Burning Chrome by William Gibson (1986)

So I went out into the night and the neon and let the crowd pull me along, walking blind, willing myself to be just a segment of that mass organism, just one more drifting chip of consciousness under the geodesics. (p.218)

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories by William Gibson. They include his first published work, Fragments of a Hologram Rose, published in 1977, and then all the stories he wrote up till 1986.

In 1984 Gibson had published his debut novel, Neuromancer, set in a future world dominated by digital techologies, in which he made great use of the ideas of cyberspace and the matrix of digital information. What made it really distinctive, though, was how all this was viewed filtered through a film noir, street level culture which mixed the tough guy crime stories of Raymond Chandler with 1980s punk culture – in which this brave future was not supervised by Arthur C. Clarke-style, clean-suited technocrats, but was at the mercy of international corporations, Japanese yakuza gangs, ninja assassins, dealers selling all manner of futuristic drugs, holograms used for viewing savage knife fights or holoporn showing the obvious – in other words, a future seen from a street-level view of crime and rackets and dealers and pimps and whores, all summed up in the word, ‘the biz’. And all conveyed in an amphetamine-driven, drug-crazed, super-charged prose, dense with a dizzy combination of street slang and tech terms.

Neuromancer was followed by Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive which, together, are now said to comprise Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy, so-called because in this America of the future, the entire East Coast has become one vast, continuous urban sprawl.

The stories in this collection include several which share the Sprawl world, including one which actually features the female protagonist from Neuromancer, Molly (and where we learn her surname is the rather cartoonish Million – Molly Millions).

And then there are ‘the rest’, a miscellany of non-Sprawl science fiction stories, most of them set in the future, or a future, just not necessarily the Sprawl future.


Sprawl stories

Fragments of a Hologram Rose (1977) first published work

It’s very short (7 pages) and it is very fragmentary. We get the protagonist’s back story in scattered fragments. We have Hints of the Damaged Future, hints that Japanese business and culture was taking over America – the kit Parker uses to get into ASP is made by Japanese corporation, Sendai; more importantly, when a teenager his parents indenture him to a the US branch of a Japanese corporation, with its barracks and corporate hymns. He runs away. He flees to a California which has declared itself independent of the USA, under a chaotic ‘New Secessionist’ movement. Up to a point these can maybe be seen as extrapolations of trends Gibson saw in his own time.

The story already contains key themes, namely the protagonist, Parker, works on Apparent Sensory Perception (ASP) programmes. As in the Sprawl stories, you plug your brain into the player, play the tapes and you are there: the recording completely floods your sensorium.

And also, what I by now realise is another major theme, which is a surprisingly sentimental lost-love trope. The girls in Gibson (well, young women) are always slender as gazelles and tough as silicon razor nails. Sex is an olympic workout. His women can hold their own against gangsters and dealers. BUT, beneath this leather-jacketed veneer of modernity, the men are always loving and losing them, in a sentimental ‘I’m not going to cry’ tough guy way descended from Hemingway and Chandler.

Parker has woken at 3 in the morning (that’s another trope: it’s always the middle of the night, or the darkest hour before dawn) and is rummaging through her belongings and his memories. He finds the hologram of a rose which he unsentimentally flushes into the waste disposal unit. His last memory is watching her going off in a taxi leaving him standing there in the pouring rain. Sob.

Johnny Mnemonic (1981)

Super cool and fast moving, this concerns Johnny Mnemonic, so-named because memory banks (a hard drive) has been neurally inserted into his brain, so that he can store vast amounts of data which a) he doesn’t understand b) he cannot himself access.

The stored data are fed in through a modified series of microsurgical contraautism prostheses.’ (p.22)

Only clients with the password can access it. He is a storage facility or, as he himself puts it: ‘a nice meatball chock-full of implants.’

As so often the story features a meeting with a drug dealer, Ralfi, in a lowlife café. The dealer has brought a neural disruptor so, although Johnny has packed a sawnoff shotgun in an adidas bag, he is paralysed, while the dealer indicates that the hired muscle he’s brought, Lewis, is going to hurt him.

Enter a typically lean, mean, streetwise chick, who identifies herself as Molly Millions (‘She was wearing leather jeans the colour of dried blood’) and, as Lewis leans forward to hurt Johnny, flips her hand past his, somehow lacerating his wrist down to the artery. Lewis clutches it and runs off. We later learn Molly has four-centimetre-long razor retractable blades installed under her fingernails. (She has also had her eyballs replaced with digital lenses.) The neural disruptor goes off and Johnny is free.

Molly grabs his hand and runs him along to her hiding place, a disused part of the lofty ceiling of a vast mall made of geodesic domes, overseen by an outlandish gang named the Lo Teks who dance and perform on a high-wire dance floor they call the Killing Floor.

In case this is all too mundane, Gibson throws in the participation of a cybernetic dolphin, a relic from the war (you know, that war) which is kept in a rundown zoo, but features, among its other hi-tech devices, a SQUID, being a Superconducting Quantum Interference Detector, which they use to extract the data in Johnny’s head which caused Ralfi to come after him. They reward the dolphin, whose rather dull name is Jones, by shooting him up with heroin, yes, this cybernetic dolphin is a junkie.

They use Jones’s skills to extract and place the data in a construct which they leave on a shelf in the backroom of a gift shop.

And here is another classic element of the Sprawl world: the power of multinational corporations, the real rulers of the world, controllers of entire economies, and that most of these multinational corporations are Japanese.

The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads, the Mafia, the Union Corse. (p.22)

Burning Chrome (1982)

A seminal story for several reasons.

  1. It has all the familiar ingredients: Automatic Jack and Bobby Quine are two ex-soldiers (fought at the Battle of Kiev in the same failed war against Russia mentioned in Neuromancer). Jack, the narrator, is injured/wounded – his arm was lasered off while flying a microlight. Future technology gives him a replacement cybernetic arm, powered by nerves.
  2. There’s a sexy chick, Rikki, who within a sentence of appearing in the story, is pulling a ‘frayed khaki cotton shirt’ over her pert, twenty-something breasts. Jack falls in love with her, then loses her.
  3. Jack and Bobby are criminals who hack into business information in cyberspace for gain.

In terms of storytelling technique, it is classic Gibson in the way it’s based in a ‘present’, after the bank job, the heist, the caper – in which the narrator a) looks back on everything that’s happened b) dwells on falling in love with the woman and losing her – and intersperses this with chunks of exposition, which tell the actual story i.e. how Jack and Bobby enter cyberspace to break into the highly defended vaults of ‘Chrome’, a terrifyingly violent criminal who launders money for organised crime, as well as running a bar-cum-brothel, the House of Blue Lights.

Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel, with eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of some deep Atlantic trench, cold grey eyes that lived under terrible pressure. They said she cooked her own cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom variations that took years to kill you. (p.196)

Same technique is used in New Rose Hotel, where the narrator is in a ‘present’, after a big criminal caper has taken place – looking back at both the build-up to the crime, and lamenting his abandonment by a sexy, feisty woman (Sandii). (She took the money and went off to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a ‘simstim’ star.)

But the most important aspect is that, by way of describing how Jack and Bobby steal all Chrome’s assets in cyberspace, it gives extended (and useful) explanations of key concepts in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe – cyberspace, the matrix and ice.

Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack into their employers’ sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing corporate data.

Towers and fields of it ranged in the colourless nonspace of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate programmers never see the walls of ice they operate behind, the walls of shadow that screen their operations from others, from industrial-espionage artists and hustlers like Bobby Quine.

And I can’t resist quoting the final paragraph in this sequence because it’s a classic example of how Gibson’s mastery of a certain type of speed-fuelled prose can turn what is, basically, the boring reality of criminals hacking into computers, into soaring prose poetry.

Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a burglar, casing mankind’s extended electronic nervous system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix, monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense concentrations of information, and high above it all burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of military systems. (p.197)

A bit later, the narrator tells us there are some 15 million legitimate console operators around the world, doing the daily trudgework of maintaining these vast castles of data. But we never meet them in Gibson’s stories. We only meet the lowlife, edgy, drug-fuelled hackers and hustlers.

On one level, Gibson is just the latest in a long line of American noir writers who make crime sound impossibly glamorous.

P.S.

Automatic Jack is referenced in the second of the Sprawl trilogy, Count Zero. In that novel Bobby the hacker has ended up in the 14th-floor nightclub owned by a dude named Jammer, and can’t take his eyes of the man’s cool new cyberspace deck, so Jammer hands Bobby a set of trodes:

He stood up, grabbed the handles on either side of the black console, and spun it round so it faced Bobby. ‘Go on. You’ll cream your jeans. Things ten years old and it’ll still wipe as son most anything. Guy name of Automatic Jack built it straight from scratch. He was Bobby Quine’s hardware artist once. The two of ’em burnt the Blue Lights together, but that was probably before you were born…’ (Count Zero, p.230)


Other stories

The Gernsback Continuum (1981)

The first-person narrator is hired to take photographs for a book of photo-journalism documenting the futuristic buildings of the 1930s, what the woman consultant to the project calls ‘American Streamlined Moderne’, what the publisher calls ‘raygun Gothic’, the book to be titled, The Airstream Futuropolis: The Tomorrow That Never Was.

To cut a long story short, on his cruises round provincial America looking for these architectural indicators of a future which never happened, he starts to hallucinate himself into the alternative future where they were built, soaring domes, spires and arcologies linked by high-level walkways, the sky full of flying silver vehicles, and on the ground around him tough-guy blonde 1930s men named Chuck, their arms around wasp-waisted plastic women of the future, both out of the old movies Metropolis and Shape of Things To Come.

Obviously – inevitably – this being Gibson, the narrator is popping various types of drug all the time and at first dismisses the visions as ‘amphetamine psychosis’. If this were J.G. Ballard the narrator’s mind would eventually disappear into this alternative universe, while their body remained here, catatonic.

But, throughout the story, he has been anchored in reality by constant phone calls to a colleague who spends his life writing up the weird beliefs of Americans – Elvis is alive on Mars, UFOs took my husband – and who is totally blasé about the narrator’s visions and, indeed, the opening sentence tells us that it was all an ‘episode’ which is now fading.

In other words, it doesn’t go for the full-on psychosis and so comes over as rather a conventional 1950s-type story.

The Belonging Kind (with John Shirley, 1981)

I wonder what collaboration brings for Gibson. He collaborates quite a lot. In this case the setting is very Gibson – a perpetual night-time of clubs and bars, back alleyways, littered with broken glass and graffiti, the shabby single room of a low-paid single man.

Coretti is a shabby, badly dressed ungainly loner. He goes to a bar. A notably attractive woman (they generally are: Gibson’s stories froth over with femmes fatales) lets him chat her up. When she leaves, he follows her and is thunderstruck when, half way across a night-time road, she changes shape: her dress changes, her hair changes, the shape of her body subtly alters. She becomes a different woman.

From a distance he watches her visit other bars, chatting friendly to other strange men, echoing their conversation, fitting right in. He becomes obsessed. He loses his day job, takes a cheaper labouring job, loses that, doesn’t eat, lives only to track her down.

Finally, in the early hours (the characteristic Gibson time of day) he finds her in a bar, chatting in her easygoing manner to a man. They leave and get into a cab, at the last minute Coretti flings himself inside, but the other two don’t even notice. And when she goes to pay the river Corettit is stunned to see her reach inside her own body, through a pink slit like a fish’s gill, to bring out wet notes which dry as she hands them over.

Coretti follows the couple up to a hotel room in which he is not that surprised to discover a dozen or so other people perching on beds, sofas, chairs. Motionless, their eyes covered by a thin filament of flesh. They are, he realises, roosting. They are some kind of alien life form which lives to blend in. Maybe they started off feeling normal, eating and drinking like other folk. Then got to realise they feel restless, outside, different. Stop eating. Exist off alcohol metabolised at bars, maybe…

He realises he is one of them. The story ends with Coretti, also, pulling wet money out of his gill, paying for whatever he needs, sitting passively in bars wearing whatever is required, whatever is required to fit right in.

Hinterlands (1981)

A strange and disturbing story about a strange and disturbing phenomenon. At some in our future a Russian spaceship, an Alyut 6, en route to Mars, simply disappears. Two years later it reappears, its pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, out of her mind. Several other ships disappear at the same location. It becomes clear it’s the departure point of some kind of Highway, which is what Americans call it, while the French call it the subway and the Russians the river.

Over the years an entire space station is set up to a) despatch probes and individuals through the Highway b) ready to receive them back. The success rate is low. Of those who return 20% are dead on arrival, 70% are mad, gone, lost – only 10% or so alive and capable of speech or communication, although often badly damaged.

Why keep on doing it? Because the second or third returnee came back with metal into which was coded information including a cure for cancer. After that humanity had to continue sending people into this…. thing… junkyard? curio shop, whatever it is.

The narrative follows the protagonist, Toby, preparing to greet a new returnee, Leni Hofmannstahl. The space station has an entire area nicknamed ‘Heaven’, which is full of grass and plants and the sound of trickling water, built on the advice of psychotherapists to provide the most calming environment possible for returnees, though it rarely works.

And, being Gibson, there is a psychic element, an interference with minds, which is that the greeter (himself) mind melds with a ‘controller’, becoming one via a device nicknamed a ‘bone-phone’ i.e. an implant in his brain.

Toby’s controller, Hiro, has genned up on Leni’s entire profile, knows her inside out, while Toby is carrying the entire arsenal of drugs know to humans to try and calm Leni. But when he enters the probe, now safely docked in ‘Heaven’, Toby immediately sees that she is ‘gone’. And in a very florid way. She is pinned in her pilot’s chair and, somehow, has persuaded the ship’s onboard medical unit to flay her right arm and pin it to the plastic work surface, skin unwrapped, nerves and tendons revealed, expertly dissected. She bled to death.

That night Toby is in bed with his squeeze, Charmian. We learn that they have been recruited from the ‘rejects’, the astronauts who bob around in a probe in the right area but, for reasons unknown, are not chosen, are not taken, who feel the crushing weight of rejection, often try to commit suicide, their brains are rewritten, ‘kinked’, adjusted, and then they are used as ‘surrogates’, almost-rans, half way towards the returnees, who an operator using the ‘bone-phone’ can meld and control. The price they pay. Clutching his woman in the dark, crying, empty drug wrappers clenched in his fist.

Red Star, Winter Orbit (co-written with Bruce Sterling, 1983)

A Russian space station – Kosmograd – has been orbiting earth for decades (since the turn of the century, apparently). It is armed, so there’s a squad of six soldiers and a KGB officer aboard.

The narrative describes the rebellion of the twenty or so civilian cosmonauts aboard the station, led by Korolev, himself badly injured in some kind of ‘blow-out’ twenty years previously, against the KGB man Yefremov, when they intercept Kremlin order that the station is to be abandoned and its orbit left to decay till it burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.

As so often, half the interest of the story is the ‘hints’ it drops of the fictional future. In this future the Russians have won. The Treaty of Vienna gave them control of the entire Earths oil supply, then there was some kind of nuclear meltdown in Kansas, with the result that, for three decades, America has been ‘gradually sliding into isolationism and industrial decline.’ (p.110) In some kind of attempt to gain extra power they have resorted to sending enormous balloons up into the outer atmosphere to collect energy.

And yet the story reveals that the Soviets themselves have failed. There was some kind of attempt to do mining on the moon, which failed. And we learn that Korolev, the protagonist – Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev – had been the first man on Mars, back in the day. Now, as the KGB try to organise abandoning the Kosmograd, he is set to become the last man in space. Gloomily, Yefremov tells Korolev that the entire human endeavour to ‘escape’ into space has failed.

Kosmograd was a dream, Colonel. A dream that failed. Like space. We have no need to be here. We have an entire world to put in order. (p.107)

New Rose Hotel (1984)

In the early hours it starts to rain and the protagonist lies in bed in his cheap hotel going back over recent events trying to figure out where it all went wrong and how the chick he thought he’d clicked with, got away. That’s the classic shape of a Gibson Sprawl story.

This one is interesting because it expands on the basic Gibson idea that the future will be controlled by vast multinational conglomerates, and competition won’t be so much for resources as for knowledge.

Although the protagonist takes his time piecing together the sequence of events which brought him to this cheap hotel, by the end of the story the plot is clear.

The narrator is an expert at kidnapping the scientists whose inventions fuel the vast multinationals. He is hired by a man named Fox (‘point man in the skull wars, a middleman for corporate crossovers’) to work alongside another freelancer named Sandii to kidnap a genius named Hiroshi Yomuri from Maas Biolabs GmbH who had him, and hand him over to another corporate client, Hosaka.

Imagine an alien, Fox once said, who’s come here to identify the planet’s dominant for of intelligence. The alien has a look, then chooses. What do you think he picks? I probably shrugged. The zaibatsus, Fox said, the multinationals. The blood of a zaibatsu is information, not people. The structure is independent of the individual lives that comprise it. Corporation as life form. (p.129)

Anyway, Sandii, the narrator and Fox put together the kidnap and, sure enough, Yomuri disappears from a street in Vienna, popping up again in the secure facility the narrator has arranged for him in Marrakesh. Our chaps notice a number of other top Hosaka scientists flying in to confer with him. Then – disaster.

Sandii has double crossed them. She was paid by Mass to carry out the kidnapping, but had installed a diskette at the new hideaway which released some kind of Meningococcal infection. It killed Hiroshi and all the other Hosaka researchers. Score Maas. Hosaka’s anger knows no limits. He and Fox immediately go on the run, but he sees Fox get thrown off the balcony of a shopping mall, falling to the ground and breaking his back.

Now the narrator is holed up in the cheapest, obscurest hotel he can find, trying to cover his tracks, knowing assassins are on his trail and going over it all in his mind, wishing Sandii was still with him, wishing she still loved him, wishing she was holding his hand.

The Winter Market (1986)

The narrator, Casey, is another young buck at home in the louche worlds of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. He goes on eight-hour-long bender when he learns that a recording star he’s been working for has died. But this is more complex than it seems.

We are in the future and people can record and edit other people’s experiences using ‘neuroelectronics’ – accessing and experiencing levels of consciousness which most people can only access in dreams, dream experiences. These can then be edited to create what are in effects ‘albums’, full of ‘tracks’, which recreate – which let you experience – other people’s lives, thoughts and feelings.

The narrator is a kind of ‘record producer’ of this kind of content, and the story looks back, soulfully and sadly, on his working relationship with a particularly fucked-up woman he met in a bar, Lise, who is only able to move because her withered body is fitted into a carbon exo-skeleton.

She is an epitome of the doomed artist, but in a leather jacket and addicted to speed (or ‘wizz’, as Gibson calls it.) Breaking his own rule, Casey, shares a circuit with her i.e. jacks into her consciousness, and emerges seconds later weeping with shock at the huge awesome night-time infinitely sad depths of it.

So he uses some studio downtime to make a rough recording of her, plays it to his boss who is stunned, who passes it up to a record company who snap it up and send out smooth-talking, suited PR people (all a riff on a 1980s view of the record biz), give her a contract, Casey is given a promotion and bonus to edit her stuff together into the classic album which becomes known as Kings of Sleep.

But she is a doomed artist, doomed, man, too sensitive for this world and so we learn that she has ‘crossed over’, used neuroelectronics to transfer her entire mental activity into a construct, an AI, a ROM stored in some corporate headquarters. Her body is cremated. Casey is gutted.

His story is told via conversations with his good friend Rubin, an internationally famous artist who makes art works out of the sea of junk by then surrounding 21st century society.

there’s drugs, there’s heavy drinking, there’s finding yourself in no-hope bars in the early hours, watching the other losers, there’s future tech – it’s a whole world, a Gestalt, the Sprawl scenario.

The relentless leather jacket, rock chick, mainline drugs, 12 hour drinking binges, late-night bars, rock’n’roll  altered states milieu remind me of a favourite track by Jesus and Mary Chain, Coast to Coast from 1989.

Here I come, here I come
On a road
Under a sky
Coast to coast

Dogfight (co-written with Michael Swanwick, 1985)

Another lowlife on the run, this time it’s Deke, a career thief, caught and kicked out of Washington DC, put on a greyhound out of town, fantasises about travelling forever, maybe down to the warzone in Florida (sic) he gets out at a 20 minute stopover station, stumbles on gamers playing a 3-D fighter game based on First World War biplanes zapping each other – Fokkers & Spads – and is entranced.

He walks back to a shopping mall and steals the (commercially available) game and the kit to play it on, scams himself into a cheap hotel (ain’t no other kind in Gibsonland), unwraps, plugs in and plays it.

Bit later he tries to sell part of the kit to a girl down the hall, Nance Bettendorf, but she freaks him out with 3-D images she can project (in this case, of a rat). She has a ‘brainblock’ put on her by her parents who both work (which is, in this dystopian future, very ‘greedy’ of them) a chastity block, so no sex for Deke, then, although she wears skimpy clothes which ride up to show here crimson panties.

She’s a student (again, apparently, a rare thing in this future) and is completing a virtual reality assignment. Having rich parents, she can afford all the right kit:

‘Image facilitator. Here’s my fast-wipe module. This is a brainmap one-to-one function analyser.’ She sang off the names like a litany. ‘Quantum flicker stabiliser. Program splicer. An image assembler…’ (p.175)

These to oddballs, outsiders, loners, sort of knock up a rapport. Deke stays with her while he practices his skills at the game, his aim being to take on the dude he saw in the Greyhound station and make some money. When Nance tells him she has some ‘hype’, a mind-focusing drug, Deke has no scruples about attacking her to steal it – and seeing as she has panic attacks if anyone touches her, his assault-cum-rape is as cruel as can be.

Having prepared for weeks, Deke walks back into the Greyhound rest room ready to take on all the gamers, until the legendary Tiny Montgomery walks in. Well chugs in in his wheelchair. (Tiny Montgomery is, incidentally, a character in a song by Bob Dylan written in Woodstock and part of the Basement Tapes which, incidentally, came to mind when I reviewed the early work of New York photographer Diane Arbus.)

So the story climaxes in a 3-D battle of First World War planes controlled by the minds of the champion, Tiny, and the challenger, Deke. During the extended description of the interactions of synapse, drugs, nerves and technology, it becomes clear that both Deke and Tiny are drug-addled, screwed-up veterans of American wars in South America, Chile, Bolivia, both – seemingly – shot down and damaged, before ending up on the underside of Yank society, hanging round Greyhound stations with the other vets and losers.

As the first full flush of victory, and the drug, begins to wear off, Deke realises all the other liggers disapprove of the way he’s destroyed Tiny. Flying the digital planes was all Tiny had keeping him together. Having lost, he is crushed. Plus Deke remembers having ruined Nance’s life, to steal the drug which meant so much to him. The story ends in a mood of complete desolation.

Pattern recognition

The characteristic protagonists are men, young men – 22, 24, 28.

They take drugs – amphetamine, cocaine, and a variety of invented future drugs such as ‘hype’. A lot of the characters hang out in bars and drink to excess.

Old or young, they are often damaged – like Korosov with his shattered body, or Automatic Jack with his prosthetic arm, or Tiny Montgomery stuck in his wheelchair, or Lise with some degenerative disease which requires her to be supported by an exoskeleton. Or psychologically damaged like the receivers Toby and Charmian, or Deke and Tiny, the war veterans.

Most of the stories feature a young woman, generally thin, great figure, great boobs, but able to hold her own on the street, epitomised by Molly with the razor nails, or the mystery alien woman in The Belonging Kind, Sandii, and Rikki.

Generally, the young, lowlife, criminal male protagonist carries a torch for this cyberbabe. Generally, she leaves and breaks his heart and he spends a lot of time raking over the reasons why. Some of the stories are written more or less as letters, directly addressing this woman, who leaves, dumps, drops the writer: e.g. Rikki at the end of Burning Chrome, or Sandii in New Rose Hotel, or Lise in The Winter Market.

The male protagonists are generally criminals, most often computer hackers – Jack and Bobby the hackers in Chrome, Johnny Mnemonic who runs off with someone else’s data, Deke the thief, the kidnapping (corporate extraction) experts in New Rose Hotel – and the stories recurrent focus is on lowlife, criminal milieus, gangs, drug dealers, ninjas, assassins, all written up in fabulously street-smart, tech-savvy, turbo-charged prose.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten stories, some of them set in Gibson’s Sprawl universe, others stand-alone, and sometimes, quite disturbing sci-fi yarns
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy,

1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative history Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population under control

diane arbus: in the beginning @ Hayward Gallery

Diane Arbus was born in 1923 into a rich and cultured Jewish family in New York City. Her older brother, Howard, would go on to become the American poet laureate. She was sent to a series of private schools. In American terms, it would be difficult to be more privileged. But her father was rarely involved in her upbringing, absorbed in running the well-known Russek department store on Fifth Avenue, and her mother suffered from depression – so Diane and her siblings were raised by a succession of maids and governesses. It was a childhood of alienation and loneliness.

Indeed, Arbus suffered depressive episodes throughout her life and in 1971, at the age of 48, she took her own life while living at an artists community in New York City, swallowing barbiturates and slashing her wrists with a razor.

By that time she had established herself as one of the most influential, visionary and powerful photographers of the post-war period, and her reputation has grown steadily ever since.

The exhibition layout

This exhibition at the Hayward Gallery includes nearly 100 photographs taken during the first half (‘in the beginning’) of Arbus’s career, from 1956 to 1962, giving you a powerful sense of how she started out, of the incredible gift she began with, and how she developed and crafted it into something really distinctive.

All the photos are black and white, and consist of vintage prints from the Diane Arbus Archive at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. They are generally quite small, discreetly framed. The earlier ones are often dark and grainy in texture, shot on the hoof as she captures street scenes. By the early 60s this has changed a lot, the images gain clarity, the prints become larger, more lucid, the subjects more obviously posed and engaged, rather than caught on the fly.

But the first and most striking thing about the exhibition is how they’ve all been hung. The images are attached to the sides of square pillars which have arranged in a grid pattern in two big rooms.

The images are not in any particular chronological order, and so this ‘pillar layout’ allows you to wander past them in a number of directions: from front to back, or from side to side, diagonally, or to shimmy through the pillars in a random pattern.

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of diane arbus: in the beginning at Hayward Gallery, 2019. Photo by Mark Blower

If you saw them from above they would make a grid pattern and I suppose this could be said to echo the grid-like layout of the streets of her home town, Manhattan, the pillars representing city ‘blocks’.

Themes

The result of roaming freely through this forest of images is to make you notice recurring themes and subjects and thread them onto your own strings. Three large themes stick out:

  1. They’re all set in the city – urban scenes, streets and cars and shops, snack bars, inside people’s homes (generally shabby front rooms and cramped kitchens of cheap apartments) as well as various places of entertainment
  2. They’re all black and white, the earlier ones especially (i.e. mid-1950s) having a gritty, late-night film noir feel, almost like the crime scene photos and artless street scenes of someone like Weegee
  3. They’re almost all of people. Only three out of the hundred don’t feature people as their central focus, and in all three the absence of people is their main affect.

To be more specific, the images include the following recurring subjects:

  • night-time street scenes, people standing in the daytime street, taxi cabs, passersby
  • looking into shop windows, down a passage into a barber shop, an empty snack bar
  • scenes from films and shows broadcast on her television
  • circus performers
  • freaks: dwarves, giants, identical twins
  • a waxworks museum
  • Coney Island, famous for its entertainment and sideshows
  • the changing rooms of female impersonators
  • unnerving children
  • fathers holding babies
  • upper class women, in the street, in art galleries, in restaurants
Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jack Dracula at a bar, New London, Connecticut (1961) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Performers

The subjects most associated with Arbus are circus performers, midgets, giants, freaks and grotesques, transvestites and other ‘outsiders’ – so we have photos of ‘the human pin cushion’, of a circus strong man, a contortionist seen over the heads of a watching crowd. These might all come under the heading ‘Performers’, along with shots of:

  • Andy ‘Potato Chips’ Rotocheff doing his impression of Maurice Chevalier
  • the man who swallows razor blades
  • the Russian midget
  • The Jewish giant
  • the Mexican dwarf

Outsiders, people who perform exaggerate versions of themselves for entertainment.

Female impersonators

Another recurring subject is images of men who made a living as female impersonators in various states of undress in their backstage dressing rooms. I guess they have a combination of cheap glamour with pathos.

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Female impersonator holding long gloves, Hempstead, Long Island (1959) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Circus acts, sideshow entertainers, female impersonators. They are all people who dress up and perform versions of themselves, who create their identities.

That summary might give the impression Arbus is attracted by the glamour of show business, or be a relative of the countless photographers of Hollywood film stars or Broadway actors. Far from it.

Poor and shabby

Because what all these subjects have in common is that they are poor.

Arbus was born into a wealthy family with nannies and maids, but emotionally stifled, repressed, alienated. The photos indicate that she went out looking for trouble, for worlds which represented the opposite of her privileged, Upper East Side, private school bubble. Slumming down among the proles in their shabby bars, pool halls and bizarre Victorian entertainments.

It’s in this spirit that there’s a strong thread of grainy, gritty shots of ugly working class people snogging, getting drunk and generally being lowlives at the poor man’s seaside resort, Coney Island in Brooklyn. As distant in terms of class, culture and manners, as it was possible to get from her privileged Manhattan background.

Note the grainy, foggy quality of the images. There’s a good cross-section of her photos in this New York Times article.

The Macabre

Alongside the depictions of living freaks and performers, there are several images of the dead. For example, a handful of shots from a New York waxworks museum, including a really gruesome one of an elaborately staged crime scene with fake blood spattered over the waxwork figures (Wax Museum Axe Murder).

Nearby is a shot of a corpse at a mortuary, shot from behind the head and showing the rib cage broken open to perform an autopsy.

The Surreal

As a grace note to these images of the grotesque and morbid is a handful of images of the genuinely surreal. Thus she made a trip to Disneyland where she saw a number of stage set ‘rocks’ parked on the trailers or trolleys which were used to move them around.

But this kind of deliberate and rather obvious surrealism was not her thing, not least because these are objects. Arbus is a people person: weird, disturbing and unsettling people, maybe, but it the strangeness of humanity is her subject, not the wide world of odd objects.

TV and film

Related to the idea of performance, and of the grotesque, is a whole series of black and white photos she took of films or TV shows. As far as I could tell a lot of these were shot directly off her TV while they were being broadcast, although some also seem to have been shot at the cinema, the camera pointing up at a distorted image on the screen.

Either way, these film still photos are clearly related to the themes discussed above in being hammy or kitsch. Thus we have:

  • Bela Lugosi playing Dracula
  • Man on Screen Being Choked,1958
  • a blonde woman on screen about to be kissed (and looking terrified)
  • a kiss for Baby Doll (from a movie)
  • a screaming woman with blood on her hands

As you can see, she’s chosen subjects which are cheap, melodramatic and pulpy. They should be funny except that something in Arbus’s framing, exposure and printing stops them being funny. Somehow they all suggest an imaginative world of genuine trauma, no matter how hokey its trappings.

Behind the cheap histrionics of Bela Lugosi or the woman screaming, behind the appalling bubblegum world of American culture, Arbus manages to identify something much deeper and genuinely disturbing.

How the weird infects the everyday

And this, I think, was the one big idea which gradually suggested itself as I circulated round the pillars and viewed and re-viewed this jungle of images: it dawned on me that Arbus took the same sensibility which had plumbed the depths of proley entertainment, which had faced the waxwork axe murders, which had tracked down ‘the human pin cushion’ and captured rough, deformed, chavvy working-class people about their entertainments in cheap funfairs and seedy pool halls, in smoke-filled cinemas, arguing and getting drunk and watching gimcrack performers, and…

… she then brought this feel for the weird and the strange and applied it to everyday life. She found herself able to detect the strange and unsettling quality of the sideshow contortionist in random passersby, the pathos of the fat lady in the passengers in a parked taxi cab, the mystery of the circus dwarf in a middle- aged woman on a bus, the glittery pathos of the transvestites in the face of a boy about to cross the road.

Somehow, what should be everyday people and banal scenes become charged, through her lens, with a tremendous sense of weirdness and strangeness.

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Lady on a bus, New York City (1957) Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

It’s just a woman of a certain age in a fur coat on a bus, what’s so strange about that?

Well, in Diane Arbus’s hands, lots. Everything about this image has become strange and unsettling. It’s as if she had bottled the weird, edge-of-humanity vibe she had found down among the midnight sawdust and sweaty changing rooms of the circus midget and the transvestite performers, and then come back to the ordinary, everyday world of the bustling city and stealthily blown it onto passersby, transforming everyone she pointed her camera at into the stars of some obscure, unfathomable but deeply eerie storylines.

Through her lens they all become aliens caught in the act of… of doing something… of being something… strange and incommunicable.

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Boy stepping off the curb, N.Y.C. 1957–58 © The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC. All Rights Reserved

A boy stepping off a kerb, what could be more mundane and boring, right? Except that in Arbus’s hands – through her eye – transmuted through her ability with camera and print – this kid seems to be a representative from another planet. Or to be hinting at strange unsuspected depths, of mysteries which can never be fathomed, right here, in this hectic, over-crowded city.

And so it is with a huge tranche of these images, even the most thoroughly ordinary – a girl with a pointy hood 1957, a woman with white gloves and a pocketbook 1956, a woman carrying a child in Central Park 1956 – all are super-charged with rare meaning and some kind of fraught but invisible symbolism, felt but not understood.

She was dead right when she said:

I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.

Very subtle, but very very powerful.

A box of ten photographs

She didn’t stop photographing the weird and the uncanny. Well into the 60s she was photographing giants and midgets and twins. But as the 1950s turns into the 1960s, you can watch how she perfected her ability to capture the ominous quality of people doomed to be outsiders, losing the grainy look of the 50s and producing images which are much clearer, starker, all the more moving for their bluntness – and at the same time more and more subtly injecting that freak quality into deceptively ‘ordinary’ scenes of everyday life.

In a change to the white pillar layout, a room to the side of the main exhibition is devoted to one of her last works, a limited edition portfolio containing just ten of her photographs which she considered her best. Beautifully printed and presented, the limited edition boxes were priced at a thousand dollars apiece!

All ten of the photos she selected are on display here, and include several of her greatest hits, such as the identical twins.

Also included are A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970, the Mexican dwarf, the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen dance, and the boater-wearing young man who is a supporter of the Vietnam war.

In just these ten shots you can see her major subjects recapitulated: circus freaks, grotesque chavs, transvestites (the guy with curlers in his hair), the everyday weirdness of the middle-aged nudist couple in their living room.

Posed weirdness against spontaneous unease

So far so obvious. But the image I liked most from the set was of the youngish couple lying on loungers in their big garden while junior plays with a paddling pool in the background.

The wall label tells us that her friend, the photographer Richard Avedon, bought two of the boxes, one for himself and one to give as a gift to the film director Mike Nichol.

Now Nichol has made a whole rack of excellent films, but that image of the couple on their loungers reminded me strongly of The Graduate from 1967, starring then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, alongside Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross. The Graduate is set in wealthy suburbia, is a story about people with nice houses with big gardens and swimming pools, and powerfully conveys the smothering politeness of American middle-class life which you only had to scratch the surface of to reveal a seething underworld of jealousies and animosities, lusts and betrayals.

It’s a very uncharacteristic photo for Arbus. Not urban, city streets, not at night. A suburban garden. Yet somehow (to pursue my thesis of her ability to find the weird amid the banal) the couple’s awkward pose and their strange indifference to their rummaging child, conveys – to me, at any rate – just as much un-ease, as much edginess, as a photo of, say, the spooky twins, or another one nearby, the kid with the hand grenade.

This is a famous photo. It has its very own Wikipedia article. After getting talking to him in the park and getting his parents permission to photograph him, she circled him getting to adopt different faces and poses, before selecting the one where he’s pulling the funniest face and looking, well, weirdest.

In the later photos, the exhibition gives us an increasing sense of the photographer arranging, engaging with and posing her subjects like this, a change from the more casual, fly-on-the-wall street photography of the 50s. They become more clearly framed and shot. It’s after the period covered by the show, from 1962 onwards, that she produces the images she’s most famous for.

But this, I think, is why I like the couple in the garden – it’s obviously been set up but it’s not a pose, it’s one among, presumably, a set of shots, and yet it captures very well the quality I’m on about – the more subtle end of her work, the capturing of dis-ease in the midst of the what ought to be the everyday.

Only connect

There’s another aspect to the Child with a toy hand grenade photo. The boy’s name was Colin Wood. Years later he gave an interview to the Washington Post about the experience of being photographed by Diane Arbus.

My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness, a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

It would be easy to take this testimony and what we know about her unhappy childhood, to conclude that alienation and disconnect is the single dominating and defining quality of her photos.

It’s a powerful interpretation because it does, in fact, eloquently express the look in the eyes of all those transvestites, midgets and so on, the taxi drivers, the woman with white gloves and a pocketbook standing marooned on the sidewalk – people who seem somehow abandoned in the middle of their own lives.

But I tend to shy away from interpretations of books or art which focus solely on the psychology of the creator. Obviously it’s important, often decisive, but it is never enough. For me the most important thing is the work itself, the book and the words or the art and the images. The interest for me is in deciphering how it works, why it moves and transports us, in analysing the choice of subject, the maker’s skill with composition, framing, lighting, with contrasting effects of graininess or smoothness and so on.

It may be that the haunted loneliness in Diane Arbus’s personality sought, drew out and depicted the fellow loneliness she found in the people she photographed. But this psychological sympathy isn’t a sufficient explanation for her achievement. The same, the ability to coax secrets from subjects, might be said of social workers or therapists.

Any full explanation of the photographs’ impact must not lose sight of the fact that she was a photographer of genius. It is because she was a superb technician that her personal vision of the world didn’t die with her but is preserved in literally thousands of haunting photographs (some 6,000 at the most recent count).

The rise of weirdness

Looking at all these images of shabby circus performers and seedy changing rooms suddenly made me think of the cover art of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan. In the same year as Arbus shot the Identical twins – 1967 – Dylan retired to Woodstock where he and the Band made home tape recordings of scores of songs which were later released on the album titled the Basement Tapes.

The album cover (in fact created a decade later) is an effort to depict the surreal cast of characters who wander through the forty or so songs Dylan wrote that summer, a deliberate invocation of the circus world of bizarre and offbeat performers – a ballerina, a strong man in a leopard skin, a harem odalisque, a fire-eater, a midget, a fat lady.

It feels as if the rich vein of American weirdness which Arbus mined in her very personal photos from the late 1950s onwards was somehow destined to become part of the pop mainstream less than a decade later.

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Cover of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan (1975)

Arbus’s photos progress from a film noir and Naked City world of the late 1950s – distilled in her grainy shots of empty bars, barber shops, Coney island fairground lights and so on – to a much clearer, early-60s aesthetic which presents its subjects much more openly, candidly and vulnerably.

But I couldn’t help thinking that in both incarnations, she eerily anticipated what by the mid-1960s had become a very widespread interest in outsiders, freaks, the circus, transvestites and the rest of it.

In 1957 the word ‘freak’ meant someone suffering a deformity of body or mind, unacceptable to the average smartly-dressed, Middle American family. But just ten years later, the word ‘freak’ was being used to describe the pioneers of a new Zeitgeist, the trippy, zoned-out prophets of new ways of seeing and living. As soon as I hear the word ‘freak’ I think of the cartoon characters, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, who first appeared in 1971, and the whole freak aesthetic went on to have a long dwindling afterlife in the 1970s.

From what I read Arbus herself was never anything like a hippy or flower child – but she was certainly way ahead of the curve in her obsession with freaks and outsiders. And in her ability to find the freakish and the uncanny in the everyday, she had nailed and defined a whole thread of Americana before its emergence into broader pop culture a few years later.

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors

Cover of Strange Days by The Doors (1967)

Not just illuminating ‘some slight corner on something about the quality of things’, Diane Arbus pioneered a whole way of seeing America, the world and modern urban life which shed light, not only on the obviously weird and bizarre (what she’s famous for), but also suffused countless banal and everyday scenes with wonderfully strange and ominous undertones.

What a great exhibition. What a brilliant photographer.


Related links

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