My friendship with Diane Keaton began about twenty-eight years ago, when I found her, one morning, sitting in the flower bed outside the Madison Hotel, in Washington, D.C. She was rummaging in a bag big enough to hold a caribou, which contained a camera heavy enough to stun the caribou with, should that be necessary.
Diane was sad, her sparkle subdued. That being the case I took her at once to a somewhat grotty antique mall in Alexandria, Virginia, and plunged her right into what the anthropologist Mary Douglas calls the world of goods.
This tactic worked. In minutes she had switched her brights back on. She bought a couple of items whose elusive beauty eluded everyone but herself. On the way back to Washington she told me she hoped to be complicated, someday. Someday? I was reminded of those credit cards which come preapproved. I was pretty sure that Diane Keaton was preapproved for complicated, and still is. On a too-brief visit last weekend I had, for a glimmering moment, a sense that I was about to grasp what she was up to. But when she left, she took the glimmer with her, leaving me no closer to comprehending her agenda than I have been for the past twenty-eight years.
She constantly denies to me that she’s a woman of words—written words, she means. But frequently the very originality of her enthusiasms—especially for photography and architecture—means that she often is the only one who can, with sufficient passion, back her bets on different American photographers; and the smarts with which she backs them will likely surprise the vast audience who still sees her as the sweetie of Annie Hall, the role for which she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1977.
Over the years, sometimes with the help of the New York writer-curator Marvin Heiferman, Diane has sniffed out collections or archives of photographs that she feels are unjustly overlooked, neglected, or lost—like, very often, the tarnished human beings who appear in them. Once convinced, she mothers these archives and attempts to arrange for their exhibition and safekeeping and, so far, publication in five books to which she’s written prefaces. They include pictures of actors doing publicity stills in the Technicolor era (Still Life, 1983), clown paintings (Clown Paintings, 2002), salesmen in training (Mr. Salesman, 1993), tabloid photographs from the long-defunct Los Angeles Herald Express (Local News, 1999), and citizens of Fort Worth, Texas, as captured over a quarter of a century by the commercial photographer Bill Wood (to be published in the forthcoming Bill Wood’s Business). All these groups are, in the eyes of Keaton and Heiferman, about to be sucked forever into the labyrinth of oblivion, to take their places among the billions of the forgotten.
I’m going to let Diane have her say about these books, the crucial one being—if I understand her at all—Clown Paintings. Merry as Diane often is, sorrow is her basic subject, and I think she suspects that the sorrow…
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