101 Weird Writers #32 — Marc Laidlaw

Art, Death, and Strangeness in "The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Marc LaidlawMarc Laidlaw (1960–) is an eclectic American writer of science fiction and horror whose long career has included a stint in the cyberpunk movement and significant contributions to the popular Half-Life video game series. Laidlaw first started publishing idiosyncratic, hard-to- define short fiction in the late 1970s, but is perhaps best known for writing Dad’s Nuke (1985) and The 37th Mandala (1996), which won the International Horror Guild Award. “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” (1993), his story selected for inclusion in The Weird, is one of a series of stories by Laidlaw with photographic themes. Laidlaw had “always loved Arbus’s photography and was inspired by her sad but gripping biography. The story uses the weird as an entrypoint to appreciating Arbus’s work, as Kat Clay ably demonstrates and then some in her latest contribution to 101 Weird Writers.

– Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers

***

The father of modern photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, popularized the idea of “the decisive moment”. He emphasized the instantaneous split second that photography can capture, the moment of interest that disappears with the flick of an eyelid. A hidden doorway revealed, a secret path to a parallel universe, the shadowy villain that is seen and unseen. These things are both true to photography and the realms of the fantastic, where a brief climax is momentarily illuminated only to finish in darkness.

In the decisive moment, the heroine drops down the rabbit hole.

The hero walks into an alternate London.

A moment before or after, and these chances are lost. The story goes untold. The protagonist is left unchanged.

It was an idea that proved influential on another great 20th century photographer, Diane Arbus. Like a great ouroboros, art will always influence art. Her photography came from a childhood filled with gothic fantasy, her photography influenced the next generation of photographers, writers and filmmakers. In “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio”, Marc Laidlaw’s story explores that decisive moment and embraces the mythical side of Arbus’ photography. While this story can be read and enjoyed without knowledge of Diane Arbus’ life, to discover the significance of this weird story, we need to delve into the past of its subject..

The Enchantress

The child of wealthy Jewish fur retailers, Diane Arbus impacted the world of photography through her startling portraits. Arbus’ subject matter embraced the margins of 50s and 60s society: circus freaks, pinheads, nudists, the mentally handicapped, transgenders, drag queens, prostitutes. While remembered mostly as a “freak photographer”, she was reluctant to be pigeonholed and also shot celebrity portraits, fashion, and children’s catalogues. Arbus captured a realm of New York that few of the privileged entered, like a fantasy heroine reporting from the hidden worlds of the city. Her photography polarized viewers, with responses ranging from revulsion to reluctant admiration. At the time of her MOMA exhibition, her photography was so challenging staff needed to wipe the spit off her images on a daily basis.

Her childhood was perpetuated with fantasy; she had a predilection for Gothic novels, mythology and graveyards. This mythology embodied her work to the extent that she engendered a mystique around her person that caused observers to compare her to “an enchantress” . She believed photography was “sinister and mysterious” because it could capture the soul of a person.

After suffering from prolonged depression, Arbus committed suicide in 1971 in her bathroom. “He [Marvin Israel] found Diane dead, with her wrists slit, lying on her side in the empty bathtub. She was dressed in pants and shirt – her body was already “in a state of decomposition.” On her desk her journal was open to July 26, and across it was scrawled “The Last Supper”. Her death was due to the cuts on her wrists, although she also had acute barbiturate poisoning.

There was speculation after Arbus’ death that she had photographed her suicide, in a final act of artistic free will. These claims have been fervently denied; no film was found at the scene of her death. That these questions were even asked hints that it was not beyond the realm of possibility and these apocryphal rumors are the basis for Marc Laidlaw’s story.

It is at the police investigation of her death that “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” begins.

The Negative

Diane Arbus once said that, “The contents of someone’s bathroom is like reading their biography”. In the story, Marc Laidlaw dissects the bathroom of Diane Arbus to capture slices of her personality and imbue them with the supernatural.

Throughout, Laidlaw subtly inserts details of Arbus’ character. The pinned photographs around the apartment, her propensity for making spontaneous appointments. Schaeffer’s lewd comments asking, “What do you think, she slept with that dwarf to get his picture?” captures not only the whisperings of her photographic viewers, but the impossible intimacy Diane Arbus achieved with her subjects. People speculated how she could get so close to often forbidden subjects.

It should be noted the author has taken liberties with the manner of Arbus’ death. While Arbus died in the bathtub, it was not full of water as in the story. However, this slivery water becomes a haunting metaphor that draws on the silver gelatin printing process, the main technique for black and white printing. The process involves exposing the negative onto light sensitive paper that contains silver halides. The bathroom becomes a darkroom, a swelteringly hot chamber of dripping water. After Arbus’ death, she takes on the characteristics of a negative. “I’m eager for those pictures,” she says, “but I won’t risk exposure.”

The negative is the polar opposite; where Arbus saw photography as an art, the police photographer Brovnik views it purely as a job: “He clutched his camera gratefully to his face, confining vision to one small window on a distorted tunnel with suicide at the far end.” Where Arbus sought intimacy with her subjects, Brovnik creates distance through the barrel of the lens. Through his interactions with the soul of Arbus and her work, the work he has distanced, capturing murders and suicides on camera, suddenly becomes too close and he must escape.

The mirror has always been a literary image for self-reflection. Cameras require mirrors to function (although the single lens reflex may soon become obsolete through technology). Yet the portrait is often used to confront the subject with their own image. Biographer Patricia Bosworth writes that “what people want is an image of themselves that is acceptable to themselves”. The photographer can take a confrontational role in producing an unflattering image of the subject, or simply an image that does not conform to the subject’s concept of themselves. The supernatural negatives take on this function, as the spirit of Diane Arbus challenges Brovnik’s view of photography as art: At the beginning, Brovnik is described as “a cop first, a photographer second”, and later “he’d never thought of photography as ‘art’”.

He appreciates her photography, viewing Arbus’ “Albino Sword Swallower ”, an image that draws to mind the crucifixion in not only the structure of the image but the cross shaped sword hanging from her mouth.

Albino sword swallower at a carnival, Md.; 1970

Albino sword swallower at a carnival, Md.; 1970

The photos laid out on the couch foreshadow the events in the story. Brovnik considers whether these were the last images she saw.

“A picture of Death standing in a freshly mown field; Death as a woman in a Halloween skull, clutching a white sheet around her. Hell, she’d gone rattling around with a head full of death, hunting it with her camera .”

This is referring to one of Arbus’ untitled photographs, an eerie and disturbing portrait of a woman wearing an askew Halloween mask, the masked invader playing out in countless horror films from John Carpenter’s Halloween to the latest offering You’re Next.

Untitled (3); 1970-71

Untitled (3); 1970-71

Yet when he returns to the lab after photographing her suicide “he looked over his own photographs with a more critical eye”, analyzing the exposure, the burning flash, comparing his police photos to Arbus’ flash-bulb style. “Her curled prints were always tacked up in his memory, examples of an ideal he’d never known to strive for until now.” He goes through his back files to analyses the quality of his work images.

At this point, Laidlaw mentions Weegee, a photographer famous for turning up at crime scenes before the police, and there are great unspoken comparisons between the work of Brovnik and Weegee throughout the story. Arbus, Weegee and Bresson are amongst the more notable names in street photography, a genre now populated by hipsters carrying Holgas. Where crimes were once forbidden, they became exhibited in the public eye, first in the press, then in galleries. Weegee’s “Their first murder” is a photo of children watching a murder scene originally juxtaposed next to a photo of the bloody body in his book Naked City. This image is now in the Getty museum and copies of his art have sold for over $40,000 in auctions. (http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=61129)

When Diane Arbus’ negative calls on the phone, she appeals to him as an artist and photographer.

“Who said I was an artist?”

“You photographed Diane in death. Your eye has been changed… touched.”

Instead of rushing the duplicate prints, Brovnik takes “more care in the darkroom than ever before”, burning in details and extracting tones. “Gradually he found the glossy bright snaps of death becoming utterly strange to him, unlike his other photographs which became more commonplace as he worked them over.”

He creates immortal beauty from death, just like the perfect capture of the decisive moment. Brovnik begins to view photography as his life beyond the job, after the “brutal repeptitive ugliness of his day-today… he needed something a little fantastic…”

Yet this art traps him in a netherworld, in the “tombs of Manhattan”, the “crypts of Brooklyn”, where only he can view the souls of the dead, trapped in the decisive moment until he exposes them to light. His transformation into artist is complete when he realizes he was posing the corpses of the dead in order to get a better shot. Until now, art was an elusive echo; he escapes with “his camera tugging like bloodhound on the trail of everything that had ever eluded him.”

The Exhibition

Both Marc Laidlaw and Diane Arbus have influenced the Weird in significant ways. Arbus’ photographic influence reaches far into culture. Her “twins” became the poster children for horror in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Arbus always longed to photograph Borges, a foremost influence in weird fiction, and did so eventually for Harper’s Bazaar. Motifs from her photography have surreptitiously filtered into the weird: evil twins, Halloween masks, unaccepted outsiders, eccentrics in a lost city. Arbus brought the American underground into visible light; breaching the line between the city of the elite and the marginalized is a constantly reoccurring plot in genre fiction.

Identical twins, Roselle, N.J.; 1967

Identical twins, Roselle, N.J.; 1967

Meanwhile, like Arbus and her photography, Laidlaw’s fiction often embodies ideas of mortality and the afterlife, blending the supernatural with 1970s art and music. Whether it is the humorous desire for an end to a sugary obsession in “Sweetmeats”, the horror novel The 37th Mandala, about the hidden darkness of the new age movement or The Orchid Eater, where two brothers interact through gang crime and murder, notions of death perpetuate his writing.

His work embraces the surreal, blurring lines between drug-induced hallucinations and reality in “The Black Bus”, a homage to the cult of the Grateful Dead. Even the gargoyle-afflicted eduldamer-playing Gorlen Vizenfirth is something of a medieval rocker. However Marc Laidlaw’s most influential contribution to popular culture is his writing for the Half-Life series and Portal, both regarded as some of the greatest video games ever produced. In Half-Life, unethical science experiments lead to the invasion of earth and the death of many, with some weird monsters to boot.

The Final Print

In Diane Arbus’ obituary in The Village Voice A.D. Coleman wrote:

It has always seemed ghoulish to me to speculate as to the motives behind a suicide, particularly so in attempts to correlate the act with an output of major creative work. Suicide can be either a confession of defeat or a hymn of triumph, an admission of one’s inability to confront the pitilessness of life or a defiant refusal to tolerate it, a self-erasure or a self-definition, but it is always a private act, a final Mind-your-own-damn-business hurled into the teeth of the universe, and anyone who takes that irrevocable step has earned his or her privacy.

Should Marc Laidlaw have written this story, given the intensely private wishes of her family and friends? It’s almost a literary Death of Marat, creating art from the moment of death. It honors her memory by expressing it in another artform. “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” manages to capture a wisp of the mysterious enchantress that embraced the supernatural qualities of a portrait. In writing about Diane Arbus, Marc Laidlaw has played on the inextricable links between art and death, in Arbus’ own work and the greater art world. And in the end, death is the decisive moment.

References

Bosworth, P, 2006. Diane Arbus: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company.

Coleman, A.D., 1971. “Diane Arbus: The Mirror is Broken.” The Village Voice, 05 July. 7.