In 1972, the Venice Biennale featured the work of an American photographer for the first time. Not Stieglitz, Steichen, Weston or Adams. Instead, they chose a collection of portraits of hookers and circus freaks; twisted dwarfs and acne-ravaged young men waving American flags--disquieting photographs which appeared to showcase the ignominy of singularly ugly human beings culled from the vast zoo of New York City: photographs by Diane Arbus. Now an unusually good selection of some 35 prints from her estate will reward even those familiar with her work.
Look long and closely at Arbus' portraits. If they reveal tragedy, it isn't in the faces of mongoloids frolicking on a park lawn, nor in the sparkling, wise eyes of a toothless transvestite relaxing on a dirty bed at her birthday party. There is pathos in these unflinchingly recorded images, to be sure. But pathos is the viewers' contribution; the subjects' is unconquerable dignity.
No, it's her portraits of famous people--James Brown in curlers backstage before a performance, effeminate and narcissistic; an aging Charles Atlas flexing his atrophied muscles in a ridiculously kitsch apartment; Mae West, a used, dried husk of formerly infamous voluptuousness--these are the ones that really hit hard. It's because these subjects, recorded with the same unflattering equanimity, seem so hollow.
Arbus, rather than turn her eye inward as artists so often do to come to terms with sordid reality, turned hers faithfully out. What she saw was a sort of dauntless compassion radiating back through the camera lens. (Michael Kohn Gallery, 313 N. Robertson Blvd., to Dec. 3.)