Reading List June 2005

Strange Butterflies

Recent collections from the photographic fringe

Create and Be Recognized: Photography on the Edge, by John Turner and Deborah Klochko (2004). The title scrawled by the outsider artist Howard Finster (1916—2001) on one of his loopy, out-of-focus Polaroids—"Strange Butterfly (Black Cross)"—suggests the hallucinatory beauty displayed here. (Finster's surreal snap is of a moth, almost camouflaged on a tree trunk, its wings marked with a tiny, scary, upside-down crucifix.) The editors have assembled the work of seventeen "largely self-taught" photographers, from the schizophrenic Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930) to the Humbert Humbert—like Morton Bartlett (1909-1992), who obsessively photographed little plaster girl figurines, all homemade, in glamorous nymphet poses. Most disturbing, though, is a set of demented self-portraits, taken in a Greyhound-station photo booth, by Lee Godie (1908-1994), homeless Chicago madwoman, self-proclaimed "French Impressionist," and—alone in her curtained cubicle—hilarious, vamping imitator of spoiled society matrons.

Portraits, by Hellen van Meene (2004). How Vermeer might have photographed—after a tab of LSD. Van Meene takes delicate, sumptuously colored, mysteriously "posed" photos of Dutch, German, and Japanese girls on the cusp of puberty, some of whom are seen indoors (often with wet hair), while others stand outside, awkwardly, next to flat, unremarkable fields. Several wear camisoles or little undershirts and have the plump, babyish bodies of girls who will never quite fit in. All seem lost in thought. For the female viewer, a great wash of sadness.

The Devil's Playground, by Nan Goldin (2003). Go on, admit it: she's now the greatest living American photographer. No one else these days captures such intimacy, human warmth, and sheer Cibachrome loveliness in her pictures. The autobiographical photographs making up this enormous volume—from the 1980s and 1990s, showing Nan and friends kissing, smoking, dreaming, eating, having sex, lying on their beds—are impossible to stop looking at. Forget the "self-indulgent" tag: among contemporary light-box artists she is our supreme humanist, perhaps because she realizes—after all the partying and overdosing—that she's lucky to be alive.

At Ease: Navy Men of World War II, edited by Evan Bachner (2004). Turk, my late stepfather, a World War II veteran, thirty-year submariner, and raving closet case, would have reviled (yet secretly adored) this book. It's a gay dream come true: skivvy-clad young swabbies of impossible pulchritude draped on aircraft-carrier flight decks and gun turrets in every sunbathing posture known to man. These images of "ordinary" shipboard life were taken by Edward Steichen, Horace Bristol, Charles Fenno Jacobs, and other members of the wartime Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. As Bachner suggests in a knowing yet respectful introduction, the unguarded homoeroticism of the men in the photos is at once astonishing and oddly moving.

Terry Castle is a professor of English at Stanford University. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Boss Ladies, Watch Out!: Essays on Women, Sex, and Writing.
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