Arbus’s imagery has little wobble in it: compassion, concern, inquisitiveness, and curiosity are locked down in a straitened field of ambiguity.
  • Arbus’s imagery has little wobble in it: compassion, concern, inquisitiveness, and curiosity are locked down in a straitened field of ambiguity.
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The first photograph I saw by Brassaï, many years ago, was a 1948 portrait of Jean Genet. Hands in pockets, slight of form, his face an ambiguous index of skittishness and cunning, Genet offers and withdraws his presence in the same instant. The image, unlike Genet himself, is docile and cautious. Brassaï had made his reputation in the 1930s with images not at all docile and cautious. His photographic book Paris de Nuit essayed Paris’s nocturnal lives: street exteriors of hookers, cops, gangsters, laborers, lovers; and interiors of brothels, bars, dance halls, opium dens, party scenes of any kind.

Brassaï, Young couple wearing a two-in-one suit at the Bal de la Montagne Sainte-Genevieve, c. 1931.

Brassaï, Young couple wearing a two-in-one suit at the Bal de la Montagne Sainte-Genevieve, c. 1931.

A big technical problem with night imaging was the light given off by street lamps, which developed into a chalky halation that blasted against darks. Brassaï learned to avoid halos by using scenic elements —walls, trees, bridges—to mask the street lights, converting direct into indirect lighting, which contributed to the seething menace of pictures like those that featured a bunch of unworthies called Big Albert’s Gang. In one image we see the gang from the tarry darkness behind them, as they look into a super-scouring lamplight that has the physical force of the spaceship lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Born Gyula Halász in 1899, in Brasso, Transylvania (a part of Rumania), Brassaï aspired to be a painter and sculptor but gave it up in the 1920s. Having adopted in 1925 the name “Brassaï” after his hometown, he acquired his first camera in 1930 and committed his life to photography. His subjects in the 1930s were shadow lives lived in shadow zones. Brassaï was attracted to sensual excess and transgression. His images inflected the degrees of exposure and social concealment that we all cultivate. Even an endearing picture of a man dressed in a gorilla suit playing with a baby is drained of playfulness by Brassaï’s intensity: the baby is alarmingly blond, the gorilla’s oversized plaid suit and bowler hat make him look like a goofy but scary predator.

Brassaï loved the off-center worlds of bordellos, gay and transvestite clubs, red light districts, and bridges or benches where at night lovers necked and clochards slept. He photographed cultures where people want most to be seen or beheld or admired for their style or moral audacity while also staying partly out of sight. He intensified the crowdedness of club interiors by shooting close to mirrors. Two lovers in a booth sit by kitty-cornered mirrors that complete the parts of their heads hidden from us. We get a mini-panoramic view of their hilarity and ecstasy. Brassaï’s images are themselves shadow boxes, executive darks swelling with metallic or vaporous illumination that looks crushed into the frame. The images are also little cultural vitrines: men’s hair is brilliantined to an eight-ball finish, women are branded with lipstick and show off fashionable spit curls, and there’s drink and smoke everywhere. One motif that attracted Brassaï for its special privacy was the public urinal. In 1930s Paris there were more than 1300 of them, and in Paris de Nuit he writes with a proprietary fondness of the secrets housed in these roundhouse “chapels,” as he called them, marked by a little tower and illuminated dome, which men used as gay hook-up spots.

 Diane Arbus, A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965, 1965

Diane Arbus, A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C. 1965, 1965

Brassaï is one of three photographers included in Real Worlds, currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The other two, Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin, stream behind his example into our present. Brassaï’s book is a great classic of early modern photography; his autobiographical, I-was-there text scrolls Parisian culture of the time around the images presented. He was captivated as a cultural anthropologist might be, the outsider inside, infiltrating the hidden and forbidden. He was passionate about the life of crowds, beginning with the crowd composed of two lovers kissing on a bench.

The life of the crowd and the busy social information it enfolds didn’t interest Arbus. She wanted a scrupulous report of her subjects, who encode secrets we might get access to if we stare long enough. (A photograph, she liked to say, “is a secret about a secret.”) Her pictures cast a studious spell. Their strangeness is an enchantment. Real Worlds offers many of her classic images: identical twin sisters staring artlessly at the photographer; a boy in Central Park gripping a toy hand grenade while striking a spastic fake-terror pose; a gaunt flirtatious young man in hair curlers staring us down; Down Syndrome patients frolicking outdoors. Compared to Brassaï’s nervous, patrolling energy, Arbus’s imagery has little wobble in it: compassion, concern, inquisitiveness, and curiosity are locked down in a straitened field of ambiguity.

Her work has a silencing stillness and an exquisitely calibrated emotional reserve: I always feel as if I’m looking through an opaque plane of affect between photographer and subject that’s re-negotiated picture to picture. She doesn’t so much peer into identity as paralyze it. Her visual imagination didn’t allow much dynamic play between the subject represented and our own emotional and intellectual response. She or her subjects usually pull back to some appropriate and manageable emotional remoteness. Which makes a picture like Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark from 1965 so stunning by contrast. The woman’s dense wind-blown hair barely tamed by a hair net, her beauty mark looking like a satellite of her blackest-of-black eyebrows, her confrontational gaze rich with sexy discontent — she’s hardly containable in the frame.

One image that sets loose vitalizing ambiguities is that of an old lady in a wheelchair having fun, maybe having fun with us, lolling in her chair while pretending to be a grotesque, wearing a warty, broken-toothed witch’s mask. Brassaï’s couples are good-timers. Arbus’s couples are either affectively muted or have crafted a look for the camera, a look that usually involves possessiveness. You see the will engaged in fashioning a self-image. To exclude or include us? (Or the photographer?) When she literally photographs the self-exposure of nudists, a shirtless Mexican Dwarf in a Hotel Room, a sunbathing suburban couple, or A Naked Man Pretending to be a Woman (his genitals tucked behind his thighs to create the illusion of a vagina), the tone is demure, affable but not cozy. One of the subtlest images of erotic entanglement as romantic possessiveness shows a young couple on a bench in Washington Square in New York. His arm around her back and leg thrown over hers are loose tethers; she holds him over the shoulder as if laying claim; he looks down and away from us in a pose of supreme cool (and low-wattage threat), while she looks half-smiling straight at us.

 Nan Goldin, Millie with the cheeseburger radio at home, New York City, 1980.

Nan Goldin, Millie with the cheeseburger radio at home, New York City, 1980.

Arbus’s apparently bold greeting of her subjects has an opacity and emotional deflectiveness. Brassaï worked on the fly. “Look here!” his pictures say, “No! Look there!” Arbus is more composed, her imagery better behaved. Then there’s Nan Goldin, who reminds me of certain drummers I think of as furniture breakers (Buddy Rich, Ginger Baker, Tommy Igoe) whose raucous chew-everything-up energy turns into its own kind of gorgeous manic lyricism. The longer I look at Arbus, the thicker becomes the plane that isolates and seals in the contents of her pictures. Goldin, who has acknowledged Arbus’s influence, takes a hammer to that and dumps us into a jarring, jaw-grinding intimacy with the people she has photographed with ardent urgency. Born in 1953, she started taking pictures as a teenager (and became her high school’s official photographer), but she used the camera as what she called a “personal diary,” with all the self-absorption and emotional neediness that come with that. From the beginning, she has said, she took pictures out of “emotional need, not aesthetic choice.” In Arbus and Brassaï we see aesthetic choices being made and adjusted for a certain effect. In Goldin we see such choices blown apart by the artist’s desire to make the image itself seem a member of the secret society she photographs – family, friends, lovers.

In 1979, living on the Lower East Side, hanging with other artists, musicians, writers, and performers, she made a slide show of her pictures for a club. She expanded it in the 1980s, when it became one of the grand photographic suites of our time, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which in its latest form (included in Real Worlds) runs to forty-five minutes of about seven hundred images. Distance, in Goldin’s pictures, exists to be crushed. She jams us tightly into raw lived moments. She photographs with an ecstasy of intrusiveness, though she would never use that word; she’s part of the society she’s intruding on. Along with images of lovers on park benches by Brassaï and Arbus, the exhibition offers Goldin’s image of the same; but her lovers, kissing, clenched around each other on a Tompkins Square bench in pied sunlight, are closer to the lovers Schiele painted. They’re not cool or canny. Their embrace is hungry, feral; they’re taking each other hostage, and like Schiele’s couples they look bound in a pact of youthful future-less mortality.

Consider the beds in Goldin’s images. They’re hazard zones, messy habitats, sanctuaries, fossil sites, drapery studies. They look as beaten up as some of Goldin’s human subjects do, including herself, in Nan After Being Battered, where she presents herself as evidence, with two black eyes, one of them a really ugly mouse from blows that nearly blinded her. The companion photo is Nan and Brian in Bed. Brian, her boyfriend at the time (1983), beat her, and in the double portrait he sits on their bed smoking while Nan looks at him with longing and trepidation. (Brian is one of many cute bad boys who turn up in the slide show. ) Goldin is a fiery chronicler of a certain kind of domesticity. You see how erotic greed and sexual (or social) neediness create fields of anxiety, delirium, elation, despair. In the extreme catalog of presences in Ballad we see Nan’s friends naked in tub or shower or bed, shooting up, fucking, sleeping, kissing, self-fellating, eating and drinking and sometimes mugging the camera; Ballad is a directory of all the ways we have of turning toward and away from each other, especially in bed. The shots are exposures of exposure, sometimes detailed with bite marks, scars, bruises, and burns. She makes a photographic image itself look like a guilty thing surprised, except that nobody feels guilty, especially not Nan.

As a photographer she pushes back at life, she doesn’t pull back. Her camera burgles secrecies. Ballad takes us inside dressing rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, clubs, bedrooms, and finds whatever’s there: tots, dirty laundry, cigarette butts and smoke, grimy fingernails and feet, vulvas and penises, junkies’ works, guns, booze, and downtown celebrities like Vincent Gallo, Jim Jarmusch, and John Waters.

But it wasn’t just her friends at home she photographed. Her 1983 picture ‘Variety’ Booth, New York City tightly frames the already tight frame of a movie-house ticket booth and the woman in a small swell of light selling tickets. It has tremendous compression. The booth looks like the guardhouse to the secretive sensuous dream world of movies, and the sign tells us the price of admission is only two dollars. ■


2-Hour Pottery Wheel Workshop: What can you do in two hours at the pottery wheel? Quite a bit! We’ll cover the basics of centering, opening, and lifting the wall. If you end up with something you want to keep at the end, we will fire your untrimmed piece and glaze it for you to pick up later. Ages 16+ [email protected] Saturday, July 28, 10am; $60. 18 and up. Mud Lily, 7881 University Avenue. (LA MESA)

A Midsummer Daydream: The Southwestern Artists’ Association is proud to present “A Midsummer Daydream”, an art exhibit featuring San Diego artists Janet Voss, Leah Higgins, and Susan Binford. Thursdays, 10am; Fridays, 10am; Saturdays, 10am; Sundays, 10am; through Tuesday, July 31, free. Gallery 23 in Spanish Village, 1770 Village Place. (BALBOA PARK)

DIY Zine Camp: July 23 - July 27. Ages 10 to 18 Literature, comic books, photography, movies, illustration, any visual art — Zine Camp is for students who love all of these and want to learn how to edit, create, and distribute art in DIY magazines. A zine is a self-published book or booklet that can be reproduced to share or sell. Thursday, July 26, 9am; Friday, July 27, 9am; San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado. (BALBOA PARK)

Modi Operandi: The Processes of Creation in Confinement: The Hill Street Country CluB and Linksoul Lab is proud to present ART IS FOR EVERYONE new works created by featuring artworks from Project PAINT artists in Donovan State Prison. This exhibition focuses on the often-inventive processes behind the finished products created in our courses. Sunday, July 29, 4pm; $10. Linksoul Lab, 530 S. Coast Hwy. (OCEANSIDE)

Pop Up Art Show: The Talmadge Art Show is celebrating its Silver Anniversary – 25 years with two main shows and 2 Pop Up shows in 2018. It will feature 18 artists who create and sell high quality crafts. Saturday, July 28, 2pm; free. Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street. (OLD TOWN)

Secluded & Convenient Art show: Edifying a Hidden Gem in North Country, “Secluded & Convenient” Art Exhibit Set for this Summer. “Secluded & Convenient” is a visual story about past, present and future in a scarce undeveloped area in Carlsbad, North County San Diego. Thursday, July 26, 6pm; free. Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, 9888 Genesee Avenue. (LA JOLLA)

The Gaslamp Artisan Market: More than 30 local artisans will offer carefully-curated homemade and unique local products. Situated in the heart of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, with jewelry, hand crafted items, and home goods to be on display. Sundays, 10am; Fifth Avenue between Market Street and Island Avenue. (DOWNTOWN)

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