"Bob Langmuir is an obsessive dealer with an uncanny eye for treasure who makes the discovery of a lifetime when he chances upon a trove of never-before-seen prints by the legendary Diane Arbus." "From the moment he spies some intriguing photographs in a trunk he buys from a guy who claims to be a member of the Nigerian royal family, a trunk that holds the archive of a midcentury Times Square freak show called Hubert's that Arbus frequented, he knows he's on to something. Furthermore, he begins to suspect that what he's found may add a pivotal chapter to what is now known about Arbus as well as about the "old weird America, " in Greil Marcus's phrase, that Hubert's inhabited." "Bob's ensuing adventure - filled with bizarre coincidences - turns into a roller-coaster ride that takes him from the fringes of the memorabilia business to Sotheby's, and from the exhibits of a run-down Times Square freak show to the curator's office of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Will the photos be authenticated? How will the Arbus estate react? Most important, can Bob, who has seen more than a few promising deals head south, finally make his one big score?"--BOOK JACKET.
And in the end I'm glad I kept going, because Gibson's obvious affection for his protagonist really carried the day. Basically, I wanted to find out what happened to him. Ultimately, I wouldn't NOT recommend the book, but I would make sure to add the caveat that the writing's on the slack side.
The insight into the archivist's/collector's POV kept me going as well, both because I write about archives and have a would-be hoarder's fascination with the pathology of collecting. It actually hijacked the narrative sometimes, but again—once I let go of my expectation that it tell a cohesive story, I kind of enjoyed those asides.
Gibson has a fascinating story to tell, with Langmuir at the center. Gibson seems to have given us a full portrait of Langmuir, whom he has an obvious sympathy for. The strict control of the Arbus name and body of work by the estate is probed along with the behind the scenes jockeying by the Institutions of the Fine Arts world. Arbus herself is given short shrift, so if you’re looking to discover more about her personally, you’ll need to look elsewhere - that’s not the intent of this book. The subculture of freak shows and urban carney museum’s is opened up, but just enough to whet your appetite. Mostly it’s about Bob and the process of his discovery and the travails of his personal and professional life subsequent to his find.
Two thoughts occur to me: One, that the lost world of freak shows and dime museums is not gone at all but has somehow morphed into reality tv and American Idol. The freaks of yore are more like us now. Which leads me to the other thought that occurred to me while looking at all of the Arbus photos I could find online. She took photo’s of giants and dwarfs and tattooed men and sword-swallowers, sure, But she also took photos of ‘everyday people’. The more you look at her photography, the more you realize that the portraits she made of “normal” people are in many ways more disturbing than the ones she did of the so-called freaks.
That having been said, this is a whale of a yarn. In true page-turner style "Hubert's Freaks" intertwines the disparate worlds of Times Square's seedy culture of the 1950s and 60s, the sub-culture world of sideshows and freak shows, the black American world of inner city poverty, the hip musical world of blues and jazz, the decidedly weird world of famed photographer Diane Arbus and the images that she produced in her short lifetime, the rarified world of major art museums and auction houses, and the often mysterious workings of the world of the rare-book seller. All in 263 pages. And to add a further timely dimension to this saga, the upcoming event that is talked about on the final page of the book was the subject of controversial headlines in the New York Times just two weeks ago.
Without giving away too much of the story, let me just say that it concerns the unexpected finding of a trove of photographs taken by Arbus at a formative point in her career and the scholarly detective work involved in tracing this photographic archive, the world that it depicted and the lives that it touched. Greg Gibson's writing is right on target, knowingly describing the subjects at hand and giving us an entertaining and informative read. A tale not to be missed.
This is the scenario of Hubert's Freaks, by Gregory Gibson.
While soul-searching his way through life, Robert Langmuir has always found himself with a love for African-Americana. In his continuing struggle to keep his used bookstore afloat, he traveled the east coast in search of both books for his shop and collectibles for his soul. Fate was on his side when he stumbled upon an auction of an abandoned storage unit. Among the many unusual circus style artifacts that were being snapped up by dealers was a trunk full of photos, notes and diaries. Seeing these photos, it became obvious that this storage unit belonged to an African-American performer. Time for Robert to feed his soul. He was able to acquire about half of these paper goods.
After getting his stock home he started looking through the details of what he had just acquired. Among these items was a date book. This date book represents a turning point in the life of Langmuir. An entry reading, "Diane Arbus, 131 1/2 Charles St, WA-4-4608., morns 8-10 eves 6-8". Even more incredibly, the handwriting differed from other writing on the page. It appeared (especially in the writing of the name itself) to be written in the hand of Diane Arbus! What did this mean to the photographs? Could they, too, be from the same hand? It became Robert Langmuirs "calling" to find out.
What follows is years of legal wranglings, attempts to authenticate the photos and a goal of selling the works for a deserved price.
This is a book about Robert Langmuir, his professional, personal and spiritual trails.
This is not a book about "Hubert's Freaks". For me, there is precious little information pertaining to this small, African American run, dime museum. The author touches on the fact that he took part in an interview with a relative of the show's proprietors, Charlie and Virginia Lucas, however, after the initial haggling as to the parameters of the interview, there are no details as to what was said. Considering Gibson does recognize the importance of this lost part of Americana, I found this disappointing.
As for the Arbus photos, are they in this book? I couldn't say. Looking at the photos that are here, and judging by the descriptions in the book and my own passing familiarity with the work of Diane Arbus, I'm inclined to say, "no". I found this a bit disconcerting. As I also found the placement of the photos that do appear throughout this work. The pictures that are present show up on pages long before or after the mention of their subjects. For me, as much as I'm not a fan of pictures being bunched up together in the center of a book, it would have made referencing them much easier. As it is, looking at the pictures in their correct context requires long gaps in reading to find the photo, or, as I eventually did, giving up on looking at them in context at all.