Why Diane Arbus Was One of the Most Significant Cultural Figures of Her Era and Still Is Today

Fred Kaplan / Slate
Why Diane Arbus Was One of the Most Significant Cultural Figures of Her Era and Still Is Today Diane Arbus with her photograph Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966, during a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970. (photo: Stephen A. Frank)

The first big New York art show this season, at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea, is “Cataclysm,” an exhibit of Diane Arbus photographs—a recreation of the Museum of Modern Art’s wildly controversial retrospective of her works in 1972, put on just a year after she killed herself at age 48.

I entered the Zwirner gallery’s revival, which runs through Oct. 22, wondering whether the pictures—many of them featuring circus sideshow “freaks,” female impersonators, nudists, and other eccentrics, and outcasts, some full frontal and close up—would zap the same jolt that they did 50 years ago. They didn’t deliver on that front; we’ve since seen too many photos of naked transgressors, many taken by artists inspired by Arbus, to be shocked by their subject matter.

But what is striking, to a surprising degree, is the emotional wallop, the strange mix of sensations—apprehension, discomfort, fixation, and wonder—that many of these pictures still deliver. Clearly, they are period pieces, but they resonate as much with our own time as with any.

Arbus was one of several young photographers in her day who rebelled against The Family of Man, a hugely successful show at MoMA featuring pictures snapped by artists all over the world, touting the greeting-card theme—welcome to many during the Cold War—that people everywhere are basically the same. Some of the rebels, like Robert Frank, focused their lenses on social ills—poverty, racism, conformity, despair. Others delved deep into the distinctiveness of individuals. Arbus was in this latter camp. In 1967, MoMA put on a show called New Documents, featuring her, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand (who were also little known at the time). Its curator, John Szarkowski, wrote in the show’s catalogue, “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it.”

Among the three, Arbus’ approach was the most radical. Friedlander and Winogrand, like Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and other modern photographers, captured “decisive moments” in fleeting street scenes. Arbus often worked more like a Renaissance portrait artist, her subjects posing, looking straight at the camera. She got to know her subjects—sometimes she would go up to them on the street, follow them into their houses, spend time with them. She visited and occasionally snapped pictures of Eddie Carmel, a Ringling Brothers “freak” for nearly a decade before taking her 1970 masterpiece, “A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx.” She knew Lauro Morales, another circus performer for longer than that before she snapped the utterly beguiling “Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room, NYC,” in the same year.

It’s this hard-won intimacy that makes Arbus’ photos so compelling, if at times disorienting. She robs viewers of their customary distance; we are drawn into the subjects’ lives—we are complicit in the relationship between the subjects and Arbus—whether we like it or not.

Some of those who didn’t like Arbus’ work really didn’t like it. MoMA first showed three of Arbus’ portraits in 1965, as part of a “Recent Acquisitions” show. Two of the photos were of female impersonators, one was of a nudist family. An assistant in the museum’s photo department told Patricia Bosworth, a biographer of Arbus, that he had to come in early every morning to wipe the spit that viewers had sprayed on her pictures the day before.

Some critics were—and a few still are—bothered, by Arbus’ obsession with the physically disfigured. They point to one of her more jarring remarks—that photographing “freaks” had “a terrific kind of excitement for me.” What the critics overlook is that Arbus was excited by every new experience. She once said, “All the time I’m photographing, I’m having a terrific time.” In 1969, she wrote in a letter, “Nearly everything delights me.” In the summer of 1971, not long before she died, she said, “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” She saw this not only as a personal adventure but as a mission. “I really believe,” she also wrote, “there are things nobody would see unless I photographed them.”

Her fascination with unbeaten paths—the paths that most of us avoid—stemmed from a broader personal rebellion. She grew up on Central Park West, the daughter of a furrier, and wasn’t comfortable with her privileges. “One of the things I suffered from as a kid,” she later said, “was I never felt adversity. I felt confirmed in a sense of unreality, which I could feel as unreality, and the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” Once she was old enough to go around the city on her own, she sought out the taboo. Or, as she later told some students, “I was born way up the ladder of middle-class respectability, and I’ve been clambering down as far as I could ever since.”

When she first became intrigued with circus “freaks,” she called Joseph Mitchell, the great New Yorker essayist, who’d written a few profiles of that scene. As he later told Boswell, “I urged Diane not to romanticize freaks. I told her that freaks can be boring and ordinary as so-called ‘normal’ people. I told her what I found interesting about Olga, the bearded lady, was that she yearned to be a stenographer and kept geraniums on her window sill.”

Arbus’ magic—especially striking, seeing so many of her pictures assembled in one place—is that she found some way to transfer Mitchell’s lesson to so many black-and-white still images. She didn’t try to “normalize” what was at the time considered abnormal, but she recognized—she dramatized on film—that “normal” people weren’t so normal themselves. There was no “family of man.” There was only the distinctiveness of each individual. As another biographer Arthur Lubow wrote, “She was fascinated by people who were visibly creating their own identities…and by those who were trapped in a uniform that no longer provided any security or comfort.”

Some critics at the time understood this. Others did not. Susan Sontag was among the latter. In an essay about MoMA’s 1972 retrospective, she wrote:

A large part of the mystery of Arbus’ photographs lies in what they suggest about how her subjects felt after consenting to be photographed. Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don’t… [Most of them] don’t know (or don’t appear to know) that they are ugly… In most Arbus pictures, the subjects are looking straight into the camera. This makes them look even sadder, almost deranged…even freakier.

This may be one of the shallowest essays ever written by any otherwise brilliant critic, not so much because it’s offensive (though Sontag is far more callous toward Arbus’ subjects than she accuses Arbus of being), but more because it is so blindly wrong. The remarkable—and, in some ways, the disturbing—thing about Arbus’ photographs of “freaks” is they don’t look freakish, or no more so than many of her portraits of “normal” people. At first glance, her intensely close-up photo, “A Very Young Baby, NYC, 1968” (see above), looks ghoulish, almost like a death mask; and yet, after a longer view, it’s clearly a very “normal” baby. (It is, in fact, the very young Anderson Cooper, whose mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, knew Arbus.)

The point—Arbus’ point—is that all of us are freakish in some way, from birth to death, whether deep down or straight up, and in that sense we, even those of us called freaks, are all normal. There’s your real Family of Man.

That’s what is unsettling about a Diane Arbus show. It was also what some of her more famous subjects found unsettling about being a Diane Arbus subject, especially since she’d made them so comfortable during the photo shoot. Norman Mailer, spreading his legs and crowing a cocky expression in a picture she took for a New York Times profile, later said, “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby.” Yet the great photographer Walker Evans, who knew both Arbus and Mailer, marveled after seeing the picture, “You actually get a sense of what it’s like to be Norman.”

Then there’s the case of Colin Wood, who, at age 7, posed for “Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962.” The boy looks hyperactive, a bit deranged. The contact sheets (reproduced in a book called Diane Arbus Documents, published by Zwirner gallery on the occasion of its exhibition) show several shots where he’s just merrily jumping around; Arbus chose the most disturbing shot. It bothered the boy for a while, but when a Washington Post reporter tracked him down on the occasion of an Arbus retrospective in 2005, Wood—then a 50-year-old insurance salesman—understood, and even lauded, what she had done:

She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced, and there was a general feeling of loneliness… I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone. It’s all people who want to connect but don’t know how to connect. And I think that’s how she felt about herself. She felt damaged and she hoped that by wallowing in that feeling, through photography, she could transcend herself.

Arbus’ life was a sad one, and she used her camera as a means of transcendence—and a shield—in her own explorations. Throughout her life she suffered periodically from depression, which was exacerbated by her divorce and by two bouts of hepatitis. She was sexually promiscuous, by any era’s standards, reportedly with some of her subjects and at times with total strangers. She told her psychiatrist—whose notes are quoted in Lubow’s biography—that she had an incestuous relationship with her brother, the renown poet, Howard Nemerov, from the time they were children till well into adulthood. (Nemerov died in 1991, well before Lebow’s book was published.)

We don’t know why Arbus committed suicide when she did. Besides depression, she was in constant financial straits. It is sad to read, in Diane Arbus Documents, her back-and-forth letters with a museum director, haggling over whether she should get paid $600 or $750 for 20 of her prints. The prints on display at the Zwirner gallery now are priced from $10,000 to $175,000 each for those printed posthumously—from $40,000 to just under $1 million for those printed by Arbus herself.

Arbus became famous only after—and, in large part, because of—her suicide. A mystique quickly grew up around her, similar to the mystique surrounding those other artistic suicides, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf. A few months before Arbus died, she produced a collectors’ portfolio called A Box of 10 Photographs. She intended to print an edition of 50. Just four were sold. (Jasper Johns, who didn’t know her, bought one; Richard Avedon, who was a friend of hers, bought two and gave one to Mike Nichols.) A year and a few months after she died, tens of thousands of people lined around the block to see MoMA’s retrospective of her work; it was, at the time, the most highly attended show of a solo artist in the museum’s history; the show’s catalogue, published by Aperture (MoMA didn’t want to publish it) and still in print, has sold more than 400,000 copies.

This is what makes the Zwirner gallery’s revival of the show so valuable. It reaffirms, long after the sensationalism has faded, that Diane Arbus was one of the most significant cultural figures of the mid 20th century and now—a truly great and humane artist.

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