Diane Arbus has been dead for 45 years. Her work is not new to the world, and it is not new to me. So she should not have the power to conquer my brain this week. But that's what she's doing. I would like to be writing a straightforward review of a show in Sodo, but I am locked up, convinced that the only legitimate thing to do is to write about the show in relation to Arbus. I think this is happening because of something she said, and then something Arthur Lubow said about her.
Arbus, according to Lubow's new 700-page biography, told a story once about what she called the "ultimate" photograph. It was one she saw in a magazine, probably sometime in the 1960s, of a photographer shooting a picture of a man who was shooting the photographer with a gun. Arbus has been accused of making cruel pictures. She couldn't stand having her own picture taken. She said that the camera was cruel. I agree. Maybe that would be why the "ultimate" photograph would be the ultimately violent one.
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Ever since Arbus's pictures were made, even during her lifetime, people wanted to know more about how they were made. More about who she was, how she treated the people she photographed, what they thought they were getting into, how they felt when they saw the pictures, how someone today in the same situation feels.
To an audience at Elliott Bay Book Company last Thursday, Lubow declared that none of that was relevant.
"The pictures stand alone," he said.
Stranger staffer Annie Wagner happened to be in the audience, and she shot up her hand to ask him how he, as the author of hundreds of pages of context about the pictures, could say they stand alone.
"Don't you find that strange, that you'd say that?" she said.
How can anything stand alone? Then again, what is the point of a piece of art having its own form if its form can be re-formed by the context around it? The strangeness Wagner referred to is the most common strangeness in art. It's completely unresolved, like my feelings about the Arbus portrait of a Brooklyn family that includes a Liz Taylor look-alike mother, an exhausted-looking father, and a boy with a wildly wandering eye, a cocked head, and a silly expression, who turns out to be—if you find out some context—a severely disabled boy. He is the severely disabled fulcrum of a visual black comedy. The image is also maximally visually spectacular and maximally emotionally complicated. Lubow seems utterly at peace with Arbus and her pictures. I want to hit her, pay her, hug her, lionize her, hospitalize her.
I do not want to do any of those things to Rafael Soldi, the artist whose photographs I saw on the same day Lubow spoke at Elliott Bay. Soldi's pictures are anti-violent. They exploit nobody and are even intended for healing, for accepting loss not as death but as disappearance within the confines of ongoing time and life. They use generic imagery that is blurry and dim, printed black on black.
With Arbus's bonfires in my mind, I faced Soldi's water.
Soldi is a gay man from Peru. His photographs are personal, and usually staged to tell a story. In one series dedicated to his grandmother, he speculates that she knew he was gay, even though he never told her. Being a gay man and an artist in Catholic Peru was not an option. It is more an option here in Seattle, on Capitol Hill, where he now lives, and which this week saw a huge vigil and a major march for the lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer people who were shot and killed at a nightclub in Orlando. Rainbow banners held by Catholic, Episcopal, and Muslim leaders led the march.
Soldi created the art for his exhibition, Life Stand Still Here, before the shootings but certainly in the context of his life as an out gay adult man. The context matters. The pictures do not stand alone. They are associative. What I mean can best be explained by the fact that Soldi's dark photographs of a rippling ocean are awfully similar to Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs of the sea at night just across town right now, at Winston Wächter Fine Art. But they are also extremely different. Visual resemblances are so misleading.
Life Stand Still Here is a web of abstract connections. The ripples on the water echo the crumples on a piece of blank paper. Soldi photographed the paper, digitally altered it so its tones are black-on-black, and then printed the image so that the paper is the size of a blanket. The crumples, like the ripples, indicate something going on beneath. Both pictures are printed using a soft velvet laminate. They look Victorian, like photographs printed in ink not strong enough to last, destined for disappearance.
"Disappearance" is the word Soldi uses to describe what happened when his boyfriend of four years left him suddenly, without explanation, in the artist statement for Life Stand Still Here. It's not a new story, because he told the same story in different words—and very different images—in an exhibition two years ago where he described the events as a "breakup" rather than a "disappearance."
There is some debate about how much Arbus dramatized her prints in the darkroom by dodging and burning. Lubow said that her former husband Allan, with whom she worked closely, testifies that she rarely did any postproduction heightening. But the prints can seem otherwise, and all of her methods were in the service not of truth but of her monumentally distinctive vision. Why is the father of the disabled boy so blurry when the mother next to him is so sharp? The mother dreams in terms of "disappearance," maybe, the father of more quotidian things like "breakups," maybe. Soldi's earlier pictures were in color, stark, and they told stories plainly rather than in cloaking metaphors. Beautiful unclothed men hugged a little too tightly. A man's hands clutched destructively at an antique map of the United States, one hand where Soldi lives now and the other where his ex remains.
Without the story of disappearance for context, Life Stand Still Here might be considered not very narrative at all and instead minimalist, based in repetition, seriality. Single panels can't do the work for him at this point in his story. His mother sent him a box of his childhood things, and he used some in the show. An EKG reading from when he was 10 is laid out like a book on a shelf. "I can't draw for shit, but I made this drawing with my heart," he said. Old photographs were also in the box. He turned them backward and framed them, chose them not to be seen. What we see instead are their blank backs, marked by dirt, tacks, folds.
I didn't understand Arbus until I saw the 2003 book Revelations, which includes her writings and her contact sheets—the ultimate in context. The contact sheets are full of innocuous pictures that she did not choose to print. They're innocuous in that they appear to contain their own explanation; nothing in them seems wrong. The final prints are always wrong, as in her portraits of nudist couples in their homes where everything is normal but there's one thing missing, in just a single, outstanding way.