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

Diane Arbus
Jessica Epstein via Flickr

Diane Arbus’ work was included in only a handful of museum exhibitions before she died, by her own hand, at the age of 48 in 1971. Nevertheless, she had already gained renown with a series of unforgettable images—a “Jewish giant” looming over his bespectacled parents, an elderly couple sitting naked in a nudist-camp cabin, a grimacing boy clutching a toy hand grenade—that seem to reflect our deepest fears and most private wishes.

The first major retrospective of Arbus’ work was held in 1972, a year after her death, at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, where she lived for most of her life. The show drew huge crowds and praise for the humanity and formal beauty of her work. But some found her images disturbing, even repellent: critic Susan Sontag, for example, called her portraits of “assorted monsters and border-line cases. . . . anti-humanist.” Arbus’ work, Sontag wrote, “shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.”

Today Arbus, who once said her pictures sought to capture “the space between who someone is and who they think they are,” has become one of America’s best-known photographers and one of its most controversial. But her achievements as an artist have been somewhat overshadowed by her suicide and by the disturbing strangeness that wells up out of her pictures. Famous as a “photographer of freaks,” she has been regarded as something of a freak herself.

Now a new generation of viewers and critics is debating the meaning and significance of Arbus’ compelling, unsettling images, thanks to “Diane Arbus Revelations,” an exhibition of nearly 200 of her pictures on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through May 31. The first Arbus retrospective since the 1972 MOMAshow, “Revelations” places her at the center of 20th-century American photography.

“To cast Arbus in the role of a tragic figure who identified with freaks is to trivialize her accomplishment,” says Sandra S. Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where the show originated. “She was a great humanist photographer who was at the forefront of what has become recognized as a new kind of photographic art.”

The exhibition has already elicited strong critical reactions. San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker praised Arbus’ work for its intelligence and compassion, and Arthur Lubow, writing in the New York Times Magazine, called her “one of the most powerful American artists of the 20th century.” But others have dismissed her as guilt-ridden and morbid. “Arbus is one of those devious bohemians,” wrote The New Republic’s Jed Perl, “who celebrate other people’s eccentricities and are all the while aggrandizing their own narcissistically pessimistic view of the world.”

Opinions will likely become even more deeply split as the show moves around the country—next to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (June 27-August 29) and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (March 1-May 29, 2005). Additional venues include the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, the Victoria and AlbertMuseum in London and the WalkerArtCenter in Minneapolis.

Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan’s associate curator of photography, believes that Arbus’ pictures remain provocative because they raise disturbing questions about the relationship between photographer, subject and audience. “Her work implicates you and the ethics of vision itself,” he says. “Our license to have that experience of viewing another person is changed and challenged, supported and enriched. I firmly believe this might be the most important single-artist photography exhibition our museum will ever do.”

Until recently, mystery surrounded many of the details of Arbus’ life and work. For decades, her estate refused to cooperate with any effort to write an Arbus biography and allowed the public to see only a tiny portion of her work. All this has changed with the new exhibition, which was developed with the cooperation of the estate and its administrator, Doon Arbus, the older of Arbus’ two daughters. The show includes not only Arbus’ most famous pictures but also early photographs and mature work never exhibited before. In addition, displays of her books, cameras, letters and working notebooks convey a powerful sense of the photographer’s personality—whimsical, brainy and endlessly curious.

“This is a new view of Arbus, through her own words,” says independent curator Elisabeth Sussman, who organized the retrospective with SFMOMA’s Phillips. “She was extremely smart and witty and incredibly perceptive, and the photographs are just a part of that.”

The exhibition catalog, Diane Arbus Revelations (Random House), offers not only the most complete selection of Arbus images ever put between covers but also a fascinating 104- page illustrated chronology of Arbus’ life, studded with excerpts from her letters and other writings. The chronology, put together by Sussman and Doon Arbus, is effectively the first authorized biography of the photographer and the first to be able to draw on her papers.

Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923. Her mother, Gertrude, chose her daughter’s name, pronouncing it “Dee- Ann.” Talent was abundant in the Nemerov family, a wealthy New York clan that ran Russek’s, a fashionable Fifth Avenue department store. Diane’s older brother was Howard Nemerov, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was named U.S. poet laureate in 1988. Her younger sister, Renée Sparkia, became a sculptor and designer. After retiring from Russek’s, their father, David Nemerov, launched a second, successful career as a painter.

Diane’s artistic and literary gifts were apparent early on. Her father encouraged her to become a painter, and she studied art in high school. At the age of 14 she fell in love with Allan Arbus, the 19-year-old nephew of one of her father’s business partners. Her parents disapproved of her infatuation, but the romance flourished in secret. Soon Diane lost interest in painting and in going to college, saying her only ambition was to become Allan’s wife. “I hated painting and I quit right after high school because I was continually told how terrific I was,” she said many years later. “I had the sense that if I was so terrific at it, it wasn’t worth doing.”

Diane and Allan were married as soon as she turned 18, in 1941, with the grudging acceptance of her family. The couple pursued a shared interest in photography, turning the bathroom of their Manhattan apartment into a part-time darkroom. David Nemerov gave them work shooting fashion photographs for Russek’s advertisements.

During World War II, Allan served as a military photographer. One of the earliest photographs in the “Revelations” show is a 1945 self-portrait Diane made for Allan while he was in the Army. Though pregnant with Doon, who would be born later that year, in the picture she is still slender, and very beautiful, with dark eyes and a wistful, otherworldly air.

After the war, the Arbuses’ career as commercial photographers took off, and soon they were working for top women’s magazines and advertising agencies. Usually Allan shot the pictures while Diane came up with clever ideas and props. Diane also took care of Doon and their second daughter, Amy, born in 1954. (Doon, now 59, became a writer, worked on several magazine projects with her mother and later published two books with photographer Richard Avedon. Amy followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a photographer.)

A photograph that Allan and Diane made for Vogue magazine of a father and son reading a newspaper was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s popular “The Family of Man” show in 1955. But both of them felt frustrated by the limitations and stresses of fashion work. Diane wanted to be an artist, not just a stylist, while Allan dreamed of becoming an actor. Their growing discontent put strain on their marriage. So did the depressive episodes that Diane suffered, similar to the despair that had periodically paralyzed her mother. In 1956 Diane quit the couple’s business in order to make photographs on her own. Allan continued to work under the name Diane & Allan Arbus, while taking acting classes and beginning a career in the theater.

Although magazines such as Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post had created a booming market for photography, there was little interest in pictures whose sole purpose was to be a work of art, rather than to document social realities or sell products. Nevertheless, Robert Frank, William Klein and other refugees from the fashion world were pursuing their own vision of what photography could be, and a favorite approach was street photography, which discovered unexpected beauty and meaning in everyday people and places.

Several of Diane Arbus’ early photographs in the current exhibition show her trying out her own version of street photography. But she had not yet found her subject. A turning point came when she took a class with the Viennese-born photographer Lisette Model at New York City’s NewSchool.

“She came to me and said, ‘I can’t photograph,’ ” Model later told Doon Arbus. “And I said, ‘Why not?’ And she said, ‘Because what I want to photograph, I can’t photograph.’ ” Model told Diane to go home and figure out what it was she really wanted to take pictures of. “And the next session she came to me and she said, ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ And that was it,” Model said.

“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.

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.

The show also asks whether the disquieting intimacy that is still sometimes viewed as a weakness isn’t instead a source of artistic power in Arbus’ pictures. In her catalog essay, Phillips notes the high value the art world of the 1960s put on work that was “assertive, even arrogant, and suspicious of content,” especially content that smacked of emotion or storytelling. By that standard, Arbus’ work could be easily dismissed as too personal, too neurotic. In the 21st century, however, with personal identity and narrative central issues for artists, Arbus has emerged as a daring innovator.

“I have never been moved by any other artist as I have been by Arbus,” says the MetropolitanMuseum’s Rosenheim. “Her pictures have this power that is the exact correlation of the intimate relation she must have had with her subjects. They forever affect the way you look at the world.” Whether Arbus is photographing a tattooed man, a drag queen or a wailing baby, the more we look at her pictures, the more we feel they are looking back at us.

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