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We Are Family 

Athens show puts new spin on Diane Arbus' misfits

Isolation. Pathos. Tragedy, maybe.

But "family" is not a word that springs to mind when describing the work of Diane Arbus, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century's second half.

Though she came from one (a well-to-do Manhattan clan with a profitable department store) and eventually had one of her own (a husband and two daughters), Arbus' images stick in the mind for their solitude and isolation and the sense that we are all in this dreadful existence racket alone. Arbus' subjects float in their vast living rooms like shipwreck victims lost at sea. If there is any sense of familial camaraderie, it is in the impression her photographs give of people lunging for some flotation device.

The inspiration for Family Albums at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens is a statement Arbus made in 1968, a year after her Museum of Modern Art debut, in which she described her artistic mission as an effort to create a kind of family album.

Arbus committed suicide in 1971, so the actual shape and character of her vision for that family album will never be known. And so the two curators of Family Albums, Anthony W. Lee from Mount Holyoke College and John Pultz from the University of Kansas, lean heavily on editorial work Arbus did for magazines such as Esquire and speculation on what it might have looked like.

The conceit of this traveling show is a bit of a stretch - and may strike some as downright sketchy - but it is enough of a conceptual mind-bend to allow audiences to see Arbus in a new light, as less a chronicler of society's "freaks" and more as a humane and empathetic fellow traveler. The same alienation and estrangement Arbus found in transvestites and carnival performers, the retarded and the obese, could be visible in even the ordinary domain of family. It may be difficult for some to identify with the extremes of experience Arbus documented, but no one will be immune from the dissection of power relationships, love given and love denied that constitute her vision of the familial landscape.

Much of the show's power to surprise and imagine this much-discussed artist anew comes with the multitude of accompanying contact sheets that show the process by which Arbus created an iconic Arbusian image out of thematic chaos.

The show is divided into subject areas: "Mothers," "Fathers," "Children." By grouping Arbus' photographs in that way, certain ideas emerge. Portraits of Norman Mailer or "Congressman and millionaire" Ogden Reid are portraits of an entitled, sacrosanct masculinity - preening breadwinners and masters of the universe. Arbus' Mamas tend to stand on shakier ground. They are less sure, harder to fix into any one category, though they certainly seem confined within the variously fussy, frumpy and chic domestic trappings where Arbus shoots them. Perhaps Arbus, being a mother herself, only saw the multiplicity and potential for entrapment involved in the role.

There are some familiar, iconic Arbus images on view. The frightening antics of a little boy in Central Park making a face like a Parris Island grunt as he clutches a toy grenade in one hand is an example.

There are the glamour girls gone to seed. Arbus was a genius, almost sadistically so, at capturing female vanity abutting the cruel sands of time: debutante Brenda Frazier-turned-recluse holding court in her bedroom instead of the Stork Club. Articulating the lonely tragedy of faded celebrity is terminal sexpot Mae West in her depressingly girlish pink bedroom.

But the overriding theme of family also yields more emotionally complicated results. There are vulnerable portraits, too, like one of Jayne Mansfield and her young daughter. Mansfield is a caricature of tumescent youthfulness: copious cleavage and a dopey hair bow set like a Yuletide star on her blond pageboy. But in a child's eyes, every mother is a beauty and a saint, and the tender way Mansfield allows her daughter's head to rest on her shoulder demonstrates how her garish trappings can't erase this celebrity-age Madonna and child.

But in many cases, the thrill factor of Arbus' subjects - her freaks and misfits and celebrities whose faces we know all too well - make it hard to see the person inside the assertive exterior.

The Konrad Matthaei family, however, were a blank canvas. In 1969, the wealthy paterfamilias commissioned Arbus to make portraits of his family. Arbus shot an astounding 322 photographs of the handsome, sophisticated couple, their three children, and an extended family in the Matthaei's Manhattan townhouse. Arranged in an orderly, convivial clump, the Matthaeis appear to epitomize familial affection and togetherness.

But it is in Arbus' contact sheets where she reveals the fallacy of togetherness in brooding, morose images of the Matthaei daughters looking - variously - nymphet, estranged, depressed and wary.

In images of the Matthaei family posing at the dinner table or pretending to read, Arbus shows the idea of family as something more struggled and grappled with than attained.

Though Arbus is often remembered for capturing the lowbrow denizens of the world - giants, midgets, pruney senior citizens - she, as these pictures demonstrate, could also pillory class and show how poverty and money could both bequeath isolation.

felicia.feaster@creativeloafing.com

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