Carnal Empathy: the photography of Diane Arbus

For Issue 5 of Photoworks Magazine, Ian Jeffrey reviewed the Diane Arbus Show Revelations at the Victoria & Albert museum, London.

It is surely only a question of time before the Diane Arbus story becomes an opera. She was, from most of the evidence, beautiful. She came from a privileged background and for a long time knew nothing of the world. She married young and had a family, which took up most of her time. She was a devoted mother, but was also attracted to the Bohemian sub-cultures of the big city – New York, which she never like to leave. She drifted into photography, which, in the 1950’s, was very much a man’s world: Louis Faurer, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winogrand, all patrons of The Limelight café where ‘She’d never say a word – she’d just listen and then suddenly you’d look up and she’d be gone.’ Eventually she found a mentor: Lisette Model, a survivor from pre-war Europe, and even then something of a legend. Her marriage came to grief. In 1959 she was taken up by Marvin Israel, ‘my svengali’, according to the Bosworth biography – although the term does come to mind unbidden. She does well, or well enough to take the stage with Winogrand and Friedlander at MOMA in Szarkowski’s New Documents exhibition of 1967. Her thirty pictures in that show were the big attraction, but even so she was downcast at the idea that she was classified as a photographer of ‘freaks’ and ‘weirdos’ – ‘Diane Arbus is the wizard of odds!’ Even though recognized she was by no means established, and the ‘freaks’ epithet troubled her. She had always been a melancholic and subject to depressions, and in 1968 caught hepatitis. She continued to work. Museums bought her pictures, but sparingly and for low prices. A scheme to sell 50 portfolios of 10 annotated signed images in 1971 came to very little, with only three sold – and two of those to friends. Finally in July 1971, aged 49 and suffering from heaven knows what extremes of depression, she killed herself. In 1972 MOMA put on a major exhibition of her photographs, and Aperture published 80 of these in diane arbus, a book ‘edited and designed by Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus’s daughter, and Marvin Israel, Diane Arbus’s friend’. Posthumously, she became the most celebrated artist in the history of the medium.

There are at least three versions of Diane Arbus as an artist. The first was that put out by New Documents in 1967 in which she appears as a sensationalist investigating the margins of society. It would be interesting to know what exactly was in that exhibition. The new catalogue, which seems at first sight to offer an absolutely comprehensive account of her career, fails to deliver on this one, identifying only 20 of the thirty pictures included in 1967. Perhaps the critics and the public were right in their judgements, but it is hard to say. On the evidence, the Diane Arbus of 1967 was heterogeneous, somewhere between Louis Faurer and Lisette Model. That particular artist might have reached the history books but she would never have taken her place in the Pantheon. In 1967 she wasn’t, on the face of it, destined for the kind of greatness which came her way after the exhibition of 1972.
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What happened in 1972 is that she was edited into greatness by Doon, her daughter, and by Marvin Israel. It is not that they made something out of nothing, but somehow they recognized what was immanent in her work, something which she might not have been able to ascertain herself. She had talked of books but seemed to suspect that they might set a term to her creative work. This is why it is so crucial to know what was in New Documents, and just how that exhibition was arranged – there is one good installation picture in the new catalogue. It seems that in 1972 the editors excluded some of the more ethnographic pictures and images which dealt in context: in particular one of a parade of bathing beauties taken in California in 1962. In return they emphasized portraiture and presence. In the book, though, they seem to have had an idea in mind. They seem to have thought of it as a memorial – and what could be more natural. Their opening picture, surprising at first sight, is one of Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, NYC. It had been in New Documents, and you can see it there in the installation shot. It is not a distinguished picture by any stretch of the imagination, but it might be intended as an ancestral image. They are Russian, and they look it, and the man seems boyish, as if they had been taken from a dream of ancestry. Her family had Polish and Russian roots. On the cover of the book is one of her most famous pictures, of identical twins from Roselle, NJ. She was always interested in twins, and seems to have wondered just how being a twin might impinge on one’s sense of identity. That may be so, but at the same time the twins resemble Diane as a child. Despite their being ‘identical’ they express themselves differently, like two aspects of the same character. The book, rather than being a parade of ‘freaks’, is rich in pictures of mewling children, fraught families and oppressive and complacent elders, elements from just about any family story – and it should be remembered that most of her great work was done in the 1960s, when she was in her forties, with long experience of marriage and of the exigencies of family life. Towards the end of the series they print another of her outstanding images, of an albino sword swallower, a circus performer with her arms outflung, and a powerful reminder of the photographer herself come to a violent end.

They conclude diane arbus with a series of seven pictures of what Patricia Bosworth in her invaluable and suggestive biography of 1984 calls ‘retardates’. The last of these, of a procession of eight flashlit questers in smocks and nightwear crossing a darkening landscape, recalls Daumier or Goya or (best of all) Bosch, and might stand, at a guess, for the human condition in which the nearly blind lead the distracted. There is enough in the book to suggest that it is both an allusive biography and a universal conspectus, touching on many of our possibilities and difficulties. Had it been nothing more than the rudiments of a life story it would scarcely have made an impact, but most of the pictures also function in terms which we can recognise and place under a range of general headings: growing up, bliss, boredom, solitude. She was a great one, too, for physical detailing which means that if you look carefully you can imagine your way into a condition and a predicament. The celebrated ‘young man with curlers’, for instance, holds a cigarette, newly lit, next to the second joint of his index finger, and who can blame him for he would certainly want to keep his finely shaped nails from unsightly nicotine stains. Inhaling too he would have to draw much of his hand across those fleshy lips. That kind of evocative detailing was never an issue with the menfolk, Faurer, Frank and the others, who thought in quite distant, pictorial terms. Take the mother, for example, in the ‘young Brooklyn family’. She looks rather like a distracted Elizabeth Taylor, and well she might for she holds a gesticulating infant, a leopard skin coat, a bulky handbag and a camera in its case. Her fingers are a study in themselves. Diane Arbus herself was a great one for carrying equipment to excess, and the overladen mother must have struck a chord.

Call it carnal empathy; it was her forte. How extraordinary to have taken some of those pictures. ‘A child crying, N.J.’ is of nothing more than that, with no metaphysical possibilities. But remember what it was like with very young children, in particular the falling tears which either reach the chin and fall or gradually dry and diminish. It is the actuality of parenthood, just as ties, belts and buckles form a crucial, or at least constant, part of the actuality of adulthood. She was attentive: lipstick on lips taut or puckered, eyeliner, pimples and bodyhair – one of the most engaging of the pictures of 1972, dropped in the current selection, features a hermaphrodite with a dog which rests its furry muzzle companionably on the hairy left thigh of its master/mistress. Through these palpable imaginings she could visualize a predicament in life, its contingency. The child with the grenade, for example, has had constant problems with that strap over his left shoulder. The transvestite at her birthday party has the cake on her bed, and if she doesn’t watch out there will be cake and icing everywhere. Likewise with the beautiful girl who smokes with that brimming ashtray on the bed quilt.

Where does she stand in the history of the medium? In some vague way we often think of her as part of a new wave, and the exhibition of 1967 was called New Documents. But we should probably think of her as one of the last humanists. The compassionate photography of the 1930s and after asked us to put ourselves in the position of our fellow citizens, to understand their outlook. To achieve this it was important to show the subject in context: street trading, hauling in the nets or working at the loom. The humanist idea was that we should understand people in social terms and well enough to sympathise with their condition. Frank, Faurer and Winogrand all belonged to this old order, even if they weren’t at all sociological. They tended to show their subjects alienated in context, sometimes as solitaries harassed by passing traffic. One of Frank’s perceptions, expressed in The Americans, was that we lived in a new asymmetrical relationship with culture and the world around, which he figured as noise: blaring brass instruments in some of the earlier pictures, and space age juke-boxes in some of the later. Frank was something of a dystopian, as was Josef Koudelka, whose Gypsies of 1975 was another Aperture book. Koudelka’s subjects look like they are living out the last days of mankind in a pervasive blackening light. Diane Arbus doesn’t have that kind of large-scale social vision; instead she acts as if society scarcely exists and that we can only know others sensuously and primitively. In a note to her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, in January 1967 she says of her new work, ‘It’s all people who are right there..’. We can, under these terms of reference, feel for other people, but only on a person to person basis; and she makes sure of her position by selecting subjects who could never ever be representative of this or that trade, caste or condition. One of the virtues of the book of 1972 was that it found a broad format for this itemizing vision. The usual format was horizontal, across the board; in The Americans, for example, there is a residual conspectus: religion, work, leisure, commercial sites. In place of that order the editors of diane arbus came up with a vertical scheme based on their subject’s life story and ranging from childhood onwards. A mere aggregate of instances and encounters, which seems to have been the case in New Documents, would surely have been intolerable and even nihilistic.

A third version is the one we have in front of us now, Diane Arbus Revelations, published by Jonathan Cape in 2003 in connection with the retrospective initiated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Sandra Phillips writes an informative introduction called ‘The Question of Belief’. Revelations is a luxury production of 352 large pages meant to tell us that we are confronting a big career. The printing, compared to the book of 1972 is on the saturated side, which means that some of the pictures are harder to make out than they ought to be. There is a lot of unfamiliar material, maybe the ‘revelations’ of the title, printed more or less at random. Whoever masterminded the design seems to have been pretty much out of control, but that hardly matters for there is a plethora of things to look at and to read.

To be honest, the great thing about Revelations is that it complements Patricia Bosworth’s biography of 1984. The Bosworth biography, published by Heinemann in this country, must always have been a thorn in the flesh of the Arbus Estate and it isn’t mentioned at all in Revelations (although Borges and Botticelli are). Patricia Bosworth, pictured on the dust jacket of the biography, looks as nice as pie but the book, at 366pp., makes a gripping read. It was, it seems, massively unauthorised; none of the principals contributed, not Doon Arbus, nor Allan, Diane’s husband, nor Marvin Israel. Diane’s brother, Howard Nemerov, did however, as did other members of the family. It is wrong to relish the discomfiture of others, but the Bosworth biography simply cannot be ignored. It is assembled from hundreds of interviews with people who knew her, and from these you can piece together an impression. According to the photographer John Gossage, she had ‘an incredible quality – of involving you in yourself’. That kind of observation comes up often. She could also be a compelling narrator of her adventures. By the end of it you know more or less how she looked, how she dressed, cooked and ate. You know the kind of things she said, and even how she said them. You have an impression of how people esteemed her or not, in some cases.

None of this sounds like the stuff of art history – more like gossip. In one longish piece Bosworth gives an account of Diane advising Natalie Sarraute on the purchase of a fur coat for her daughter – she knew about such matters from her background in the garment trade. But it is less the details and the expertise which are important than the rhythm and momentum of the session. Diane Arbus existed for others, and she did so very formidably and to some degree this accounts for her pictures. It accounts too for the feeling, which others had for her. One of the merits of the Bosworth book is that it dwells on Marvin Israel’s relationship with Diane, not in a prurient way but with respect to his confidence in her and his appreciation of whatever it was that he saw in her art. Israel had ‘genius’, which meant, in terms of the time, that he could go unerringly for the best picture in any set of contacts. Something in Diane’s persona made him exercise his ‘genius’ to the uttermost degree, for the book of 1972 really is an incredible achievement. So anything which expresses Diane Arbus helps us to tune in to those feelings which brought both the pictures into being and then the great composite of 1972.

Doon Arbus, in MS Magazine in 1972, remembered her mother telling of her adventures in photography, ‘she would become like someone possessed – possessed by phrases, accents, and peculiarities of speech, and bursts of laughter over her own performance’. We have to take her word for it, but in Revelations there are any number of quotations from her letters, postcards and notebooks, and from these you can gain some impression of her quality of mind. We might read Virginia Woolf’s essays for her opinions on Carlyle and Defoe, for instance, but mainly we’d read them for how she expresses herself, for her powers of invention and her timing. The Arbus texts have just such a quality. Here she is in an unpublished text of 1965 regarding a character she met in Washington Square Park: ‘Later Andy turned up, shy as a boy at dancing class with the wrong pants on, solemn, enormous-nosed with his hair combed down in a great wave over his eye, like Barbara Streisand before anyone believed in her.’ Whatever connection there is between her texts and her pictures is not straightforward, for the texts are protean and imaginative. At the time people listened to Robert Johnson and to singers like him; their songs were often grim and their voices heavy but their guitar playing was so refined, light as air. There is a similar complementary symbiosis in the art of Arbus, and this is probably the third version, and what is finally revealed in Revelations.

Note. Revelations provides raw material for the most part, and not much in the way of ideas, certainly no polemics. For an objective account of the photographer see Diana Emery Hulick’s article ‘Diane Arbus’s Expressive Methods’, History of Photography, Vol 19, no. 2, Summer 1995. Arbus’s critical reception ought to be almost as interesting as the career itself. To judge from Revelations you might believe that nothing of any note had ever been written about her before 2003.
Published in Photoworks issue 5, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks

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