Book Review: Mapplethorpe’s Flowers, Hubert’s Freaks

“A movie is not about what it is about.  It is about how it is about what it is about.”

I apologize for not giving a proper citation for the source of my opening “quote.” The best I can do is say that lots and lots of people attribute it to Roger Ebert, including the Starbuck’s cup where I first saw it.  It’s certainly a maxim to live by, since it applies to just about any work of art you can come up with.  As a work of art, a photograph is not about what’s in the picture. It’s about how the photographer sees what he’s giving us and how he wants to help us see it. This review is about two photography books—one book of photos, the other book about some photos.

My first target, Mapplethorpe: the Complete Flowers, is a big book of big photographs, all of them of flowers. It’s what we might unfortunately call a coffee table book; but this collection of pictures should not get absorbed into the living room furniture, and you don’t want to spill your coffee on it, either.

You may remember Robert Mapplethorpe as one of the people at the center of the debate over censorship and public funding for the arts back in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.  This notoriety, launched when Senator Jesse Helms circulated photocopies of a Mapplethorpe photo among fellow legislators, is really unfortunate, not least for the way it sometimes overshadows his greatness as a photographer; also, Mapplethorpe had passed away by that time. 

Now, it may be that any book of Mapplethorpe’s photographs can illustrate his greatness, but when was the last time you looked at a picture of a tulip and said “Man! What a fantastic picture!”? His photos of tulips are like no tulips I’ve ever seen.  His pictures of daisies make me want to go out and find of my own daisies and take pictures of them. And don’t even get me started on his roses and orchids. Some of the reproductions are in color—when the photos themselves were in color—but yes, some are in black and white; that’s because the pictures themselves are in black and white, and I have to say that the flowers don’t suffer at all because of it.  In fact, these photos illustrate that a still life can be really energetic, even if the flowers are technically…well, dead.

Gregory Gibson’s Hubert’s Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus does something similar: it takes a classic suspense strategy and applies it to what seems an unlikely (read: dull) subject.  The strategy is the suspense triangle, which goes like this: you introduce one set of characters and then another seemingly unrelated set.  You pursue the first for a while, then you pursue the second set, then you go back to the first, then back to the second.  Along the way, you drop hints that the two groups are due for an important collision.  The payoff arrives when you get the two sets finally interacting with each other, essentially exploding the bomb that has been ticking away through the story.

The unlikely subject?  Well, maybe it’s not that unlikely after all.  We know from The DaVinci Code the kind of suspense you can generate with rare books and documents.  We know from Smiley’s People the kind of tension that can be bound up in a photograph.  We know from The Red Violin that auctions are often peopled with characters much scarier than the auction itself.  And we now know from Hubert’s Freaks that the personal life of Bob, the former small-time rare book dealer from Philadelphia, could be either really interesting or really dull, depending on how you write about it.  It helps, of course, that this world is peopled with characters named Okie, Doon, Boneyard and Woogie.

It also helps that Gibson knows how to present his material.  He’s written about mutiny on a whaling ship and his own son’s murder, and here he applies his conversational style to a variety of subcultures: the early 20th century American sideshow (including Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, Jack Dracula and Andy Potato Chips), flea markets (different fleas, here), dealers in Americana, both amateur and professional (including a fellow who may or may not be descended from Nigerian Royalty), and that super-subculture, the art world.  He also offers observations on the psychology of collecting and hoarding that hit uncomfortably close to home.

In the wrong hands, this material could easily dry up and blow away. Gibson handles things with an attention to pacing that knows when to pour it on and when to let up, and always with an affection for his characters that…. Listen to me.  I’m treating this like it’s a work of fiction.  Nonfiction isn’t supposed to be this much fun.


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