18 March 2013

Enter the world of the surreal

Photographer Diane Arbus focused on traditionally marginal or disenfranchised populations--circus performers, nudists, the transgendered, the mentally retarded, dwarfs, giants--people whose everyday normality might be regarded by some as ugly or surreal. 

A print of Diane Arbus' Tattooed Man at a 
Carnival, Maryland 1970, sold for $50,400.
She always shot in black and white and generally composed her photos square in shape. She believed the camera could be "a little bit harsh, a little bit cold," but its scrutiny revealed facts: the difference between what people want others to see and what they really see. 

Consequently, her photos make excellent prompts for writing exercises. Techniques I've suggested in other blog posts about photos work here as well: Begin with what's in the photo itself, then write toward what's "beyond the frame." Plug her name into any search engine and come up with enough surreal photo prompts to keep you going for the rest of the year, or buy one of the books listed at the end of this post.

Writers at my March 9 group selected an Arbus photo to write about from a display on my kitchen table. The photo I chose is pictured here, and the poem I wrote that day appears below.

The resulting poem, story or essay should still "work" for the reader without the photo that inspired it. Does my poem pass that test? Here is a link to another poem I wrote based on two Arbus photos.

Tattooed Man

I carry with me this man
written on, drawn on
by all the world, whose
balding head sports
the smoking skull of shame
(you carry him too).

Eagles and bats, fists and stars,
tridents and roses, nets and thistles—
he gives his whole body over to
the needle and ink of

So many colors of pens, so
many designs signed by those
who haven’t understood us.
Sometimes this those is

His eyes lock onto the road ahead
and never blink. He takes on what
others throw and makes
a master work only he can see—
always changing,
always changed. 


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