that you can take pictures with black, featureless slates, but the fact is TLRs were so efficiently put together that many of these babies can be found at eBay, still functional, fetching a good price. Even damaged they have value as collector's items. If you're looking for a relatively cheap TLR just so you can futz around with medium format and you'd like something with a little heft -- something not Holga -- you could try a Seagull.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is an ongoing series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times. In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 
Read more in this series.

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