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Good Pictures

Diane Arbus Revelations

Catalog of the exhibition by Sandra S. Phillips, Elisabeth Sussman, Doon Arbus, Neil Selkirk, and Jeff L. Rosenheim
an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 25, 2003–February 8, 2004.
Random House, 351 pp., $100.00

Diane Arbus: Family Albums

Catalog of the exhibition by Anthony W. Lee and John Pultz
an exhibition at the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art, South Hadley, Massachusetts, December 2–December 17, 2003; and the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York City, January 13–March 27, 2004
Yale University Press/Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art/University of Kansas Spencer Museum of Art, 168 pp., $35.00 (paper)


On January 7, 1971, Diane Arbus conducted interviews with prospective students of a photography master class she would teach that winter—the last winter of her life—and wrote about the interviewees thus:

…one after another would parade into this empty room like as if I was a burlesque producer or a pimp…their pictures mostly bored me and I had a slight feeling like I didn’t know what was wrong with ‘em, they werent after all so wildly different from Good pictures, except there was that mysterious thing…I didn’t want to look at them, as if it might be catching and I would end up learning from the students how to take just such boring pix as those.1

If the threat of taking boring pix hangs over every photographer of ambition, Diane Arbus was perhaps more conscious of it than any other photographer. Her photographs relentlessly tell us how interesting they are; they dare us to look away from them. If our favorite thing in the world is not to look at pictures of freaks and transvestites and nudists and mentally retarded people, this cuts no ice with Arbus. She forces us to acknowledge that these are no ordinary unpleasant pictures of society’s discards. They are photographs only Diane Arbus could have taken. The question of whether they are also great works of photography remains undetermined thirty years after her death. Arbus is not universally beloved the way, say, Walker Evans is. Interestingly (and fittingly), she herself did not love Evans. Of the 1971 Evans retrospective at MOMA she wrote: “First I was totally whammied by it. Like THERE is a photographer, it was so endless and pristine. Then by the third time I saw it I realized how it really bores me. Can’t bear most of what he photographs.”2

There are those who can’t bear most of what Arbus photographs. Writing in these pages in 1984, the late Jonathan Lieberson complained that “her photographs call too much attention to her, one is too much reminded that her success as a photographer consists in her ‘figuring’ herself into a strange situation and too much invited to ask how she did it.” Comparing Arbus’s “cold, dead elegance” to the messy naturalism of Weegee, Lieberson concluded that “there is something life-denying, at any rate not quite human, about it that prevents it from being altogether first-rate.” More recently, Jed Perl wrote in The New Republic: “…if directness is photography’s glory, it is also liable to be manipulated, used as a sort of all-purpose rhetorical device, until frankness itself becomes a form of obfuscation or artiness—which is a fair description, I think, of the work of Diane Arbus.” Perl went on to describe Arbus as “one of those devious bohemians who celebrate other people’s eccentricities and are all the while aggrandizing their own narcissistically pessimistic view of the world,” and to bitterly note that “the woman and her work are exerting as strong an attraction today as they did at the time of the posthumous retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972.”

The occasion for Lieberson’s calm disdain was the publication of Patricia Bosworth’s unauthorized biography of Arbus. Perl’s excited harshness was set off by the publication of a huge new book of Arbus’s photographs entitled Revelations that accompanies a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and is generating a galling aura of success. Two excellent sympathetic essays on Arbus—one by Judith Thurman in The New Yorker and the other by Arthur Lubow in The New York Times Magazine—have buttressed the sense of a notable cultural event, as have ubiquitous shorter positive notices. The new book adds many new photographs to the Arbus oeuvre and offers an authorized version of Arbus’s life. It adds, as such publications are designed to do, great luster to the figure of Arbus; it makes a kind of institution of her. But it also, unwittingly and perhaps inevitably, blurs the radicalism of the achievement that has made her life an object of avid interest.

The Bosworth biography, which was largely based on Bosworth’s interviews with self-promoting contemporaries—ungentlemanly men who couldn’t resist boasting of sleeping with Arbus and faithless women who couldn’t wait to betray Arbus’s confidences—was almost universally disliked. “A pall of smut hangs over the book,” Lieberson icily wrote, deploring the portrait of Arbus that emerges as “brooding and morbid and sexually perverse, slightly absurd as she runs about asking her friends if they know any ‘battered people’ or ‘freaks’ she can photograph.”

Although Revelations never mentions Bosworth’s book, it contains an obvious corrective to it in the form of a biographical account, entitled “A Chronology,” written by Doon Arbus, Diane’s older daughter, and Elisabeth Sussman, one of the curators of the San Francisco show. Here, in the place of the base metal of unreliable, self-serving hearsay, we have the solid gold of letters and diary entries and compositions written by Arbus herself. These are quoted at length, and accompanied by great numbers of photographs of family members and friends and Arbus herself. And guess what? Arbus comes out looking just as brooding and morbid and sexually perverse and absurd. Where Bosworth, for example, offered secondhand and sometimes thirdhand accounts of the sex orgies Arbus participated in and photographed, the “Chronology” actually shows a photograph of a naked Arbus lying across the lap of a half-dressed black man. Quotations from the letters to which Bosworth was denied access similarly corroborate the impression of waifish un- wholesomeness that Bosworth’s book gives. “I need to be forlorn and anonymous in order to be truly happy,” Arbus writes to a friend in 1967; and, writing from London in 1970: “Nobody seems miserable, drunk, crippled, mad, or desperate. I finally found a few vulgar things in the suburbs, but nothing sordid yet.” In her afterword, Doon Arbus writes that the “Chronology” “amounts to a kind of autobiography.” But it amounts to no such thing. Autobiography is the art of choosing what you want the world to know about you. Arbus had no more say in what would be quoted from her letters and journals than she had in what her contemporaries would blab into a tape recorder.

In a memoir of Arbus published in Ms. magazine in 1972, Doon recalls the wrestling matches in bed she had with her mother:

She always beat me. Every time. And when I think of it now, I have the feeling she tricked me into losing. I was always worried about being too rough with her…and always, I think, a little embarrassed by her enthusiasm for the contest, so that I would start to laugh, laugh too hard to concentrate, and it would end with me pinned on my back and her smiling placidly down at me.

The positions are now reversed. Doon is smiling down on Arbus. Doon has achieved a fame of her own for the draconian control she has exercised as executor of the Arbus estate. She has withheld permission to reproduce Arbus’s photographs from writers who either refused to submit texts for her approval or balked at making the changes she proposed. In October 1993, the journal October printed a box explaining why there were no illustrations accompanying an essay on Arbus by Carol Armstrong. October had submitted the text to Doon and received a five-page single-spaced letter proposing changes that med-dled with content and were, of course, unacceptable. Thirteen years earlier, Ingrid Sischy, editor of Artforum, also had chosen to forgo illustrations for an article on Arbus by Shelley Rice. “Permission would be granted only on the condition that the article be read before a permission deci-sion could be reached. Artforum is not willing to accommodate compromising stipulations,” Sischy wrote in her editor’s note. Doon defends her obstructionism in an afterword in Revelations:

[Diane Arbus] was turning into a phenomenon and that phenomenon, while posing no threat to her, began endangering the pictures. She had achieved a form of immunity but the photographs had not. The photographs needed me. Well, they needed someone. Someone to keep track of them, to safeguard them—however unsuccessfully—from an onslaught of theory and interpretation, as if translating images into words were the only way to make them visible.

It is a measure of the power Doon wields in the Arbus world that no one dared to protect her against saying something so breathtakingly silly in print. Theory and interpretation, far from threatening works of art, keep them alive. Even negative interpretations like Lieberson’s and Perl’s are tributes to Arbus’s vitality. Doon sees danger where none exists, and misses seeing it where it does. Photographers need to be protected not against critics’ words, but against photography’s plenitude. If a photographer’s achievement is not to be buried under an avalanche of images, his offerings to the world must be drastically pruned. As candidates for Good pictures are extracted from contact sheets, so a photographer’s extraordinary work needs to be culled from his merely good work.

Revelations is hardly the first collection to illustrate the truism that in photography more is less. The bulky books of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs that followed the small, perfect book of his photographs of the Thirties and Forties put out by the Museum of Modern Art in 1947 are among the more egregious examples of this kind of editorial misguidedness. But that the keeper of the Rhine gold of Arbus’s photography should have so miscalculated is surprising. Doon had it right thirty years ago when she edited and designed, in collaboration with Arbus’s friend Marvin Israel, the book called Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. The eighty images in this incomparable collection constitute the body of work by which Arbus has been known and judged. Almost every image is an example of Arbus’s style at its most essential and inimitable, and the book as a whole represents photographic publishing at its most distinguished.

The order in which the eighty images appear is neither chronological nor determined by subject, but has a mysterious brilliant logic. As one leafs through the book, one is drawn into Arbus’s world in the way one is drawn into the world of a novel. That all the photographs appear on right-hand pages facing left-hand pages blank except for a title and date gives them a weight and force they would surely not have in a more economic arrangement. We read the photographs more slowly, and by so doing more firmly grasp their artfulness. The content of Arbus’s photographs is more talked about than their form, but the content would not be what it is without the form. She did not just go out and take quik pix of her freaks and transvestites and nudists. As the Aperture book underscores with its repetitive series of frontal portraits, she got them to pose for her and, whenever possible, she placed them against a plain background. Arbus is hardly the first photographer to have understood the aesthetic value of the plain background, but her superimposition of this formalist device on the subject matter that was the traditional domain of informal, documentary photography is her own distinctive gesture. In the view of Arbus’s admirers, the “cold, dead elegance” of her pictures, far from being something to complain about, is precisely what gives them their transfixing power.

  1. 1

    Letter to Allan Arbus and Mariclare Costello, January 11, 1971.

  2. 2

    Letter to Allan Arbus and Mariclare Costello, January 31, 1971.

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