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Photo Finish: An Artist's Image

November 16, 2006 By:
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Steven Shainberg

Arbus in Wonderland?

In a way, Steven Shainberg's dreamscape of a movie about daring photographer Diane Arbus mirrors her own work, a phantasmagoria of photo finishes and bizarre beginnings that wax and wane with an "Alice in Wonderland" aura of wonderment.

His film of "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus," her demi-biography -- he concedes it's not wholly about her life but her living -- is at play in the area starting Nov. 17 as Shainberg has created a playground for fervent and fervid imaginations printed without borders.

Who's kidding who, he says; star Nicole Kidman looks nothing like the late photographer who committed suicide 35 years ago, overdosing on barbiturates and slitting her wrists. But Shainberg wasn't going for the shayna punim of the protected little Jewish girl that was Diane; the porcelain-skinned actress he hired has seen through her screenmate, penetrating beyond Arbus' skin, refracting her life for a an F-stopping performance on screen.

Indeed, he walked among giants.

Well ... "Giant." Diane Arbus' works "were all over our walls; in fact, to walk to my bedroom I would pass her 'Jewish Giant,' " recalls Shainberg of a New York City boyhood spent amid the towering figure of Arbus' "Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y."

Just how did the Shainberg family walls become a sizable scrapbook of Arbus artworks? The photographer scraped by putting together her own scrapbooks in the beginning and selling her works to such friends as Lawrence Shainberg, the filmmaker-to-be's favorite uncle. Steven's parents were part and parcel of Arbus' omnibus of a world, moving with her in widening circles of fashion, journalism and art.

"I don't think any kid has a normal life," recalls Shainberg with a laugh about growing up surrounded by artist Arbus' favorite "freaks," as they were known to others but to her as "aristocrats."

"To me, these pictures were totally normal."

There was no real sense of normalcy in Arbus' world, ambushed as she was with low expectations and occasional ridicule. Raised in a wealthy home of Russian Jewish roots, she found no cheerleaders in her parents for her reinvention of an art form. It was a reformation that would serve as foremother to such ancillary art markets as video and the Internet, which themselves have since become more mainstream.

In the main, however, Arbus' work was distinguishable from every other artist working at the time.

She was one who outwowed Warhol.

"The fact that her work was part of my childhood history is part of my own aesthetic development," says Shainberg. "A kid who grows up in the Mediterranean has a different sense of color than a kid in Iceland."

Arbus put him smack down in the middle of his own Mediterranean mindset where the colors teased and tangled with warmth that would melt hearts and icy holds on reality.

This aesthetic -- the anti-anesthetic of more mainstream filmmaking -- can be seen in Shainberg's seminal "Secretary," not exactly your stenotypical kind of film.

"I see Arbus in 'Secretary,' " and Shainberg seizes on the allusions of illusion with the characters. "They are Arbus people."

And what kind of person was Diane Arbus? Relegated to the shadows cast by her superpoet of a sibling, Howard Nemerov, she turned negatives into positives through her photography, teaming with her then husband, Allan Arbus, to create stylized fashion photography.

She would later leave her husband and join up with a fashionable art crowd, studying with Richard Avedon, among others, as she pursued a journalist's journey published in the pages of Esquire and Harper's Bazaar.

If her bizarre work was to go mainstream, she wasn't about to ride it to a road of glory. Reports abounded, unfounded as it turned out, that her last photograph may have been the most unprintable: a self-portrait of pain, as she slashed her wrists and committed suicide.

Enigmatic ending for a life of tragedy but not one without triumph. "She said she felt like she was living in a fairy tale for adults," says Shainberg.

Indeed, "Fur" covers an ethereal romance in her life: Lionel, a lie of a character, an invention, yet a fictive creation as instrumentally true of her world perspective as if he had truly lived.

Inspired by the Patricia Bosworth biography but blatantly and obviously on its own, "Fur" is an onscreen picture Shainberg paints that is at once mesmerizing and mythic, shaded in memory and miasma. It is a truthful fiction, a contradictory canvas that Shainberg, artist/auteur, has created with an eye toward showing life through Arbus' edgy eyes. He has met the challenge of "having her inner life as something to be portrayed."

He has not betrayed her, but betrothed a memory with the inner picture she could not present herself to the outside world.

In doing so, Shainberg has shaped a surreal sensation that dallies with Dali-like aesthetics in fashioning the inside-out world of an outre artist.

What would his own world have looked like in the hands of Diane Arbus? How would Shainberg's portrait have appeared through her complex and vexing convex eyes?

"I don't think I would have let her take it," he says. "It would have revealed too much."

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