Aristocrats

Untitled

by Diane Arbus
Aperture, unpaged pp., $50.00

The cover of the book of photographs that gave Diane Arbus her posthumous fame in 1972, a year after her suicide, shows two little girls wearing identical dark corduroy dresses with white collars and cuffs, white patterned stockings, and white headbands, who are themselves identical twins. They stand side by side, with their hands at their sides, staring straight at the viewer; and as one returns their gaze and goes from one face to the other one realizes that their features are by no means identical. The girl on the left is a child with hooded eyes that have a pronounced downward tilt and a mouth set in an expression of tight discontent. Her sister’s eyes are of classical horizontality and lucidity, and her mouth turns up at the corners; she is the picture of complaisant contentment. The more one studies these faces the more like an allegory they become of the Bad Girl and the Good Girl—the girl who cannot help herself in her grumpy disobligingness and the girl who is always happy to do what she’s told—and, taking the allegory to another level, of human doubleness, of the two selves we conceptualize ourselves as being host to: the inner self of genuinely felt negativity, doubt, and aggression and the outer self of assumed benignity and niceness.

In the fragmentary text that forms an introduction to the photographs, derived from tape recordings of Arbus’s photography classes, and from interviews and writings, Arbus speaks of her own doubleness in her relationships with the freaks, transvestites, prostitutes, nudists, and circus performers, as well as regular people, who were the subjects of her powerful and original photo-journalism. “Actually, they tend to like me. I’m extremely likeable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced. I’m very ingratiating. It really kind of annoys me. I’m just sort of a little too nice. Everything is Oooo. I hear myself saying, ‘How terrific,’ and there’s this woman making a face.” She goes on to analyze “the gap between intention and effect” into which journalism (written or pictorial) inserts itself and from which it derives its edge:

Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that’s what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw… Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.

However, since the journalist is a narrator as well as a noticer, the cruel sharpness of his vision is not uniform. Some of his characters—the ones he has (overtly or covertly) designated as “good”—will be spared the cold scrutiny that the “bad” ones receive. Arbus’s heroes and heroines are the damaged and deviant …

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