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

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When Arbus went to San Francisco in 1967, photographer Edmund Shea introduced her to some “hippie chicks” who were working as topless dancers. He was not surprised that Arbus was able to convince them to pose for her. “Some people like to think of her as cynical. That’s a total misconception,” he says. “She was very emotionally open. She was very intense and direct, and people related to that.” Arbus herself had mixed feelings about her ability to draw out her subjects. “Kind of two-faced” is how she once described herself: “I hear myself saying, ‘How terrific.’ . . . I don’t mean I wish I looked like that. I don’t mean I wish my children looked like that. I don’t mean in my private life I want to kiss you. But I mean that’s amazingly, undeniably something.”

For several years Arbus’ distinctive photographs proved popular with magazine editors. Following that first Esquire photo essay, she published more than 250 pictures in Harper’s Bazaar, the Sunday Times Magazine of London and more than a dozen other magazines, and generated hundreds of additional pictures that were assigned but went unpublished. She also did a small number of private commissions, one of which forms the basis of a smaller Arbus exhibition that is also traveling the country this year and next. Titled “Diane Arbus: Family Albums,” the show originated at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in Massachusetts and presents some of Arbus’ magazine portraits of celebrities along with the complete contact sheets from a newly discovered photo session with a Manhattan family. The show’s run includes stops in Maine, Oregon and Kansas.

Although Arbus regarded much of her photography-forhire as mere pay-the-bills work, she often convinced magazine editors to help fund and obtain access for her artistic projects. Some of her most personal, best-known photographs— the 1970 portrait of the king and queen of a senior citizen’s dance, for example—first appeared in large-circulation magazines. At the same time, the fine-art world began to recognize that Arbus’ pictures were more than clever magazine journalism. In 1967, 32 of her photographs were chosen by MOMA for its “New Documents” exhibition. The show also included work by two other important young photographers, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, but Arbus drew most of the attention. New York magazine called her work “brutal, daring and revealing” and Newsweek credited her with “the sharp crystal-clear generous vision of a poet.” But New York Times critic Jacob Deschin wrote that her work “sometimes . . . borders close to poor taste,” and other viewers found her pictures infuriating.

“I remember going to ‘New Documents’ when I was in college and seeing a man spit at her work,” says SFMOMA’s Phillips. “People hadn’t seen an unambiguous picture of a man in curlers with long fingernails smoking a cigarette, and at the time it seemed confrontational. Now, at this distance in time, it seems elegiac and empathetic rather than threatening.” Arbus found the attention hard to cope with. “The show was splendid but too many calls and letters and people thinking I am an expert or incredibly lovable,” she wrote to a friend. “I need to be forlorn and anonymous in order to be truly happy.” She told an interviewer from Newsweek, “I always thought I’d wait until I’m ninety to have a show . . . I wanted to wait until I had it all done.”

Perversely, her growing fame coincided with a drop in assignments, in part because of changing fashion, in part because celebrities may have been wary about being photographed by a woman who was becoming renowned (in the words of one reviewer) as “the wizard of odds.” To complicate matters further, Allan, to whom she remained close, moved to California in 1969 to pursue a full-time acting career. He eventually landed work in dozens of movies and, beginning in 1973, a long-running role on the popular TV series “M*A*S*H” as psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman.

In hopes of bringing in some income, Diane launched plans to sell a limited edition of ten of her photographs, encased in a clear plastic box that would double as a frame, for $1,000 per set. The project, however, was ahead of its time, and only four sets sold during her lifetime: one to artist Jasper Johns, the other three to close friends. “She was trying to package photography as an art form before it was really accepted as such,” says Phillips. Recently, one of the sets commanded $380,000 at auction.

But if money eluded her, recognition did not. Museums included her work in shows and publishers petitioned, in vain, to come out with a book of her images. In 1971 she was chosen to represent the United States at the 1972 Venice Biennale— the first American photographer ever to be so honored at this prestigious art event. But she appears to have regarded such evidence of success as a distraction from her desire to keep adding to her photographic catalog—she called it her butterfly collection—of odd and intriguing people. A1971 fellowship proposal (which was not accepted) described a desire to photograph “The Difference. Those of birth, accident, choice, belief, predilection, inertia.” The challenge, she wrote, was “not to ignore them, not to lump them all together, but to watch them, to take notice, to pay attention.”

One project that particularly engaged her was a series of photographs begun in 1969 of residents at state institutions for the severely retarded. Seeking a new look, she struggled to use natural light, in combination with strobe flash or by itself, “trying to make my sharp pictures blurred but not too much so,” she wrote to her ex-husband that August. By the end of the year she was getting results that excited her. “I took the most terrific pictures,” she reported in another letter to Allan, calling them “lyric and tender and pretty.” These images marked a new direction, with their soft lighting and more casual composition—“like snapshots but better,” Diane wrote. Never shown during her lifetime, they stand out as among her most moving, most powerful photographs. But neither the recognition she was getting nor the work itself could forestall the periods of depression, likely exacerbated by several bouts with hepatitis, that plagued her. In 1968 she described her dark moods to a friend as “chemical, I’m convinced. Energy, some special kind of energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street.” In the summer of 1971 she was again overwhelmed by “the blues.” This time they proved fatal. On July 26, she took a large quantity of barbiturates and slit her wrists. A friend discovered her body in the bathtub of her WestVillage apartment two days later.

Arbus’ death and the 1972 show that followed it made her famous in a way she had never been while she was alive. But some critics found in her suicide evidence that her pictures reflected pathology more than art. Indeed, the drama of her life has sometimes threatened to eclipse the reputation of her work. Yet however much her art and life may have become conflated, the impact of Arbus’ photographs and their ability to meld the mythic with the intensely personal is stronger than ever.

By giving the public a chance to encounter an unprecedented number of her pictures, the “Revelations” exhibition demonstrates that she was an artist of the first rank and a pioneer in breaking down the walls separating photography from painting and the rest of the so-called fine arts.


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