On Sunday afternoon, in the Frye Art Museum’s auditorium, Pierre Leguillon screened his film Manual of Photography, a supercut of movie scenes about photography and cameras. We see Jimmy Stewart working his equipment in Rear Window and Nicole Kidman as Diane Arbus in Fur. Halfway through, the projection went blank, the screen rolled up, and Leguillon appeared on stage behind a small bar. He cracked open a line of Sanbitter bottles (basically nonalcoholic Campari spritz) and said, “The bar is opened,” welcoming the theater audience on stage. The projector, still running, showed a film still, the beginning of the second half, and as we went on stage and had a drink, we entered the image.
Leguillon showed the movie as part of the opening for Arbus Bonus, his exhibition which collects all of Diane Arbus’s magazine work—from Sunday Times Magazine, Harper’s Baazar, Esquire—as well as a few interpretations or appropriations of her work, like the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. There are 256 images in all, taken directly from the publications, grouped by Leguillon. A few vintage crates offer seating. A stack of magazines sits on the floor. That’s it—a simple idea, and a simple execution, but also a many-layered investigation into how we see.
Mostly, American culture’s awareness of Arbus is distilled to a handful of images: the uncanny twins, the Jewish giant with his parents, the man in curlers with manicured fingernails—all shot with a flat affect and all queasily toeing the line between exploitation and representation of society’s misfits, a spiritual antecedent to David Lynch. Her work already demands that we consider how we look (in both senses): Her subjects gaze so often return our gazes.
“Arbus’s work is reactive—reactive against gentility, against what is approved,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography. “It was her way of saying fuck Vogue.” At the show, you get to test this theory. Arbus’s fashion photography—Glamour and McCall’s covers tower on the central wall—appears beside her journalistic work and artistic shots. Reactionary, perhaps. But some of the fun is finding echoes of her fixations folded into even the blandest magazine spreads. Eerie, flat-eyed twins pop up in children’s fashion shots for Sunday Times Magazine.
I was left, walking through, with questions. How can commercialism uphold, contain, and obliterate a voice? What happens to the “photographer of freaks” in the context of a magazine, beside text that can steamroll any ambiguity? (A shot of a very tan strong man shifts beside its headline: “But Ladies, I Am 76 Years Old.” Ditto a shot of a woman beside a headline about fat camps.) How do magazine pages change in a museum, versus, say, a doctor's office? To what degree can a single artist shape how we see a culture, and to what degree does that shaping alter how we see the artist? And on and on.
Like Manual of Photography, which invited us into the image, it’s all pretty meta, but it suffers none of the shiny self-consciousness that so often afflicts such work. Mostly it’s direct, elegant, inquisitive, multitudinous. You get all that cerebral jazz, along the aesthetic joy of an Arbus retrospective. Get to it.
Pierre Leguillon: Arbus Bonus
Sept 21–Jan 5, Frye Art Museum, Free