Before Arbus committed suicide in 1971, she made photographic portraits of society women, crying babies, nudists, people with intellectual disabilities and people wearing masks, as well as sex workers, twins, people with dwarfism, teenage couples and transvestites. Or, as his brother, the poet Howard Nemerov put it, “freaks, professional transvestites, strong men, tattooed men, the children of the very rich.” (The show’s promotional image fits the latter category: it’s journalist Anderson Cooper’s brilliant photograph of Arbus as a baby, his sleeping face eerily resembling a death mask.)
The Arbus exhibition of 1972-73, then the most attended solo exhibition in MoMA’s history, functioned as a depth charge – first in the rarefied world of fine art photography (a category contested at the time), and then in culture at large. Few people had heard of Arbus during his lifetime. Then suddenly, less than a year after her death at 48, everyone knew her, everyone had a strong opinion and, perhaps most importantly, no one doubted that photography could be art. “People walked through this exhibit as if they were in line for Communion,” John Szarkowski, a MoMA photography curator who has defended his work, once commented.
The Zwirner screen is ingenious. This stages the problem (an overabundance of commentary, a firehose of controversy) and then magically throws it away. As you enter the gallery, you see a wall covered with excerpts from writings on Arbus:
“Arbus’s work shows people who are pathetic, pitiful, but also horrible, repulsive, but it does not evoke any feeling of compassion.”
“His subjects are all flesh, they have very few resources – they don’t have much spirit.”
“[Arbus] shows us people, so locked in their physical and mental limits, that their movements are meaningless charades. They are almost losers for a man.
“When photographing dwarfs, you get neither majesty nor beauty. You get dwarfs.
Etc. The show coincides with the release of a nearly 500-page book, “Diane Arbus: Documents,” which reprints more than 50 years of criticism of Arbus by everyone from Hilton Kramer, Hilton Als and Robert Hughes to Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer and Janet Malcolm. .
But the wall of the text is like a curtain, or the meniscus on a body of water. You cross the threshold of the show like a masked diver on a windy day who puts his head under his nose. Suddenly you are in a new element, a different universe. It’s quiet. You are alone. There is no text in sight, not even a title. It’s just you and Arbus’ photographs, his character gallery – the same 113 photos that made up his retrospective at MoMA 50 years ago.
Seeing the exhibition in 2022 highlights the extravagance of many reactions to Arbus. It also offers a great chance to dispense with nonsense.
The debate that Arbus has been raising for 50 years still revolves around the question of “freaks”. The problem usually comes in the form of two questions: Why was she drawn to these topics? And did she somehow betray them or slander them, despise them or unjustly exploit them?
That’s all, it seems, that one wants to ask of one’s work.
Arbus’ subjects were not as varied as those of, say, Walker Evans or Robert Frank. Her work is focused in a way that clearly shows she is trying to tell you something. But his images of the institutionalized, the physically abnormal, the social irregular and the marginalized are only part of his work. It is crucial to any understanding of his work that they are seen alongside all his other photos.
The other images, which show men and women of high or mundane social status, babies and children (who were too young to have significant status), are just as important as his photographs of so-called monsters. They all relate. And as the feelings evoked by each image are inevitably displaced onto the others, they add up to an idea that deepens as his photographs accumulate.
The idea is simple. It is, in short, that we are like monkeys at a tea party. All of us. Moreover, we are in denial. We tweak and accessorize our self-image, but those same accessories (in the world of Arbus, these can be leopard-skin hats, beaded necklaces, Halloween masks, tight jeans, tattoos , neat bourgeois interiors, boater, bow ties or even cheeky, dare you-object nudity) continually give the game.
Bob Dylan once sang mockingly that a leopard-skin pillbox hat “dangles on your head like a mattress dangles on a bottle of wine.” But for Arbus, who started out as a fashion photographer, the various forms our denial takes were nothing to despise. They were strange, captivating, poignant.
Arbus was as hostile to sentimentality as it was free from disgust or contempt. His insight was not in itself original. Nevertheless, it deepened in his hands in a unique way. The fact that she was a photographer and not a painter or a sculptor was crucial to her expression of the idea “we are all tea monkeys”.
For decades we’ve been drilled into all the ways the camera sits. But the cameras also reveal a lot of facts. You can direct them to topics that interest you, but they remain disinterested. The reason we dislike about nine out of ten photographs we see of ourselves is not because those nine are fake, but because they reveal things we don’t like to acknowledge.
Precisely because the camera, with its particular power of proof, can make us look ridiculous, we say it is cruel. We distrust the power of the professional photographer, which we imagine as a sort of tacit negative balance (“you don’t realize how ridiculous you look”). We only hope that, out of mercy, the photographer will conspire with us to reverse the camera’s negative bias (as we see it).
But Arbus accepted the camera’s tendency to reveal what’s really there. She found the phenomenon interesting. She didn’t try to turn it into a rhetoric of cruelty, or try to turn it into an orgy of self-gratification of empathy, much less a “celebration” of people’s “identities.” She saw too many internal divisions, in herself and others, to believe in “identity”.
Susan Sontag, who set the agenda for all the wrong ways to think about Arbus in a 1973 essay for the New York Review of Books, didn’t like this advertised lack of empathy. Arbus used his camera, wrote Sontag, as a “sort of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility towards the people photographed”.
But it is tendentious. Passports do not “annihilate” borders; they just let you walk through them. You can say Arbus operated a “passport” for amorality if you like. But what artist isn’t interested in the gaps between our instincts and our inhibitions, between our private self and the one we present in public? Arbus was simply one of the first to recognize the unique way the camera reveals them.
According to Sontag, Arbus has created “a world where everyone is an outsider, hopelessly alienated”. But that too is irrelevant. Look at the photographs. Arbus captured expressions of exuberance, pleasure in company, parental tenderness, self-love, keen intelligence, ironic fatigue, suaveness, bathos, aggression, bewilderment, and various expressions of curiosity about (or boredom) the shooting process.
For Arbus, it was all captivating. And what made it poignant was the impossibility, finally, of being the people she photographed, to get into their minds, which she clearly aspired to do. Arbus was a complicated person. Depressed, restless and sexually adventurous, she craved intense experiences. But it was his complexity that allowed him to see and grasp the complexity and unknowability of his subjects.
His success had its moral effect, which is obvious to anyone who sees his pictures today. Arbus’ transvestites and nudists, its people with Down’s syndrome and Halloween celebrants, no longer look like “monsters”. They look like what they are: human beings. We can look at subjects with as much honesty as we can muster when we look at each other. And we have no more to pity them than ourselves.
Cataclysm: the 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective revisited Until October 22 at 537 West 20th St. Gallery by David Zwirner, New York. davidzwirner.com/exhibitions.