New York

Diane Arbus, Lou Lanzano

Robert Miller Gallery, International Center of Photography

Lisette Model’s photography is more than a little perverse in its enjoyment of the ugliness and inadequacy in human experience. One Model photograph that has always seemed central is that of a voodoo doll large as a child and seated in a chair wearing a dress. The doll looks as if it’s alive, or was alive at one time, as if it were a mummy whose wrappings are coming undone. The photograph animates all the spookiness and malevolence in the world. The photographs appear to have an attitude toward human nature that can only be described in the language of neurosis. It is a form of “attraction-repulsion,” of morbid fascination. This is a very powerful vision of life, and Model has obviously had great charisma as a teacher. As the exhibitions of work by DIANE ARBUS and LOU LANZANO demonstrate, Model has passed on her vision to her ablest students.

The Arbus show is composed for the most part of previously unpublished pictures selected from her estate. Nothing in the show will alter existing opinion on Arbus. Many pictures are just variants of those in the 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Their interest lies largely in the clarification they provide of how Arbus worked, what connections there were among people she photographed, etcetera. Still, this show is not just academic. It enlarges our impression of Arbus. In certain pictures there seems to be a residue of sweetness and softness, a last vestige of some sympathy for her subjects that was obliterated later, in her final vision. A 1965 picture, Girl in Watch Cap, reveals a dreamy, faraway look in the subject’s eyes. It is a look that would, in Arbus’ late work, harden into the blank stare; yet in this particular picture she seemed still to glimpse wonder and intelligence behind her subject’s eyes.

I’ve never gotten the sense some viewers do from Arbus’ pictures, that she had no feelings for the people she photographed. On the contrary, I think those people aroused in her feelings so intense and personal that they became unbearable. Their severity is demonstrated by the series she did at the end of her life on the grounds of a home for the mentally handicapped. They leave the soul gasping for air. Yet a series of pictures in the new show which anticipates those late ones have nonetheless, a less oppressive feel to them. They are pictures of children done around 1960. The light in them is darkling and the backgrounds are as plain as the pictures of the mentally handicapped. One picture in the show seems especially comparable, for in it a girl in a nightgown stands outdoors before the sky. Yet there is a liveliness here. The wind whips the girl’s hair, and in her face is the last glimmering of an energy that would be completely extinguished in Arbus’ pictures within the decade. Only in very young children like this does she ever seem to have found traces of it.

I was struck at the show by how consistently Arbus moved in on her subjects. It was as if she, like Model, were trying to confront the meanness in life, and shove it in our faces. In one typical picture, Woman in White Gloves and a Fancy Hat, Arbus appears to have literally trapped her subject against a wall on a midtown street. It is a picture that might have been taken by LOU LANZANO. Lanzano’s photographs are mostly of very fashionable women on the sidewalks in midtown Manhattan. (One is of Gloria Swanson.) And like the ladies in them, the pictures all make an aggressive, self-conscious statement. The women Lanzano stalks are tough cookies whose faces betray no emotion except, once or twice, irritation at his proximity. He takes their pictures with Tri-X film pushed to 800 ASA in order to achieve in sunlight a harsh, grainy contrast that makes it look as if it’s always winter in his pictures. He shoots when the sun is bright and direct on his subjects so that they often have to squint into it. Everything about the picture contributes to its hard-bitten effect.

Out of this collaboration which Lanzano forces between his subject and his technique, he has developed a very distinctive look. There is a unity and some power to his work. But there is no range, nor is there any promise that his ideas can be developed further. Though he is only 32 years old, his whole approach has become too studied, too mechanical, too much of a ritual. He has taken these pictures by strapping the camera into his gloved right hand and shooting with a wide-angle lens in a purely gestural way, without putting the camera to his eye. Each image is a carefully rehearsed and smartly delivered slap in the face, a calculated insult. Refined to this degree, the photographs become a premeditated cruelty. They smack of sadistic urges.

In those photographs that do not have self-possessed women as their subjects, whatever subject they do have—usually someone old and decrepit—is half obliterated by shadow. Again Lanzano is relying on his pushed film, which here creates shadows so black and opaque that his subjects seem to be drowning in them. If he were to carry this approach to its logical conclusion, he would end up with photographs that are all black. It would be an image well suited to “blind shooting,” as Lanzano calls the gestural way he handles the camera. The people who are walking into the shadows in his pictures look as if they have turned down a blind alley where they might disappear forever. The nasty stylizations which Lanzano’s work strains to achieve are themselves a blind alley where his career could get lost.

Colin Westerbeck