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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 people she has had the bold enterprise to seek out. Studying her attraction toward freaks, she says, “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” The fatally flawed characters in the 1972 collection—those who have flunked the test or are going to—are the normal, mainstream people. The book’s almost palpable atmosphere of anxiety, and its dark and accusing picture of humanity, actually derive not from the photographs of transvestites and hermaphrodites and dwarfs but from the photographs of suburban couples, New York socialites, children at dancing school, people sitting on benches in Washington Square Park—pictures, one realizes, that far outnumber the pictures of freaks and deviants. The pictures of the freaks and deviants are pictures in which everything is Oooo. They are pictures in which Arbus celebrates her own encounter with the marginal and the taboo, relishing the success with which she—a straight woman from a rich Jewish family that made its money in fur—has penetrated a sordid closed world and, through her journalist’s too-niceness, become privy to its exciting and pathetic secrets.

A photograph that wonderfully bristles with all this, that lucidly lays out the story of Arbus’s encounter with the forbidden, is a photograph entitled Seated Man in a Bra and Stockings, N. Y. C. The picture was taken in 1967, when such images were by no means as commonplace as they are now, and though it is no longer shocking, it retains—as, for example, the no longer shocking Olympia retains—a kind of after-glow of its original audacity. The man, in fact, looks a little like Olympia. Rather than reclining on a bed, he sits in a leather armchair, but there is something in the defiantly relaxed way he has crossed his legs (to show an expanse of thigh bisected by the black strap of a garter belt that holds up a stocking with a run in it) and in the expression of selfcontainment with which he looks out at the beholder—and even in the gesture of the hand resting on the arm of the chair, as Olympia’s rests on her thigh—which evokes the Manet painting. However, unlike Olympia, whose narrative of an emblematic moment in the life of a prostitute, her servant, and her cat is contained within the picture frame, Seated Man in a Bra tells a story that leaks out of the picture and enters the off-camera area directly in front of the man, where it invites us to imagine Arbus crouching on the floor (the picture is taken from slightly below), compulsively snapping the shutter, and to overhear her speaking to him in a voice that has half-mesmerized him. The photograph is a record and a triumphant trophy of Arbus’s abilities as a journalistic adventuress: it is about her travels into uncharted territory. (She says in the introductory text, as if paraphrasing Conrad’s Marlow, “My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”) The closely and sympathetically observed transvestite is a secondary character in the account of the journey into the interior (as the tribe is secondary to the anthropologist in his account).

In a photograph entitled A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx—one of her most potent images—Arbus recedes and allows her three native informants to enact the story of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” The photograph shows a young man standing in a living room with a middle-aged couple. He is monstrously large, completely out of scale with the couple and with the room, whose ceiling he cannot clear without stooping. The mother, a stumpy woman wearing a sleeveless print housedress, gazes up at her son with an expression of awe bordering on horror; the father, a stumpy man wearing a dark business suit and tie, standing slightly behind his wife, is looking at and through the son’s chest, his hand half thrust in his pocket in a habitual self-protective gesture, and his face set in an accustomed expression of rigidity and suppressed anger. The son, who carries a cane and wears huge black orthopedic shoes, looks down on his parents with an expression on his colossal features that is hard to fathom but is full of some deep, slowly emerging emotion. The living room—there is a sofa, a chair, floor-length draperies, lamps with protective cellophane on the shades, two pictures, one with a picture light over it—has a neat bareness and speaks of modest means. Its mild ordinariness underscores the grotesque strangeness of the disaster that has befallen the family. Although this calamity happened long ago—the son’s gigantism obviously didn’t occur overnight—Arbus’s photograph makes it seem as if, in fact, it had. We feel as if we have come in—as we come into the story of Gregor Samsa—just after the horrible thing happened. And we are forced here, as we are forced by the Kafka parable, to recognize ourselves in the relatives, to see their failure of compassion as our own. Arbus’s harsh vision, like Kafka’s, looks into the abyss that lies between the unfortunate and the fortunate, the ill and the well, the powerful and the powerless; her camera, like Kafka’s pen, identifies the anxiety that fuels this alienation, that compels the strong to shrink from the weak. That the weak, ill, powerless son towers over the strong, healthy, powerful parents in the Arbus photograph only adds to the disturbance and dislocation we feel as we take Arbus’s painful point.

The new posthumous book, put together by Doon Arbus and Yolanda Cuomo, and this time called (rather than merely left) Untitled, produces a different effect. It is exclusively devoted to pictures of mentally retarded people taken at various “residences” which Arbus visited between 1969 and 1971. “FINALLY what I’ve been searching for,” Arbus wrote to her husband, Allan, after a visit to one of the residences on Halloween 1969. Eight of the pictures in Untitled appeared in the 1972 collection, where they gave off a special aura: one sensed that Arbus was doing something new and had somehow raised the stakes; but it is only now with fifty-one pictures before us that we can fully share Arbus’s excited understanding that she had arrived at the place she had been traveling toward.

In a peculiarly angry and completely misguided review of Untitled in The New York Observer, A.D. Coleman condemned it for exploiting its subjects and for violating “the rights of the mentally challenged.” Coleman wrathfully pointed out that these “are pictures that no responsible administrator of such a facility would or could permit to be made today.” Fortunately, Arbus was able to take her pictures before the doors closed. If anything could serve the cause of the people who inhabit “such a facility” it would be Arbus’s pictures; only someone with a heart of stone or a mind much softened by cant could fail to be moved by them. The retarded are the highest nobility of all in Arbus’s hierarchy of the different. It is we, the normally endowed, who may not meet the mental challenge of following Arbus’s difficult discourse on suffering and inequality.

To the question of whether someone who isn’t all there is still fully human, Arbus gives an impatient “Of course,” but she does so without falling back on the usual euphemisms and blurrings of difference. In photographing the retarded she waits for the moment of fullest expression of disability: she shows people who are slack-jawed, vacant, drooling, uncoordinated, uncontrolled, demented-looking. She does not flinch from the truth that difference is different, and therefore frightening, threatening, disgusting. She does not put herself above us—she implicates herself in the accusation. She will not kiss the leper’s sores either. But she will stand a few feet away from him, arrest him with her journalist’s gaze, and, with her artist’s intelligence, transform him from an object of revulsion into the subject of a work of art. Consider this photograph: a small procession of eight people in light-colored night clothes is making its way across a barren landscape under a lowering sky. The leader is an old woman with short white hair wearing a loose, square-necked shift; she has a black mask over her eyes, her mouth is half-open as if in a weak shout, and she is firmly holding the hand of a short young man, like a mother with a lagging child. The young man is looking over his shoulder, perhaps at Arbus, his free hand at his chest in a startled gesture, his face, on which a false mustache and a bit of beard have been crudely painted, caught in a moment of quandary. A woman behind him, seen in profile, with a gaunt, lantern-jawed face is looking ahead with a kind of maniacal happiness, one hand tucked into her nightgown at her tautly roped throat. Another, a women with an abnormally large bosom and a nose like a parrot’s beak, wearing tight pajamas and a flowered kerchief, also looks ahead and extends her arm in a gesture of apprehensive supplication. Though we know that something perfectly ordinary is going on—a summons to the dining hall, perhaps—we cannot resist the force of the photograph’s metaphoric field of gravity. We feel compelled to read it as a dance of death, or a ceremony of shades.

In another photograph, set in the same landscape, an inmate costumed as a Halloween ghost faces the viewer like a genial emissary from the other place, his (or her) grinning death mask slightly askew, his (or her) body enveloped in a voluminous shroud of white sheets. Another mysterious procession shows five women (middleaged and old) seen in half profile, wearing heavy winter coats and stylized half-masks, who look like crone figures of prophecy and fate: Norns, the witches in Macbeth, pausing for a moment on their way to perform some deadly errand. Not all the photographs in Untitled have this emblematic character, not all use the defamiliarizing landscapes and masks and costumes, but these are the photographs that give the book its authority and monumentality, and that cause us to return to the more apparently prosaic pictures for the poetic meanings they, too, may contain.

In the text of the 1972 book, Arbus recalls going to a dance at one of the institutions she was later to photograph, and speaks of a moment of epiphany:

…The woman who had brought me pointed out this man. She said, “Look at that man. He’s dying to dance with somebody but he’s afraid.” He was a sixty year old man and he was retarded and visually he was not interesting to me at all because there was nothing about him that looked strange. He just looked like any sixty year old man. He just looked sort of ordinary. We started to dance and he was very shy. In fact there was something about him that was left over from being eleven…. And then he said this incredible sentence. It was something like, “I used to worry about”—it was very slow—“I used to worry about being like this. Not knowing more. But now”—and his eyes sort of lit up—“now I don’t worry anymore.” Well, it was just totally knockout for me.

In Untitled, Arbus herself no longer has to worry. The burden of journalistic betrayal—“that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way”—has been lifted from her. The simple-minded (as they used to be more accurately called) are also the pure-hearted; they will not betray themselves, because they have nothing to betray. The flaws of preening vanity, pomposity, complacency, fatuity which force themselves upon the journalist’s attention as he moves about the world of the normal are absent from the world of those who don’t worry about not knowing enough. One can almost feel Arbus’s own relief as she moves about the world of Untitled and interacts with its benign inhabitants.

Arbus always worked as a participant observer. When she did a series on nudist camps, she would be naked herself as she photographed—her mordant and touching pictures testifying to her intimate knowledge of the seediness of the camps she visited (“…there’ll be an empty pop bottle or a rusty bobby pin underfoot, the lake bottom oozes mud in a particularly nasty way, the outhouse smells, the woods look mangy”) as well as to her sense of the profound goofiness of the whole enterprise of nudism. But how do you become a participant observer at an institution for the retarded? How do you pare yourself down? Arbus’s Untitled photographs chart her working-out of this koan; they reflect the strategies she used to close the gap between herself and her subjects—to, as it were, become retarded herself. One of these strategies was to rid herself of her professionalism and to take pictures as if she didn’t “know more” about photography than a child holding a camera in unsteady hands and leaving the exposure settings to chance. Many of the pictures in the book are blurred and gray and composed with apparent guilelessness. (An exception is the cover picture, an artful, very beautiful, sharply etched photograph of five people in masks and (in two cases) costumes standing in a row under a tree in late fall afternoon sunlight—the kind that picks out folds and creases in clothes with Ingres-like precision—with shadows closing in, as if they were actors in some ancient harvest pageant taking their bows.)

Another of Arbus’s strategies of participation is the purposeful frontality of so many of the photographs: one or two or more people stand facing Arbus and look at her as she looks at them; that’s it. The pictures enact the quality of straightforwardness by which her encounters with the retarded were evidently marked—as were their own encounters with one another. One can’t help noticing, as one leafs through the book, how many of the people facing Arbus are holding hands. We see this gesture of human dependency and reciprocity—which has been sentimentalized and propagandized into meaninglessness—very freshly here, as if for the first time. But it is in a picture that features a single person that Arbus makes what is perhaps her most audacious and delicate philosophical aside. The picture shows a plump woman, wearing a striped cotton dress and sneakers and no socks, lying stretched out on the grass on what must be a warm summer day. She lies with her arms extended luxuriously behind her head, and with one leg also stretched, while the other is bent at the knee to allow a sneakered toe to push against the grass. The woman’s eyes are half closed, and there is a beatific smile on her face. Her enjoyment is so complete and is communicated to us so forcefully (the toe pushing against the grass) that we receive an almost hallucinatory sense of the feel of the warm grassy earth beneath the body and the deliciousness of the air on the skin. Arbus has put us in the presence of one of those moments of existential rapture in which the phenomenon of human happiness seems proved, as if in math. “I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things,” she says in the text of the 1972 collection. “I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”

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