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Originally published Friday, June 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Hubert's Freaks": Rare photos lead art dealer on freaky ride of 1950s N.Y.

Gregory Gibson's book, "Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus": if provocative elements of the title don't pull you in, then Gibson's fascinating, suspenseful weaving of them will.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus"

by Gregory Gibson

Harcourt, 274 pp., $26.95

Born into a nouveau riche New York family in 1923, photographer Diane Arbus was convinced that the niceties of her existence insulated her from real life and was determined to change her legacy. "I was born way up the ladder of middle-class respectability," she once said in an interview, "and I've been clambering down as fast as I could ever since."

While Arbus was rejecting bourgeois values, 1950s Times Square was sliding into a seedy area of 24-hour "grind houses," trinket shops and porn theaters. It was fertile ground for Arbus, who haunted the theaters and freak shows, befriending the offbeat characters who would become some of her most famous subjects in photographs that were revered by galleries and collectors and today command record-breaking prices.

These elements of low kitsch and high art connect in a fascinating arc in Gregory Gibson's book, "Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus." If the provocative elements of the title don't pull you in, then Gibson's fascinating, suspenseful weaving of them will.

As Gibson tells the story, antiquarian book dealer Bob Langmuir's greatest acquisition plunged him into a labyrinth snaking from Hubert's Museum, a campy Times Square freak show, to the chic world of Chelsea galleries and auction houses. Along the way, the reader takes coherent detours into the obsessive, territorial psychology of collectors; the historical subculture of blacks in freak shows; the "mind cave" of Arbus; and the fierce politics of the art world.

Hubert's Dime Museum and Flea Circus was a 42nd Street institution where Richard Charles Lucas, a black pitchman, and his wife, Woogie, performed as Princess Sahloo and Wago in their African "Dance of Love," and presided over a cast of characters including resident "savage" Congo the Jungle Creep; a Russian midget with the stage name Andy Potato Chips; and Eddie Carmel, the Jewish Giant.

The lurid charm of the place attracted the curious and the curiosity of slumming intellectuals such as Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Tom Wolfe. As a connoisseur of Manhattan's offbeat places, Arbus followed.

For photographer Arbus, Hubert's performers became subjects and contacts who introduced her into the deeper subculture of freaks who would become the focus of some of her most emotionally charged but empathetic portraits. She befriended the performers, especially Lucas and his wife.

Langmuir fell into what Gibson calls "the mother of all rabbit holes" when, pursuing his specialty in black Americana, he purchased from a Brooklyn collector a trunk containing personal diaries, promotional ephemera and a mysterious collection of photographs once belonging to Charlie Lucas, who reigned as master of ceremonies at Hubert's until its demise in the early 1960s. Langmuir's initial interest in the African-Americana value of the collection took a drastic turn with his discovery, in Lucas' 1964 date book, of an entry reading, "Diane Arbus, 131 ½ Charles St. WA4 — 4608," written in what turned out to be Arbus' own hand. This, along with the striking signature starkness of the photographs, led him to suspect that they might be undiscovered work of the legendary photographer.

After the suicide of Arbus in 1971, the management of her estate went to her daughter, Doon Arbus, who along with noted colleagues like Richard Avedon protected her mother's legacy with fierce devotion and control unequaled in the photography world. Before any work could be sold as a vintage Arbus print, Doon would match it to its original negative, authenticate and sign the print.

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Convinced of his own "psychic connections" with Lucas and Arbus, as well as the artistic and historical value of his find, Langmuir began a cross-country quest to buy remaining pieces of Hubert's archive, deal with the uncooperative Arbus estate and wrestle with art-world politics deciding the fate of both the authenticated Arbus prints and the freak-show archive as a whole.

In early April, a scheduled auction of the Arbus prints and Hubert's archive by Phillips de Pury & Co. was canceled due to a lawsuit by collector Bayo Ogunsanya, who claimed he was misled about the value of the photographs when Langmuir originally purchased them from him for $3,500 in 2003. This development transpired just after the book's publication, but Gibson's conclusion isn't altered by the unexpected events.

"This may sound mystical, but it's simply part of an age-old transaction in which scholarly treasure hunters like Bob return to us the valuable things we've inadvertently discarded," Gibson writes. "Diane Arbus speaks of the process thus:

" 'These are our symptoms and our monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.' "

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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