Carnal Empathy: the photography of Diane Arbus

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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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Published in Photoworks issue 5, 2005
Commissioned by Photoworks

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