Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Freak Show

An entertaining new account about the discovery of a photographic archives is provided by Gregory Gibson, a rare book dealer, in his Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, The Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 2008). Hubert’s Museum, the scene of the discovery of the Arbus materials, opened in New York City in 1926, featured a flea circus and the staging of an odd assortment of performers, and existed for half a century. Gibson, in his popular and loosely written account, describes how and why Arbus photographed at this popular sideshow museum (starting in 1956), kept her records about her activities, and how the materials were eventually acquired by a used-book dealer (Bob Langmuir) and then a public museum.

Arbus, despite her short life and offbeat career, was a careful documenter of her work, keeping notes on her photos in “appointment books and notebooks in which she recorded meetings, events, ideas for projects, quotations from books that appealed to her, snatches of conversations, and lists of ideas to investigate” (p. 20). There is a lot of insider information about how the used book trade and auction houses work, and interesting commentary about how collectible photograph prices for someone like Arbus have remarkably increased. In her lifetime, Arbus photographs fetched about $150 each to up to half a million thirty years after her death.

This is an entertaining read with some useful insights for those interested in archival collecting.