Saturday, March 19, 2005

She found a bench near Box 674 and sat down. At noon the last window slammed shut. Maria drank from the water cooler, smoked cigarettes, read the F.B.I. posters. Wandering the county somewhere were Negro Females Armed with Lye, Caucasian Males posing as Baby Furniture Representatives, Radio Station Employees travelling out of Texas with wives and children and embezzled cash and Schemes for Getting Money and Never Delivering on Piecework, an inchoate army on the move. (166-167)

And when I read the end of that last sentence riding home on a packed L train, I sighed, closed my eyes, held my thumb in the book and was under the spell of that word “inchoate.” I don’t know why this word moves me so much, probably because it is so rarely used, but whenever a writer does use it, I pause on the sentence and think about what a great word that it is, inchoate. Inchoate has replaced Apotheosis as the word that most gives me chills when I come across it. That is funny if you know what thos words me, inchoate replacing apotheosis, what it says though, I don't want to speculate.

But I sighed, pressed between a large woman and the metal end of the bench. My shoulder was pressed into that metal, hurting me so much so that I got off at Bedford, a stop early. On the subway earlier today, a different train, I heard a woman telling her friend that those metal bars / armrests at the ends of benches by the doors were designed for safety so that muggers couldn’t reach into a train right before the doors close and grab a necklace or a pocketbook of someone sitting next to the door. I listened to lots of conversations today. I was at the Met checking out the Diane Arbus show. I paused in the middle of the room, trying to catch as many conversations as I could, and they all blurred together, this symphony of muted observations, so loud. That, also, gave me chills. It was that type of day, I was vaguely tired and easily moved by nothing and everything.

On my way there, I was reading Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, which was an appropriate pairing for Arbus. Didion’s bleak, detached book and then Arbus’ dark, detached photos, both trying to say something about America, Didion, being the more successful one. Arbus bothers me, but so does photography. There is something too easy about it. The photographs are nothing without its subjects. This is a new position for me. I used to be a photography booster, but lately, I am so over photography and that style of abject documentary photography that she spawned. Great, you took pictures of a drag queen. So what, tell me something. The show was so packed. I wonder why photography exhibits need to happen – if they do. Painting, I see the need for. That can’t be reproduced as nice. But, that’s the nature of photography, easy, identical reproductions can be made. There was nothing great about the quality of the photographs in person, you can see them just as well in her books, can see them even better, because you don’t have four people’s shoulders you have to lean over to see, all crowding around each tiny print. The only really exciting part of the show, since all these photos are so common, were the rooms with her journals and contact sheets, but these were even more crowded and absolutely impossible to look at. A nice touch that I enjoyed was the display of her books over all these artifacts. I love old books and had so much fun spotting the titles and recognizing some editions. I probably could have gone to the Strand and had just as much fun.

I enjoy Arbus I should say because I haven’t and it is too easy to be dismissive. There is just something that has me apprehensive about her work, the exploitive nature of it, but surely, that is part of her purpose, to make viewers uncomfortable. This explotiviness is best represented by her photos of those down syndrome patients, which make me so uncomfortable, and which I heard other people commenting were “wrong,” but these ones just make clear how much all her work is the same sort of look what oddity I found exploitiveness. She has such a cold eye. There is nothing warm about her gaze. When she was writing a proposal for some of her early photos, she framed it in these anthropological terms, looking to study and observe the habits and customs of America, which explains the cold gaze a little.

In the last room, there is a photograph that I had never seen before and which I paused over for a long time because I think if I can unlock it than I can unlock Arbus and understand what she thinks about this act of photography. The photograph is Photographer Posing Communion Boy, 1968. It is a male photographer turning a young boy’s chin just so as he is setting up this photo of him to commemorate his First Communion. Something is being said about posed photographs, about these studio portraits and I am not sure exactly what the critique is.

On the subway ride to the museum, in between two of the cars there was a man, shaking the stuff connecting the cars and I kept thinking he was going to jump as the train was moving. Everyone near me was watching him, terrified. I kept on thinking I should be the person that gets up, that opens the door and asks him if he needs help. I didn’t. I wasn’t that person. I rarely tend to be. Today, the excuse was I was too scared of what he might do. He looked totally crazy. We all sat there waiting for him to do whatever it was he was going to do. Kill himself? We sat, watching, occasionally exchanging worried glances with other passengers, as if maybe someone should do something. I got off at 86th Street and he was still riding in between the cars, shaking the cables. The people kept watching. I watched as the train drove away. All this looking at other human beings in this way, this passive way, that is the problem I have with it all. I don’t like all this looking. I like the talking, the collapsing of these distances, not their reification with photos.

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