Freaks and Dreams
Two of the most popular and challenging photographers in the history of the medium at the Fraenkel Gallery, natch.
In back-to-back exhibitions — Diane Arbus (1923–1971) curated by Carrie Mae Weems (1953-) at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (June 3-August 13) and Carrie Mae Weems by the Fraenkel Gallery (September 9-November 13) — they are introducing her representation with one of their longest held and most sustaining artists.
In photographer Diane Arbus’ day (1923–1971) (do I need to tell you she was a photographer?) there was an adage, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.” It meant that what we now call ‘unintended consequences’ were necessary if you wanted to do good work. Her famous pictures stirred up our basic fears. They bring out the feeling in all of us that we might be “freaks,” too. That maybe in the human frame there are only outsiders.
A generation later, we have Carrie Mae Weems (1953-) who puts herself in the pictures, daring us to say she isn’t part of us all. Sometimes she appropriates images from history and with her reframing and her writing and her color washing, the pictures are reborn with fresh fury. But we’re not in danger, unless you believe education corrupts. She is a civilizing influence on the medium.
There is betrayal involved, of course, but she owns it; it doesn’t wipe us with its tainted brush. Arbus attacked…everyone, while Weems calls us to join her in action. Her pictures have political purpose, they tell us to get a hold of ourselves and behave. Whereas Arbus was out of control, pushing herself to experience all she felt she’d been denied as a coddled child of rich parents who owned a fancy department store in New York where her mother paraded her oldest daughter “in white gloves and patent-leather slippers” “past bowing and smiling staff.”
Dressing up, performing, is a way of cheating time, stepping aside from the reality of a body, imagining you’re in charge of it when that’s only half true. Arbus’ mother was a depressive. It’s hard that ‘living in the moment’ is a pipe dream. Experience rushes by us like rapids in a river. Photographers try and freeze a frame, take a cup to sip from at our choosing, but that only reminds us we can’t stop the flow from moving on, life! Believing you can forget you will get cancer one day against your will.
Was it a form of depression that Diane became what in her day we called a ‘sex maniac?’ Tearing her clothes off for most of the “freaks” and nudists and circus performers and friends of her parents she photographed? Some of them resisted and reported her coming onto them like the Jewish giant. Was he telling that to his mother when Arbus caught her, like a deer in headlights, with the flash?
The lampshades in so many Arbus pictures are covered in protective cellophane, a metaphor for suffocation to someone who tells stories with light. Look at the encroaching darkness on the ceiling in the Giant picture and you can’t help but see panic and doom closing in. That was Arbus’ subject. We have to imagine it’s how she felt. She killed herself at forty-eight.
It wasn’t just the people she chose that made her pictures breathe her thoughts perhaps more directly than any photographer. The greatness in her images relied on the coitus as a preamble. It’s how she could afterwards stuff a flash in their faces and get that lascivious look so many had, that defiance where they stare into the lens and say, effectively, “I know you!”
I imagine that’s why during her first retrospective at MOMA in 1972, a year after her suicide, “an assistant had to go around each morning and wipe the Arbus photographs where people had spat on them.” The effrontery of a dwarf in his rake’s hat and only a towel over his privates looking at us, us, like he’s the king of noir! What with his bottle of liquor and his bare foot pushing at us through the frame. There it is again, life. And that always means death.
How can we approximate what it feels like to an artist to put her hand in a raging fire, and leave it there long after it’s burnt, because she needs to? It’s what keeps her from killing herself, until she notices she’s faking it. Her hand fell off ages ago, she’s keeping the fire ablaze so she can kid herself she continues to have feelings: when really she was still putting on dresses for mom.
So how did that artist “have a powerful impact on” Carrie Mae Weems whose images are formal, intellectual, balanced? She is from Portland Oregon, she’s Black, her mother worked at a garment factory, her dad was a sharecropper and crazy for women. Carrie had the good fortune not to be a depressive.
She had a baby when she was sixteen. She named the baby “Faith” and left home to become a dancer in San Francisco’s politically left scene in 1969. She became a Marxist, a political organizer; a boyfriend gave her a camera and that was the beginning of the beginning for her. We can see her need, her natural ability, her bravery in her early work where she went home to make what would turn out to be a rare confession.
If the other young man and that curtain coming off its rod weren’t there, this would be a very different picture. Less sexual. He’s behind her and her dad, with his eyes closed, turned away from the lens, as if to say, ‘I am not part of this.’ Especially her fingers laced together with her dad’s like a bear trap around her.
This is the only picture where she looks at us with that grin, as if to say, ‘I know I’m hot.’ (Arbus could never do seductive.) Then, like a jealous lover, Carrie Mae recounts: dad had “so many women swarm around him…he calls them all Suzie Q, so he doesn’t have to remember any one name.” Really? They look happy, each one of them, shiny and proud as the daughter on his lap.
So what’s a daughter to do but find a man of her own. In 1986, Carrie Mae meets the director of Light Work, Jeff Hoone. On her timeline on her website she writes that “She sees the future and knows that they will be married. He sees nothing.” It’s the kind of confession that might make a man weak in the knees.
Or is she announcing herself as the power in their relationship? She doesn’t photograph him. He’s white. Arbus said, “a picture is a secret about a secret.” I see Hoone in Weems’ head when she makes pictures. The year they met she appropriated an image to make this tough piece of propaganda:
Outrage can be an expression of love. And maybe she only got interested in what white people thought once she’d met Hoone.
In 1988 she does a residency at Light Works. In 1989, Weems started “The Kitchen Series” in which she plays a woman imagining her romantic trajectory. She has boyfriends, she has children, she is alone, and lays cards out on the table as if she can read her future in them or choose the one she wants. On her timeline in 1990 there is an image “Thoughts on Marriage.”
In 1995 Weems and Hoone elope to Tijuana and marry. That year and the next she makes thirty images or so from appropriated photos:
We can hear the pressure on a photographer when Arbus says, “pictures had to be of something which make them more remarkable than what they are.” [“Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph,” 1970.] The challenge is to hold your head above the rapids, even swim.
In 2000, Weems writes on her timeline, “Enters dark period.” In 2003 her father dies. And in 2006, she is in her “roaming” period when she begins the “Museum” series where she plays a figure in a black dress like a shroud. An operatic intensity begins to permeate her work.
In this series you might say she plays a warning of death to European institutions, i.e. white cultural history, for excluding Black artists, her. And she might be mourning her father’s passing, too. He was her institution and her devil.
Miraculously, the institutions in America start to hear her and she will get shows in MOMA and at the MET. In the next twenty years, she is awarded a MacArthur Grant, a medal from the State Department during the Obama years, a Gordon Parks Foundation Award. Honorary doctorates are given to her from Colgate University, the School of Visual Arts and Syracuse University. She is awarded The Rome Prize. The Shainman Gallery in New York begins to represent her. And now Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. Two of the best photography galleries in the world.
But her work is increasingly about isolation.
In 2007 she “Moves to new home with Jeff. Home now in one location.” In 2009, there is a PBS documentary that captures her directing a video where she explains to the cast of young girls, who are about to perform in an ironic bathing suit competition of a beauty pageant, that they should think of themselves as symbols:
“It’s claiming yourself. And it’s confidence. You’re all involved in theater. So you’re going to be working in front of other people. But it’s really about connecting to a story that’s larger than you. It’s not about you. It’s not about you. We’re using these bodies to talk about something else that’s much bigger than we are. Find confidence in this historical story that we’re going to use your body to express this story through.”
When the Fraenkel Gallery began representing Weems, she claimed Diane Arbus and David Hammons as influences. For an opening of a retrospective of his work at MOMA David Hammons (1943-) said, “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”
That clearly had a huge impact on Weems. And if you put the idea of a person together with the drowning feeling in an Arbus photograph, you get a view on Weems’ “Slow Fade to Black” series from 2010:
And her “Blue Notes” series from 2014–15:
She describes these pictures, and many in her prolific career, as investigations into power and victimhood. And while she seems to be on a steady climb, what with the additional strength of Fraenkel selling her work, she’s only human. She’s going to need that extra money now that her husband has been forced into retirement this summer. Librettos rarely have happy endings, but characters never die.