Nonfiction: Weird America
Gregory Gibson, Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus (Harcourt, April 2008)
When Bob Langmuir, a small-time book dealer from Philadelphia, purchased a collection of old photographs in Brooklyn in 2003, he merely hoped they could be resold for a small but healthy profit. The photos, most of which dated from the 1960s, were portraits of side-show freaks: obese women in tutus, muscular African-American men dressed as savages, a woman named “Woogie” dancing with a python. Many of the photos were taken at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus, a now-defunct Times Square freak show with a long inglorious history and a knack for attracting celebrities, including Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan and Diane Arbus.
As Gregory Gibson writes in Hubert’s Freaks, Langmuir soon discovered that many of the photos were, in fact, the lost and extremely valuable work of Arbus, and seeing the potential for income, he set out to have them authenticated. Interweaving Langmuir’s story—as he negotiates with museum curators, auction houses and the Arbus estate—with that of Arbus and the freaks that inhabit her photographs, Gibson has crafted a story of great breadth and historical depth. Although Gibson’s primary interest lies in exploring Langmuir’s neurotic psyche, he also brings to light some fascinating bits of New York’s underground history and ponders the relationship between Arbus’s photography and her subjects.
Arbus is best-known for her classically composed portraits of surreal figures: drag queens, prostitutes, dwarves, and other marginalized members of society. One of her most famous shots, “Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents,” shows an outsized man staring at his parents in their home, dwarfing his surroundings. Like much of Arbus’s work, it contrasts freakishness with tedium, otherness with normalcy. By the time she committed suicide in a bathtub, in 1971, Arbus had become well-known for her portraits of freaks, some of which have since become exceptionally valuable. In April 2004, at a Sotheby’s auction, one of her prints sold for just under half a million dollars.
As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “the most striking aspect of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most vigorous enterprises—concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate—but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve.” It is an interpretation of Arbus’s work that Gibson finds simplistic and nasty and, as a riposte, he details Arbus’s close relationship with many of her subjects, including Charlie Lucas (the Hubert’s Museum “pitchman”) and his wife. Arbus’s work, he claims, is a celebration of folksy American culture or, as Greil Marcus calls it, “Old Weird America.”
It’s a convincing argument that, unfortunately, is hampered by Gibson’s largely unremarkable writing style. Although the book’s subject matter is fascinating, its strands are often awkwardly woven together, and its plot jumps unexpectedly from one narrative to another. Langmuir’s quest to authenticate the photos, as a result, is robbed of much of its tension, and his personal turmoil remains oddly un-compelling. Despite that, Hubert’s Freaks offers a worthwhile, if flawed, glimpse into a New York of celebratory weirdness that has become all too rare, and, in Arbus, an artist who remains vitally complex.