Seeing Diane Arbus
As a special online supplement to the Winter 2016/2017 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2016 Zoetrope: All–Story Short Fiction Competition, as judged by Anthony Marra.
Back then, as I began to suffer more and more from bouts of inexplicable insomnia, I often found myself sitting at three or four in the morning in the corner booth of a Hell’s Kitchen dive bar just above the subway line on Eighth, hoping that I couldn’t be seen. It wasn’t that the staff let me stay past closing, it was that they weren’t used to looking for a woman who was hardly tall enough to see over the table.
This wasn’t the kind of bar for meeting friends—you went there so you wouldn’t have to meet anyone at all. The way the patrons bowed their heads when a new person walked in, you’d think it was a church. The glasses were stained with layers of old lipstick, a dusty Budweiser sign flickered whenever the train passed below, and the vinyl on all the seats had split open. It was the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, so every channel on the dial was playing the footage on repeat. I ordered my usual, a seltzer with lemon, before disappearing into the far back booth where I could watch the other insomniacs without having to be watched back.
On a particularly slow night for an already slow bar, as I slurped the last bit of seltzer through a cocktail straw, a woman’s voice said, “Oh my . . . look at you!”
I ignored her and stared into the bottom of my empty glass. It didn’t happen as much anymore, but every once in a while someone would stop and say, “Hey! Don’t I know you from somewhere? Yeah, yeah, I know you!” and then they would call over their kids or their wife and cross their arms and debate where it was they knew me from, and then someone would eventually remember the damn movie and start yelling, “It’s a munchkin! It’s a munchkin!” Some people would stop there and go back to waiting for the bus or eating their hamburgers, but others would try to pick me up, pat my head, ask me if my clothes were from the children’s section or a toy store. The tourists were the worst, always carrying cameras around their necks. They never asked if they could take my photo, they just took it. They took, and took, and took.
The woman said my name. She didn’t say it like the cultish Oz-fans, like she owned it and deserved to say it whenever she wanted. She said it as a question. Is it OK that I know you? Is it OK that I’m here?
I pushed the straw out of my mouth and looked up to see what kind of person I was dealing with. She had a chop of mousy black hair, cut short like a little boy’s, a delicate nose, and a pointed mouth. She wore small, silver hoop earrings; a black turtleneck sweater and a black trench coat that made her look especially frail; huge, round sunglasses, the Italian kind Twiggy made so popular. I struggled to place her.
“It’s me,” she said, sounding almost grateful to have been forgotten. “It’s Diane.”
Diane Arbus. The name filled me like a breath.
Diane had taken my portrait several years back as part of a series on freaks, a word that had haunted me until she said it. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” she had said. “Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
None of us were photographed together or at the same time, so I’ve never met the other people in the series, but there was something about the way Diane captured us: she didn’t exploit the mutilations, the mutations, the missing or the extra pieces of flesh, yet she didn’t mask them either.
She wanted to know what it was to be a geriatric actress in New York City who was only forty inches tall, or a once-eligible bachelor whose beard had grown over his entire face, or a transvestite struggling to hide his penis while lounging in high heels. Somehow, in every frame, she photographed each of us twice: once as the person we wanted to be seen as, and once as the person we could not escape. Diane was not born a freak, but for the instant that the flash went off she lived inside each of us.
Now before me, blanketed in the dark of a derelict Manhattan dive bar, Diane slipped quietly into my booth and cowered into the curve of the backrest. Her big, black sunglasses slid just a fraction of an inch down her nose, and she quickly adjusted them snug against her face. It was well past midnight, and the bar was far too dark for anyone to be wearing sunglasses, but I thought nothing of it.
We both said nothing as we stared at each other, and the space between us filled with the thundering of the 3:15 to Harlem and the flicker of the pendant light swaying overhead.
Finally, I spoke. “Are you still doing photography?”
She sucked her lip like she was debating something and pulled a large envelope from her coat. The envelope held a thick stack of glossy eight-by-tens that she fanned out on the table like tarot cards. I wanted to stop her, tell her that they never wiped these tables down, and God-knows-what was getting all over her prints. I wanted her to spin them around and show me what she had been working on, but Diane was looking deeply into each of the prints and began, in her small, pixie-like voice, to speak.
“A few months ago I decided to get back into magazine work for a little extra money. I love photographing my special people, but I have two daughters now. A husband, bills, rent . . . So I agreed to take a meeting at one of my old stomping grounds—Vogue—where they wanted to show me the new direction they were going in. ‘You’re going to love it, Diane,’ they told me. ‘We’re really going to surprise people with what we’ve been doing.’
“In the meeting, the photo director asked what I had been shooting with. ‘A Rolleiflex 35mm,’ I told her.
“ ‘Excellent,’ she said, and offered to treat me for a tune-up and lens cleaning with the best camera tech in the country. I told her that wouldn’t be necessary as I did all my own lens cleaning, but she insisted.
“ ‘Nonsense, you must make an appointment with Dr. Mobley. All our photographers are using him. The images have never been sharper, the depth of the work never more profound. Here, have a look.’
“The images she showed me were flawless in quality and engrossing in subject matter. I was enthralled with the people inside them. It was like looking into a dollhouse and having the doll look back out at you. I envied this photographer and asked whose work it was.
“ ‘Those are mine,’ said a tall, lanky man with bleached blond hair as he leaned in the doorway of the office. He wore white gloves over his hands and folded them protectively against his chest. ’And while I appreciate the compliment, I must give credit to Dr. Mobley. My touch has never been sharper.’
“I thanked the photo director for her time, acknowledged the blond man’s fine work once more, and took a card for Dr. Mobley, the Camera Doctor.
“Dr. Mobley’s studio was a brick one-story sandwiched in a block of new sky-rises. His logo, a yellowing illustration of a man in a tuxedo with a camera for a head, was taped to the door, and the windows were papered with ancient editions of the Times. I opened the door, and an overhead bell chimed my arrival. My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, and I was hit with the acrid, metallic smell of developer and fixer. And alcohol. I was certain that I smelled rubbing alcohol.
“Shapes emerged from the dark: camera bodies, film canisters, tripods, and flashbulbs stacked in neatly organized, towering piles like stalagmites. I wandered through the cavernous space, calling out for Dr. Mobley until finally, in the farthest back corner of the studio, I saw a teetering, spindly man staring into a magnifying glass beneath the glow of a surgical lamp. With surgical attention, he removed the delicate lens from a broken camera body, and I knew I would be in good hands.
“ ‘Hello,’ I called out. ‘My name is Diane, and I’ve been sent by Jennifer at Vogue for a tune-up.’
“At first he scowled, and I was afraid I had interrupted the wrong person. He hobbled toward me, his legs clicking mechanically with each step. Being no stranger to injury or maladies, I made sure to keep my eyes politely on his face.
“ ‘Let me see your work,’ he said.
“ ‘I’m just dropping off a camera for a tune-up,’ I reminded him, pulling my Rolleiflex strap over my head.
“ ‘Your work,’ he persisted. ‘I have to see how you work before I can touch anything.’
“It seemed practical: if he really was the best, perhaps he needed to adjust his workflow to my personal style. I thought it was a fine idea. I showed him the same portfolio I had brought to that morning’s meeting. He held each of the prints up the light.
“ ‘I need to keep some of these.’
“ ‘Keep?’ I said.
“ ‘Don’t you have negatives somewhere?’
“ ‘Well, yes, but—’
“ ‘Good, then you’ll print new copies if you need them. These are now mine.’ He took three of my prints—the dog-face man, the fat lady, and the Mexican dwarf—and slid them onto the glass of an illuminating box, like the kind you see in hospitals, then told me to return with my camera in a week and shooed me out the door.
“I returned very late the next Monday. It was cold and rainy, and a thick mist covered the moon. I knocked quickly on Dr. Mobley’s door before turning the knob to open it, but it was locked. I cursed to myself, angry for arriving so late that he’d closed before I could drop off my camera. Then the lock clicked from the inside, and the door swiftly opened, letting out a plume of warm air and lens cleaner.
“Standing in the doorframe was not Dr. Mobley but the blond photographer from Vogue. His hands were still gloved, and on his face were huge sunglasses, the kind a woman would wear. He thrust his head forward, just a bit, and somehow, perhaps from his mouth or a device in his pocket, he made a clicking sound. He straightened his neck to its normal position, bid me a cool hello, and then disappeared into the rainy street.
“ ‘Is that you, Diane?’ Dr. Mobley’s voice cawed from inside the studio. I looked after the other photographer, but he was already gone. ‘Don’t just stand there with the door open, you’re flooding the place! Come in or get out!’
“I stepped inside to the tinkling overhead bell and closed the door behind me. Dr. Mobley was checking his watch in the back.
“ ‘Give me your camera,’ he said, hungrily grabbing for the Rolleiflex around my neck. I unsheathed it and handed it over. He turned it in his hands several times and murmured under his breath.
“ ‘This is filthy. Don’t you ever clean it?’
“I told him of course I did, I simply worked outside in natural light most of the time. He grumbled about that and said it would cost extra to factor in such conditions. He instructed me to return in three days for the final installation, and I thanked him for his timeliness, as it would be very important for me to practice with the new settings before my Vogue assignment.
“I turned to leave but noticed a new collection of prints on display in his illumination box. In the center was an 8x10 photograph of me, looking dumbstruck, standing in the evening rain outside the studio. I stepped closer and squinted. The quality was exquisite, the signature graininess of the 35mm film detailed, complex, nuanced. The photograph caught not only the look of surprise on my face but something darker, too—something in my own eyes that I had never seen before, and it scared me. The image was so pure it could have been a window into another reality where a smaller Diane was looking into Mr. Mobley’s studio. I knew that only the blond, gloved man could have taken this photograph, but no matter how hard I tried I could not recall a camera around his neck.”
Diane glanced up from the table. “Did you ever feel that way? When I photographed you?”
“No,” I told her. “I always remembered that you had a camera.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean . . . did you ever feel that I had stolen something from you? Like I had snipped off a piece of you and trapped it inside the film?”
I supposed I had, and I supposed that was why I had gotten into the movie business in the first place. There wasn’t much work for people with dwarfism elsewhere. Looked over, passed aside, ignored, coddled, talked to like a baby when I was old enough to vote, and yet in front of the camera I was treated like someone special. I wore custom-made costumes, and my image was stamped onto dozens of frames of film per second. It was validating, evidence that I had mattered, even if just for a moment.
Diane didn’t wait for an answer, gazing again into the portraits splayed out before her. When she began to speak once more, I couldn’t tell if it was to the photographs or to me.
“Three days later, I went back for my camera, this time in the early morning when the door would be unlocked. I called out his name, announcing my arrival, but he did not answer. I decided to wait.
“A tall, two-legged tripod stood on Dr. Mobley’s desk, the head of the broken instrument reaching so high to the poorly lit ceiling that I could not see the top. Between its legs was a stack of photographs, scattered as though they had been dropped—images of fashion models and murder scenes, each one extraordinary, revealing, profound. And at the bottom of the stack was a collection of freaks. None of them was mine, I was certain of it, but they were like mine. Pinheads, tattooed ladies, sword-swallowers, limbless children. I had to have them. I had to study them, discover what it was that this photographer had seen that I was still struggling to grasp. I slipped the best four—these four—into my coat.”
She rearranged the prints on the table, obsessing over a perfect order she couldn’t quite realize.
“Two legs of the tripod shifted, and, fearing the device would fall on me, I jumped back from the desk. But the legs stabilized themselves and began to bend, descending from the ceiling until Dr. Mobley’s head and torso dipped into the light. Where his thighs should have connected to his torso, a crank handle jutted from either hip. Where he should have had knees, he had clamps. His feet were tiny platforms, scarcely larger than half dollars. He squatted expertly, insect-like, and lowered his face to be eye level with mine.
“ ‘You’re going to take those, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘You’re stealing those people.’
“I began to cry. It was the most terrifying moment of my life, and I wished I had my camera to capture it. This happened to me, I could later tell people. This horrific moment happened and I captured it.
“Dr. Mobley held something round and shiny in each of his hands—the twin lenses of my Rolleiflex. Seeing them outside the camera body, they were so fragile, so delicately veined with thin bands of metal, ribbed with the focusing rings, capped with perfect, flawless glass.
“ ‘If it’s images you want to steal,’ he said, ‘I will make you an expert thief.’ ”
Diane stopped talking and ran her small, thin fingers through her dark hair. She slipped the photographs back into the envelope and sat up straight in her seat. She looked over her shoulder, where the barmaid was wiping down the countertop and all the other patrons had long gone.
She looked into her lap, haunted by something she had not shared, and her glasses slid again down her nose. Where I’d expected to see her doe-brown eyes was now a pair of twin Rolleiflex lenses, the shutters of which opened and closed with the speed of a person blinking back tears. I almost heard it, too: the quick click of a photographer’s instinct that this was a moment worth preserving.
Diane adjusted the glasses on her face and tucked the envelope deep into her coat. She froze like that for a moment, a picture of pure vulnerability, and I was certain she had let her glasses slip on purpose.
“It was so good to see you,” she said, and she rested her hand on mine, briefly, before standing and pushing her way through the swinging doors, letting in a bit of the predawn air as she vanished into the cold.
The ice in my glass had long since melted so I sucked on the lemon wedge deteriorating at the bottom, waiting until I was sure enough time had passed that she would no longer be outside. Then I collected my jacket and went home.
As I walked, first light was stretching across Forty-Second Street, brightening up all the dark spaces with the pink yawn of morning. On the second story of a dilapidated brick walk-up, a small boy in pajamas popped out of an open window. He saw me and gasped. I waited for him to yell “Munchkin!” or “Freak!” but instead he held a comic book to his face, rolled up like a telescope, and watched quietly as I continued on alone.