An episode of insomnia led me to watch a quite strange movie in the wee small hours of today. Namely, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus.
Made in 2006 with Nicole Kidman in the title role, I wanted to watch it because I had a passing awareness of Arbus. A past love dating back from my 20s was a photographer and admirer of Arbus and I absorbed some knowledge of her work through osmosis.
Arbus (1923-1971) is said to be one of the most original and influential American artists of the 20th century. He works range from from her early experiments with the camera in the 1940s to her mature portraiture of the 1960s. She is regarded as one of the pioneers of documentary-style portraiture. She is known for her portraits of people on the fringes of society, such as transvestites, dwarfs, giants, prostitutes and ordinary people in unconventional poses and settings.
When the movie was first released I was interested to see it, but didn't get around to it. Now I have. I can see why it got a lukewarm response at the box office and from critics, but it did hold my interest to the end and it prompted me to refresh my memory and b roaden my knowledge of Arbus's life and work.
However, I don't really understand why anyone would make a biopic which isn't a biopic. A disclaimer of sorts at the start of the film explains that it is a ``tribute'' to the work of Arbus and what she ``could have'' thought and experienced.
Manohla Dargis, writing in the New York Times (November 10, 2006) was right to say the movie ``turned her life into a neurotic fairytale''. It's not exactly complimentary of the casting of ``Our Nic'' either. See in full here
After the credits rolled I jumped on the internet to help me sort out the fiction from the fact.
Detractors have labelled her work as ``voyeuristic''. But among the more complimentary, The Encyclopedia of Photography (1984) describes Arbus as ``a pivotal figure in contemporary documentary photography''. It says: ``Her unrelentingly direct photographs of people who live on the edge of societal acceptance, as well as those photographs depicting supposedly "normal" people in a way that sharply outlines the cracks in their public masks, were controversial at the time of their creation and remain so today.''
Arbus's pictures, according to the encyclopedia, ``are almost invariably confrontational: the subjects look directly at the camera and are sharply rendered, lit by direct flash or other frontal lighting. Her subjects appear to be perfectly willing, if not eager, to reveal themselves and their flaws to her lens.''
The encyclopedia quotes Arbus: ``What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's . . . That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own." She said of her subjects who were physically unusual: ``Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. [These people] were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life."
The images I have reproduced are from the Art Institute of Chicago Collection Database