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Freaks and fringe, weeds and walls

In the center of the photograph, a bed. On it, an old lady. Light surging from the lower right grazes an elaborate cross before it hits her solemn robe and sets her face against the darkness. Her soaring gaze probes hidden truth, a precious smile skirts her lips. Around her we perceive a fluffy boudoir.

The scene changes: Now she dances on a lawn near the sea, the veil of her robe blown high by the wind, her stretched arms wielding the cross in a gesture of childlike elation. She is Bishop Ethel Predonzan, spiritual adviser to Hollywood stars.

These are typical Diane Arbus photographs.

Arbus was one of those heroic figures who open up whole new fields of vision in a career comet-like in brevity and intensity. From Patricia Bosworth's recent bestselling biography, we learn that she was uncertain and vulnerable as a person, but uncompromising as an artist and photographer. This made her work controversial at first, but universal recognition followed her death (by suicide, in 1971).

Though her fame rests nowadays mostly on pictures appearing in the well-known posthumous Aperture monograph, she was published during her lifetime in magazines like Harper's Bazaar, Esquire and the (London) Sunday Times Magazine. A selection from this work (some 80 items) is now on display at the Wellesley Museum.

Arbus specialized in portraits, and the magazines to which she contributed take a keen interest in famous people. So we meet many celebrities. There is a beautiful portrait of a tired, patient Marcello Mastroianni in his hotel room; there is a defiant Norman Mailer at home, James Brown with his hairdresser, and Jorge Luis Borges in front of the austere, ascetic trees of wintertime Central Park. New York artists, several of whom where Arbus's close friends, share the walls with Kate Millett, Germaine Greer or Eugene McCarthy.

But Arbus's quintessential subjects were those people who by birth, inclination or circumstances constitute the socially anomalous: midgets and giants, transvestites, fools, or just freaks -- an endless pageant of weird people in strange situations.

The 1961 series from Harper's Bazaar, which all but opens the exhibition, is almost a manifesto: it features a man with 306 tattoos, a midget imitator of Marilyn Monroe, the Oklahoma-born pretender to the throne of the Byzantine Empire... Further on, we encounter soothsayers, visit an exclusive camp for overweight girls, face people living with hunger and disease in the midst of affluence.

More than on anything else, Arbus concentrated upon the conflict of reality and illusion in her subjects' conception of themselves. Her background in fashion (the daughter of a wealthy fashion merchant, she was a fashion photographer for some time) may have made her particularly sensitive in this respect. Hence her shots of aging people with implicit reference to their past: a former acclaimed debutante now plastered up, a former body-building hero re-enacting his poses of half a century ago, the septuagenarian Mae West in her dressing-room.

The expressiveness of these portraits is unsurpassed; if anyone, Arbus can be credited with exposing people's inner selves. Yet her work is rarely cynical. Rather, it often has that disarming effect that goes with a slight embarassment -- which, after all, is merely a common sense of weakness.

The Wellesley exhibition is comprehensive, both in time and scope. It guarantees a fair amount of enlightened voyeurism.

In Aaron Siskind's photographs, we encounter a different temperament, and entirely different aesthetics. His subjects are less provocative than Arbus's, his poetry is more personal.

Siskind's career as an artistic photographer spans a lifetime, rather than a single decade. The current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts charts its whole development.

The earliest pictures -- taken as a member of the Workers' Film and Photo League -- document a Depression-struck American society. There is a superficial resemblance between Siskind's New York bums and certain aspects of Arbus's work; but Siskind's intended social realism could hardly be more removed from Arbus's search for inner experience. Siskind's subjects are anonymous and often emphatically shown from behind -- like that man in the Bowery: Dead End series, standing next to a fire hydrant in splendid counterpoint.

This early phase was short-lived, a mere prologue in retrospect. The grand discourse that follows it is a meditation in metaphors of the tensions and dualisms of existence, with transience and decay as recurrent, though not exclusive themes. It brought Siskind gradually from the realm of people to that of inanimate objects.

A first transition may be seen in the beautiful series The End of the Civic Repertory Theatre (1936), from which the Museum shows three pictures. Shattered columns, fragments of sculpture, debris, dark tones and strong contrasts -- the idiom is standard, but with Siskind's cool, understated approach it acquires new vigor.

The next step is taken in the celebrated photographs made during and shortly after World War II in New England seaside resorts. Overt cultural references disappear. Instead, we get shadows, shells and chunks of fish on planks, seaweed on the beach, intriguing rock configurations.

From that point on, Siskind's pictorial language remains essentially stable. His imagery vibrates between two opposites: chaotic, confused shapes on the one hand, and simple geometric forms on the other. In the first category, we may locate his photographs of gnarled olive trees, intertwined broom branches, decaying leaves, the rocks of Utah, the capricious forms of hardened lava on a Hawaii volcano; in the other, the arcs and rectangles of windows and doors, the angular pattern of stone-masonry.

Between these extremes Siskind constructs his evocative, well-balanced compositions. Hidden references (many of a sexual nature) abound. In general, a detached, cerebral attitude is characteristic for these works, but every now and then an ecstatic element shows up, as in the delightful shots of diving, falling or soaring people Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation (1953).

Much of Siskind's work is low key. There are innumerable photos showing crumbling, weathered walls, peeling plaster, paint flaking off, graffiti on its way to oblivion. The human figure plays a subordinate role in these pictures. If it appears at all, it is like the old lady walking past the scarred wall in Durango 8, a passive participant in the universal disintegration; or in the battered statues and fragmentary stelae from ancient Rome, symbolic remnants of a time gone by.

But Siskind's work is not a commonplace elegy. Its formal qualities raise it far above that level. Siskind is one of this century's great abstract composers. His photography is very congenial to -- and has been often compared with -- Abstract Expressionist painting. (In the series Homage to Franz Kline, made in the early seventies, the correspondence between painting and photography becomes almost literal.)

Last Wednesday night, Siskind was at the Museum of Fine Arts on the occasion of a lecture by his biographer, Boston University Professor Carl Chiarenza. His ironic (though cordial) questioning of some of the latter's interpretations repeatedly brought down the house, raising the intriguing question whether the artist himself really knows what he is doing. The question remains to be answered, but Siskind's work will survive any outcome.

Michiel Bos->