Arbus and Other ‘Freaks’

Sometime in the 1950s the photographer Diane Arbus discovered Hubert's Museum, a Times Square freak show and flea circus housed in a venerable old building designed by McKim, Mead and White. Some of her greatest pictures were taken there or feature people who worked there: the Jewish giant; Andy Potato Chips, the Russian midget; Princess Sahloo, the snake charmer. Other famous subjects—the tattooed man, the sword-swallowing lady—she found as a result of her contacts at Hubert's. How differently we might think of Arbus had she never found the place, since her reputation is so inextricably bound up with freaks. Which is odd, since only a small fraction of her output features sideshow performers or, for that matter, anything other than ordinary people—looking, of course, anything but ordinary in her pictures. That's one of the mysteries of her art: she found a way to take people, no matter who they were, on their own terms, and at the same time she reveals something about them that they may not even know is being revealed, or would want revealed. But you never feel as though she is betraying anyone. If anything, the portraits almost always seem like collaborations. At her best she could make you look right past the freakishness of her subjects. The first thing you see in her portrait of a tattooed man is not his mapped body but a pair of the most startling eyes ever caught by any camera.

For that to happen, Arbus had to spend days, months and sometimes years around her subjects. In that way she became friends with Charlie Lucas, an African-American carnival performer who managed Hubert's in its twilight in the mid-'60s. She even gave him more than two dozen of her photographs. The pictures, along with Charlie's diaries, his collection of show cards, carnival posters and the other ephemera collected in a lifetime spent as a carnival performer, would not surface again until 2002, when two trunks left unclaimed in a New York storage facility were sold at public auction. They eventually found their way into the possession of Bob Langmuir, an antiquarian book dealer who specialized in African-Americana. It took Langmuir only a little while to figure out what he had. It took a lot longer to figure out what to do with it all.

"Hubert's Freaks" is Gregory Gibson's description of what Langmuir did with his haul. To tell that story, though, Gibson has to tell Arbus's story. To do that he has to tell the story of photography in the last century, how it went from the precincts of the newshound to the cushy salons of collectors, dealers and other high-art Pharisees. He also has to tell the story of Hubert's, and that means recounting the history of carnivals and sideshows with a side trip to explain how African-Americans fit into that whole strange milieu. Then there is the no less strange life of Langmuir to get through, which requires telling us about the psychology of collectors, an odd lot by any estimation. Gibson somehow manages to stitch all this together, and somehow it coheres, a crazy quilt of subcultures: book and photo collectors, carnival denizens, museum and gallery curators and one singular genius with a camera. Crazy quilt? In the end, it's more like worlds colliding.

It's a strange book, because it's not about any one thing or one person. And when you get to the end, things don't resolve neatly, which is always the nonfiction writer's nightmare. But somehow that doesn't matter. The book works anyway. It is always intelligent, particularly on the ascendance of photography to an art form and the question of how we assign a dollar value to any work of art. It is always compassionate and without condescension, which is no mean feat in a story filled almost exclusively with people who would never qualify for a mental health award. But the best thing about "Hubert's Freaks" is the idea that nothing comes from nothing. The papers that came out of those old trunks—the last physical evidence of the lives that mingled in Hubert's—are in the end as important as the Arbus photographs. In some way they each explain the other, or at least amplify what the other has to say.

The one thing Gibson does that irks me is drag in cultural critic Greil Marcus and his quote about "the old weird America," which includes everything from sideshows to the Harry Smith folk music collection—everything that, say, Edmund Wilson would not have recognized as culture. Marcus coined that line in reference to the spirit that Bob Dylan tapped in his Basement Tapes, which indeed do not sound mainstream. There's a germ of truth in his formulation, but it's been taken up by so many people in the last decade and used in so many different instances that it's almost lost all meaning. It's just that it sounds so good, as though it's alluding to a misty, funky version of Brigadoon that lies just outside the normal precincts of American culture. But except for maybe circus freaks and those African-Americans who wore blackface in minstrel shows—now that was strange—there's nothing particularly weird about the cultural stuff that got ignored until the last half of the 20th century, unless you want to make the argument that Blind Blake is weirder than Charles Ives or that Howard Finster is stranger than Robert Rauschenberg.

Otherwise, "Hubert's Freaks" is a delight. The worlds it explores are full of eccentrics and eccentric visions, and the people in these stories, however much they struggle to get by, are all stamped with their own brand of dignity. They not only fascinate us, they demand our respect, and to his considerable credit Gibson never loses sight of that fact. He would surely agree with the late New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who once noted that the oddballs and supposed nonentities that he profiled were all too often lumped under the heading "the little people," a phrase that Mitchell described as "patronizing and repulsive." His subjects, Mitchell insisted, "are as big as you are, whoever you are." This wonderfully uncategorizable book is very much in the spirit of that quote.