One-shot #4: Arbusesque

I just received a pile of 45x07mm glass stereoviews in the mail. When I say a pile, I mean I was expecting 19 stereoviews – 9 Great War slides in particular, and 10 random amateur views – and I received about twice that number, as well as a box of single-frame 2.5×1.75″ glass negatives! The plates came from a wonderfully pleasant eBay seller named Millie, who when inquired about provenance told a wonderful story about her past – which out of consideration for her, I will not repeat here. In any case, I popped the slides in my Unis viewer, and one in particular completely captivated me – and it was a portrait no less! I’m not usually big on the portraits. So I scanned that one, put the rest of the pile aside, and got back to work scanning the new WWI slides for today’s Month of Remembrance post.

But scanning takes a while, so I opened the original file and took a look. While certainly not as impressive as viewing it through a scope, it was still damn impressive:

The original slide, as scanned.

Sadly, the slide was in rough shape (which is par for the course for amateur glass). Significant scratches which were not immediately glaring through the Unis popped out terribly when turned anaglyph – so I decided to do something I don’t ordinarily do, and cleaned up the image, combining the two sides to make a readily free-viewable, clean-and-clear version which hopefully is an accurate representation of what was originally on the diapositive – and this was certainly a disapositive; there were absolutely no traces that this came from a negative, which is a rare enough occurrence when contact printing that I’m going to assume that this slide is absolutely unique – so why not try to restore it to its original beauty? This is what resulted:

Retouched image, presented side-by-side for easy free viewing.

I still hadn’t realized why I was so captivated by the image. It wasn’t that it possessed superior technical qualities for an amateur photo – though it certainly did. The exposure is bang-on, and the composition works quite well. The heavy use of depth of field, unusual in stereo photography, works exquisitely here – this is a portrait, no doubt, and the photographer uses both aperture and depth focus to center attention squarely on their subject. This is well done stereography.

But there’s something more to it than that – and then it hit me. The photo is very reminiscent of some of the early works of Diane Arbus (my favorite photographer) that I’ve been lucky enough to see over the years. The subject – an anonymous young woman on an empty street in some city on some continent somewhere – trusts the photographer, but not in the usual portrait sense of familiarity. She is not carefully posing, her hair is a bit of a mess, she’s making a perfectly ordinary face – while not nude, she is in a sense naked; vulnerable, herself, with her defenses down, neither familiarly close to the photographer nor impersonally distanced – simply herself. This is a quality which Arbus was able to summon in just about every portrait she ever shot. There was no sense of artifice in her work, nor is there any here. And the right-hand frame works well even as a stand-alone image:

Right-hand frame of the stereo slide.

The left not so much; the line made by the left side of her head and that of the right-hand building is distracting. It is really the merged image that gives the best idea of what the photographer saw. But in any case, this image – with its anonymous, vulnerable, but relatable subject – can certainly be deemed “Arbusesque”.

Diane Arbus has had a huge impact on my life. In 2005, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art three times to see a fantastic exhibition on her work. At this point, I began to take photography more seriously, and by the following year, I was dropping out of a PhD program in analytic philosophy to pursue it full-time. This has led me to a career in strange art photography – nothing like Arbus’s in terms of subject or technique, but then, I don’t have Diane Arbus’s eye.

This photographer did, at least to the extent that they made an impression on me. There’s something wonderful about this image – and I wonder what happened to the photographer who took it. Diane Arbus went on create one of the most impressive catalogues of images I’ve ever seen. Her work was populated with people on the fringes of society. Drag queens, nudists, dwarves, twins, and most notably (and perhaps, notoriously) patients at State Schools – institutions for developmentally disabled children and adults – were her subjects. In a brief period of time, she did great things, but she led an unhappy life, and committed suicide in 1971.

As to the photographer who created this stereographic image, I wonder. Did they go on to create great things, or was this merely a happy accident? Did they lead a happier life than Arbus? A sadder one? Is the rest of their collection sitting in a basement somewhere? Is it scattered to the four winds? I’ll almost certainly never know the answers to these questions, just as I have no answers when it comes to the identity of this subject, or her anonymous surroundings. But in any case, whoever took this, at least once in their life, created a wonderful image.

As usual, here’s the anaglyph, so pop on your red/cyans and enjoy:


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