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A Fresh Look at Diane Arbus

A new retrospective featuring an unprecedented number of the troubled photographer's images makes the case for her innovative artistry

“I think what she meant was not that it was evil, but that it was forbidden, that it had always been too dangerous, too frightening, or too ugly for anyone else to look on,” Doon wrote in a reminiscence published shortly after her mother’s death. “She was determined to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on.”

Fascinated by risk-taking, Diane had long embraced the New York City art world’s life-on-the-edge attitudes about money, social status and sexual freedom. Now she pursued the same kind of thrill in her photographs. “I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do—that was one of my favorite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse,” she later recalled. Model had often taken photographs of the seamier parts of the city, including Coney Island and Hubert’s Museum, a sideshow in Times Square. Arbus went even further, exploring wax museums, dance halls and flophouses. “My favorite thing,” Arbus is often quoted as saying, “is to go where I’ve never been.”

We get a glimpse of her omnivorous sensibility in the displays of personal materials in the exhibition. There are wellthumbed art books (on Delacroix, Picasso, Berenice Abbott, El Greco) and texts both weighty (philosophical essays by Schopenhauer) and hip (Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl) alongside lists of ideas for projects (“seance, gypsies, tattoo, opera opening backstage”), collections of newspaper clippings (“Woman Tortured by Agonizing ITCH”) and mementos of odd characters (the 942-pound “Human Blimp”). Arecreation of one of her bulletin boards combines her own photographs (of a three-eyed circus freak and his wife, of a pretty girl and her mother) with postcards, snapshots, tabloid photos (an unwrapped mummy, a snarling J. Edgar Hoover) and a panel torn from an “Orphan Annie” comic warning, “The best things carried to excess are wrong.”

In 1959 the Arbuses separated, and Diane moved into a small carriage house in Greenwich Village with their two daughters. Her new situation and her determination to be independent created pressure on her to bring in more income. Luckily, new opportunities were opening up. Some magazines were starting to publish a more personal, novelistic brand of journalism that needed a new, consciously artful kind of photography to complement it. In the fall of 1959, Diane obtained her first magazine assignment, a photo essay about New York City for Esquire that included portraits of a Skid Row eccentric, a sideshow performer known as the Jungle Creep, a young socialite and an anonymous corpse.

The pictures, however, did not have the distinctive sharp-focus look we generally associate with Arbus. In the 1950s and early ’60s, she was using a 35-millimeter camera and natural lighting, and her work from that period showed the influence of Model, Robert Frank and other practitioners of street photography. Like them, she favored blurred surfaces and grainy textures, a long way from the tidy look of mainstream commercial photographs.

Then, sometime around 1962 she switched to a 2 1/4 format camera, which allowed her to create sharper images with brilliant detail. Describing this shift years later, she recalled that she had grown tired of grainy textures and wanted “to see the difference between flesh and material, the densities of different kinds of things: air and water and shiny.” She added, “I began to get terribly hyped on clarity.”

Nor was this shift merely a matter of camera size or lighting choices (she later added a strobe flash). More and more, Arbus made her intense relationship with the people she photographed the subject of her work—her curiosity about the details of their lives, their willingness to share their secrets and the thrilling discomfort she felt during these encounters. “She could hypnotize people, I swear,” fellow photographer Joel Meyerowitz is quoted as saying in Patricia Bosworth’s 1984 unauthorized biography of Arbus. “She would start talking to them and they would be as fascinated with her as she was with them.” This sense of mutuality is one of the most striking and original things about Arbus’ photographs, giving them a lucidity and focus that are as much psychological as photographic.

A reader of Freud, Nietzsche and James Frazer’s treatise on religion and mythology, The Golden Bough, Arbus saw the circus performers, eccentrics, midgets and transvestites she photographed both as fascinating real-life personages and as mythic figures. Through them she found her way to still more people and places, far from her own background. “I have learned to get past the door, from the outside to the inside,” she wrote in a 1965 fellowship application. “One milieu leads to another. I want to be able to follow.”

Her intelligence and elfin beauty proved valuable assets. And her excited appreciation of whoever struck her as extraordinary allowed her to gain entree to a female impersonator’s boudoir, a dwarf ’s hotel room and countless other places that would have been closed to a less persistent, less appealing photographer. Once she obtained permission to take pictures, she might spend hours, even days shooting her subjects again and again and again.

Her subjects often became collaborators in the process of creation, sometimes over many years. For example, the Mexican dwarf she photographed in a hotel room in 1960 was still appearing in her photographs ten years later. And she first photographed Eddie Carmel, whom she called the Jewish giant, with his parents in 1960, ten years before she at last captured the portrait she had been seeking.

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