Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby,” Norman Mailer famously complained after Arbus’s portrait of him, crotch thrust toward the viewer, was published in the New York Times.
The tough-guy novelist wasn’t the only subject unnerved by—and grudgingly in awe of—the slight woman with the twin-lens reflex around her neck. Tough-gal feminist writer Germaine Greer has described a portrait session at the Chelsea Hotel in 1971 that ended with the photographer (“this frail, rose petal creature”) straddling her on a bed, clicking away in her face and probing relentlessly for signs of distress, of which there were plenty. “If she’d have been a man,” Greer told Arbus biographer Patricia Bosworth, “I’d have kicked her in the balls.”
Diane Arbus (1923–71) was indeed a dangerous customer. During the 1960s no person was too celebrated or marginal, no tenement walk-up too dank or poorly lit, no situation too fraught or mortifying to intimidate her. Irrepressible and far from innocent, she shot with abandon in a direct, frontal pictorial manner that masked a burning ambition for herself and for photography. Believing that a camera in the right circumstances could capture, as if through X ray, someone’s spirit, she stared at people more intently than seemed polite or healthy or legal.
These confrontations could yield moments of terrifying pathos and empathy. Even when fully clothed, the subjects in her black-bordered prints—and the photographer herself—often appeared as if bone naked. Walker Evans called her “a born huntress,” adding that “there may be something naïve about her work if there is anything naïve about the devil.”
“Diane Arbus Revelations,” the retrospective opening on the 25th of this month at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art—and traveling over the next three years to Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Essen, London, Paris, and Minneapolis—is the first in-depth survey of Arbus’s immensely influential career since the 1972 memorial exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. A massive catalogue from Random House, with many unpublished photographs, and a detailed chronology compiled by independent curator Elisabeth Sussman, cocurator of the exhibition, and Arbus’s daughter, Doon, clarifies many facts that were imprecisely known or altogether inaccessible before.
Arbus’s portrait gallery of American castoffs and outsiders, among whom she inexplicably counted herself, is by now as familiar as any body of work in 20th-century photography. But the shock wave that buffeted (or enraged) viewers when her photographs were first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967 and 1972 has abated. Any curator of her work is thus bedeviled with the problem of making these iconic images—the nudists, sideshow freaks, transvestites, sad-eyed strangers, mentally retarded children—powerful and relevant while not including too much unknown material that might be seen as violating the artist’s wishes.
Rather than opting to substantially revise the inherited view of Arbus as an adventurer exploring the borderlands of human normality, the curators of this exhibition have chosen to deepen our understanding of her inner life. Unlike Patricia Bosworth’s unauthorized (but nonetheless helpful) biography, published in 1984, the information in this show is scrupulously documented and presented under the aegis of the artist’s notoriously difficult estate.
(Neither the show nor the catalogue takes note of the recently discovered “family albums” from 1969—hundreds of contact prints of entire families arranged by Arbus as though she were an ethnographer—on view through December 7 at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in South Hadley, Massachusetts, which organized the show in collaboration with the Spencer Museum of Art of the University of Kansas. A catalogue, “Diane Arbus: Family Albums,” published by Yale University Press, accompanies the show.)
Says Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA’s senior curator of photography and cocurator of the San Francisco show, “We wanted to present her as a complete person, as a thinking, growing, intelligent artist.” Quotes from Arbus’s extensive journals during the many phases of her life—as daughter, wife, mother, photographer-for-hire in New York’s magazine jungle, and independent artist—surround the work. The installation integrates the photographer’s library of books and even her bulletin board, layered with postcards and clipped newspaper photos, with finished prints. “We didn’t want to take a white-cube approach,” says Phillips.
The show expands the canon of haunting Arbus images—the series of photos made in movie houses and drive-in theaters during the 1950s, many of which were shown at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York in the early 1990s—and also pushes back to the early 1950s the origins of what might be called her characteristic style. A 1952 photograph of Doon as a child, stepping out of a dress, has the sense of immediate identification with an isolated subject that can be seen everywhere in Arbus’s work from the 1960s, albeit evidenced here in a gauzier, more parental light. “There was more of an evolution in her approach than a sudden transformation,” says Sussman.
The artist’s early life and work receive more scrutiny than ever before. Arbus grew up Diane Nemerov, a wealthy Manhattan child (two maids, a cook, a chauffeur, and a German nanny) whose parents owned Russek’s Department Store on Fifth Avenue. By her own admission, she felt untouched by the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression.
The catalogue’s chronology quotes a 1960 postcard she wrote to a friend, the painter and art director Marvin Israel, in which she described her unease in her parents’ grand store: “I remember the special agony of walking down that center aisle, feeling like the princess of Russek’s: at once privileged and doomed…. It seemed it all belonged to me and I was ashamed.”
In researching her biography, Bosworth was never able to speak to many of the people closest to Arbus as an adult. But she did interview at length Diane’s older brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, who died in 1991. The material about their relationship in the new chronology confirms many of Bosworth’s observations. “Diane was fortunate to have a withdrawn childhood and a very rich connection with her brother,” says Sussman. “They could communicate with one another within this gilded environment. Her sense of people’s singularity developed in her youth.”
Diane’s teachers at the Ethical Culture School and later at Fieldston School, some of whom had been trained in the WPA program, encouraged her interest in art and painting. According to Sussman, “From early on she had an unbridled sense of adventure. By the time she and her brother were at Fieldston, they were given the run of the subways.”
She was also a precociously serious young woman. In an autobiography written in 1940 when she was a senior at Fieldston—and quoted for the first time in the catalogue—she discussed the importance of having a motto to live by. She proudly claimed “In God We Trust,” which she had discovered on the heads of pennies, as her own. “I always wanted something I could be faithful to forever,” she wrote. “I hated fickle people.”
Her 1941 marriage to Allan Arbus, who worked in the advertising department at Russek’s, began as another binding alliance. The couple explored photography together, with Diane taking lessons with Berenice Abbott and then imparting her new technical knowledge to her husband. Together they began to take fashion pictures and to immerse themselves in the commercial magazine world of New York.
The watershed year was 1956, when Arbus ended her personal and photographic partnership with her husband and began her studies and her friendship with Lisette Model. Arbus’s career and her home life were never entirely stable again. Thereafter, she honed her pictorial attack during random encounters in the streets and during increasingly avid explorations of New York’s demimonde.
Two catalogue essays shed new light on the growth of Arbus’s mature style—those blunt, deceptively simple portraits of people she saw on the streets or hunted down in their lairs. Phillips analyzes what happened to Arbus’s work as she moved from using 35 mm to adopting, in 1962, the square format with a wide-angle lens and then to her attempts at the end of her life to break out of this signature—and by that point, she felt, constricting—view by shooting with a 6×7 Pentax. Arbus’s editorial shrewdness can be assessed in contact sheets that show the dance between photographer and subject. Even when she nailed a gesture or a facial expression with the first shot, as in Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962, she would often continue to click away in hopes that the encounter would yield further revelations.
The photographer Neil Selkirk, who knew Arbus in her last years and printed all of her work after her death in 1971, discusses the state of her darkroom and reveals facts about her technique. Her black-edged prints, which she introduced in 1965 and largely abandoned in 1969, were the result of the sharp sides of the holder on her Omega “D” enlarger having been crudely filed away so that she could expose the entire negative. She never dodged or burned a print. “The sole quality that she chose to exercise control over was contrast,” writes Selkirk.
The dissatisfaction of the artist—her constant need to go, as she said, “where I’ve never been”—is, even from today’s perspective, still scary. The show documents the many ties Arbus was careful to maintain. She was completely plugged into the music, film, and art scenes. All the most interesting younger photographers—Avedon, Frank, Faurer, Winogrand, Friedlander—were her pals and boosters. She knew every major art director at the New York magazines—Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman, Henry Wolf and Bea Feidler. Ruth Ansel at the New York Times Magazineand Robert Benton at Esquire adored her work and begged her to shoot for them.
She also enjoyed the unflagging critical support of her friend Marvin Israel and of MoMA’s powerful photography curator, John Szarkowski. One of the first customers for her limited-edition portfolio of 12 prints—she delivered it herself—was Jasper Johns. But none of this was enough to stave off her despair.
That a baby with an explosive device is, as Mailer presciently implied, a danger to itself above all was borne out when Arbus took her own life, in 1971. Suicide transformed her instantly into the photographer who had stared too long and too deeply at the world’s pain. The exhibition wisely does not address the uncomfortable grip that the myth of Arbus continues to exercise on us. But neither does it shy away from the brutal truth of her death at the age of 48. The last document in the catalogue’s chronology is an itemized list: the autopsy of Arbus’s corpse.
“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she once said. “The more it tells you the less you know.” The new details of the artist’s private and public life contained in the catalogue should excite anyone with an artistic pulse, and the dozens of previously unknown and often remarkable photographs add substantially to our knowledge of her genius. But they can’t explain her daring in pushing herself constantly to go deeper as an artist or the sense of failure that—mysteriously, to her admirers—in the end overwhelmed her.
Her work offers irrefutable evidence that the art of the 1960s was in fact as harrowing, as intense, and as shattering of convention as many have been mocked for remembering it. Anything but a sentimental trip down memory lane, this retrospective is a portrait of a 100-pound woman warrior of uncanny sensitivity, bravery, gall, and intelligence. Exposed, herself, to both psychic and physical risk, she never stopped seeking new experiences or the company of people outside the norms of her cosseted upbringing and the accepted limits of her medium. No photojournalist on the front lines of Vietnam or the civil rights struggle recorded her times with more urgency. Arbus’s images are proof that a camera is a deadly weapon.
Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York City.