Until I read Steve Martin's enjoyable new memoir, "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life," I never would have connected him with Diane Arbus. He's funny and somewhat dark, but always struck me as fairly straight. She, on the other hand, photographed extreme subject matter that made people turn away in discomfort. Circus freaks, transvestites and those on the fringe of society were her thing. She killed herself at the age of 48 by slashing her wrists.
Martin, besides being a comedian, actor, and writer, is also a prominent art collector. He's a LACMA trustee, and in 2005 pledged $1 million over five years for the Huntington Library museum's American art collection. His own purchases have shown an eclectic taste, including Georgia O'Keefe, Willem de Kooning and David Hockney. In the book, Martin reveals a very personal connection to a certain Arbus photograph.
In this passage, he has graduated from high school in Orange County and secured a job as an entertainer at Knott's Berry Farm. It's his last day as an employee of Disneyland, where he began working the summer he turned ten — in 1955, the park's first year.
My final day at the magic shop, I stood behind the counter where I had pitched Svengali decks and the Incredible Shrinking Die, and I felt an emotional contradiction: nostalgia for the present. Somehow, even though I had stopped working only minutes earlier, my future fondness for the store was clear, and I experienced a sadness like that of looking at a photo of an old, favorite pooch. It was dusk by the time I left the shop, and I was redirected by a security guard who explained that a photographer was taking a picture and would I please use the side exit. I did, and saw a small, thin woman with hacked brown hair aim her large-format camera directly at the dramatically lit castle, where white swans floated in the moat underneath the functioning drawbridge. Almost forty years later, when I was in my early fifties, I purchased that photo as a collectible, and it still hangs in my house. The photographer, it turned out, was Diane Arbus. I try to square the photo's breathtaking romantic image with the rest of her extreme subject matter, and I assume she saw this facsimile of a castle as though it were a kitsch roadside statue of Paul Bunyan. Or perhaps she saw it as I did: beautiful.
Another Arbus print of "A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962," sold at public auction in 2003 for $95,600. A Los Angeles gallery owner told me such a print might command more than $200,000 if offered for sale today. It's one of her better known images and appears in "Looking at Los Angeles," the 2005 book edited by Marla Hamburg Kennedy and Ben Stiller.