It's an odd, three-ring circus of a photography show that Tulane's Newcomb Gallery has given us this time around. Yet, it's also something of a feast for the eyes, especially if your tastes tend to the unusual, peculiar or perhaps downright strange. Two of these exhibits, the Arbus expo and Deborah Luster's series of prison portraits, seem to almost relish in the latter sensibility, while The Image Wrought is a scholarly yet engaging survey of alternative photographic processes, some dating from the earliest years of the medium, with an emphasis on how they can be applied to the pervasively digital world of photography today. In fact, Luster's Louisiana prison inmate portraits provide a fascinating exploration of antique tintype techniques. The siren song of the truly strange is always hard to resist, and the Arbus images exert their sideshow magnetism from the outset. Anyone who followed her freakish but finite (she killed herself at age 48) legacy will by now be familiar with her usual lineup of golden oldies, mostly dating from the '60s, and that is mostly what we see. But there is also a selection of subtler, lesser-known works from the '50s, and these may come as something of a revelation. Boy in a Man's Hat, NYC, 1956 is just that, a boy decked out in the sort of hat that businessmen wore in the '50s, along with a natty coat and tie. But the kid looks wizened, preternaturally adult, and there's this sort of blank faced girl in adult garb on the sidewalk behind him looking a tad too worldly wise, so you can't help wondering " is this really a midget, a pint-sized pimp who specializes in really little women? New York streets have always been conveyors for case-hardened hearts, and with Arbus, it's only natural to look for the twist, the knockout drops in your cranberry spritzer, only here it might really just be a kid after all, a chillingly slick and calculating munchkin. It's the ambiguity of such shots that makes them so disturbing.
The golden oldies are all you would expect, as evidenced by the titles: Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room, 1963, Young Man in Curlers at Home, 1966, Jewish Giant at the Home of His Parents in the Bronx, 1970, Husband and Wife at Nudist Camp, New Jersey, 1963. When we see children again, it's no longer ambiguous. Teenage Couple on Hudson St. , 1963, features flinty, hard-bitten kids like a Junior Achievement rendition of Scorsese's Mean Streets. The grit and graffiti on the wall behind them are real, but there's no subtlety. Like so much Arbus, it is real life as caricature, a bleakly engaging look at the people most New Yorkers tried hard not to see. The issue is whether Arbus truly saw them, or simply used them as a foil for her own sensational fantasies. On that, the jury is still out.
Deborah Luster's One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana employs archaic 19th century tintype processes in her extensive series of portraits of inmates in several state correctional facilities. There she was able to photograph them in a variety of poses and attire ranging from Carnival outfits at the women's prison at St. Gabriel to cowboy costumes from the famous annual rodeo at Angola State Penitentiary. The photos themselves are made by coating aluminum with photo emulsion. With a big-view camera and portable backdrop, she made thousands over the course of this project, which she began in 1998. Treated with a hardy finish that allows them to be handled, copies were given to the inmates, some of whom had not seen themselves in years except as blurs in the stainless steel panels prisons offer as mirrors. No less strange than the Arbus portraits, they are often subtly dreamier and, arguably, more empathetic.