Walt Whitman tried to see beyond the difference between beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. It seemed to him servile or snobbish to make any discriminations of value, except the most generous ones. Great claims were made for candor by our boldest, most delirious prophet of cultural revolution. Nobody would fret about beauty and ugliness, he implied, who accepted a sufficiently large embrace of the real, of the inclusiveness and vitality of actual American experience. All facts, even mean ones, are incandescent in Whitman’s America—that ideal space, made real by history, where “as they emit themselves facts are showered with light.”
The Great American Cultural Revolution heralded in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) didn’t break out, which has disappointed many but surprised none. One great poet alone cannot change the moral weather; even when the poet has millions of Red Guards at his disposal, it is not easy. Like every seer of cultural revolution, Whitman thought he discerned art already being overtaken, and demystified, by reality. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” But when no cultural revolution took place, and the greatest of poems seemed less great in days of Empire than it had under the Republic, only other artists took seriously Whitman’s program of populist transcendence, of the democratic transvaluation of beauty and ugliness, importance and triviality. Far from having been themselves demystified by reality, the American arts—notably photography—now aspired to do the demystifying.
In photography’s early decades, photographs were expected to be idealized images. This is still the aim of most amateur photographers, for whom a beautiful photograph is a photograph of something beautiful, like a woman, a sunset. In 1915 Edward Steichen photographed a milk bottle on a tenement fire escape, an early example of a quite different idea of the beautiful photograph. And since the 1920s ambitious professionals, those whose work gets into museums, have steadily drifted away from lyrical subjects, conscientiously exploring plain, tawdry, or even ugly material. In recent decades, photography has succeeded in somewhat revising, for everybody, the definitions of what is beautiful and ugly—along the lines that Whitman had proposed. If (in Whitman’s words) “each precise object or condition or combination or process exhibits a beauty,” it becomes superficial to single out some things as beautiful and others as not. If “all that a person does or thinks is of consequence,” it becomes arbitrary to treat some moments in life as important and most as trivial.
To photograph is to confer importance. While there are subjects that cannot be beautified, there is no way to suppress the tendency inherent in all photographs to accord value to their subjects. But the meaning of value itself can be changed—as it has been in the contemporary culture of the photographic image which is a parody of Whitman’s evangel. In the mansions of pre-democratic culture, someone who gets photographed is a celebrity. In the open fields of American experience, as catalogued with passion by Whitman and as sized up with a shrug by Warhol, everybody is a celebrity. No moment is more important than any other moment; no person is more interesting than any other person.
The epigraph for the superb book of Walker Evans’s photographs is a passage from Whitman that sounds the theme of American photography’s most prestigious quest:
I do not doubt but the majesty & beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world…. I do not doubt there is far more in trivialities, insects, vulgar persons, slaves, dwarfs, weeds, rejected refuse, than I have supposed….
Whitman thought he was not abolishing beauty but generalizing it. So, for generations, did the most gifted American photographers, in their democratizing pursuit of the trivial and the vulgar. But among American photographers who have matured since World War II, the Whitmanesque mandate to record in its entirety the extravagant candors of actual American experience has gone sour. In photographing dwarfs you don’t get majesty & beauty. You get dwarfs.
Starting from the attic gallery-workroom Alfred Stieglitz ran for thirteen years (1905-1917) at 291 Fifth Avenue (first called the Photo-Secession Gallery, later simply “291”), the most ambitious forum of Whitmanesque judgments, American photography has moved from affirmation to erosion to, finally, a parody of Whitman’s program. In this history the most edifying figure is Walker Evans, who, if not the greatest American photographer, was surely the greatest photographer of America.1 Evans is the last great photographer to work seriously and assuredly in a mood deriving from Whitman’s euphoric humanism, summing up what had gone before, anticipating much of the cooler, ruder, bleaker photography that has been done since. (For example, the prescient series of “secret” photographs of anonymous New York subway riders that Evans did between 1938 and 1941.) But Evans broke with the heroic mode. He found Stieglitz’s work arty.
Like Whitman, Stieglitz saw no contradiction between making art an instrument of identification with the community and aggrandizing the artist as a heroic, romantic, self-expressing ego. Paul Rosenfeld praised him in his florid, brilliant book of essays, Port of New York (1924): “Alfred Stieglitz is of the company of the great affirmers of life. There is no matter in all the world so homely, trite, and humble that through it this man of the black box and chemical bath cannot express himself entire.” Photographing, and therefore redeeming, the homely, trite, and humble is also an ingenious means of individual self-expression.
“The photographer,” Rosenfeld writes of Stieglitz, “has cast the artist’s net wider into the material world than any man before him or alongside him.” Photography is a kind of overstatement, a heroic copulation with the material world. Evans sought a more impersonal kind of affirmation, a heroic reticence, a lucid understatement. Neither in the impersonal architectural still lifes of American facades and inventories of rooms that Evans loved to make nor in the moving portraits of Southern sharecroppers he took in the late 1930s (which became the book with James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) was Evans trying to express himself.
Even without the heroic inflection, Evans’s project still descends from Whitman’s: the leveling of discriminations between the beautiful and the ugly, the important and the trivial. Each thing or person photographed becomes—a photograph; and becomes, therefore, morally equivalent to any other photograph. Evans’s camera brought out the same formal beauty in the exteriors of Victorian houses in Boston in the early 1930s as in the store buildings on main streets in Alabama towns in 1936. But this was a leveling up, not down. Evans wanted his photographs to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent.” The moral universe of the 1930s being no longer ours, these adjectives are barely credible today.
Whitman preached empathy, concord in discord, oneness in diversity. Psychic intercourse with everything, everybody—plus sensual union (when he could get it)—is the giddy trip that is proposed explicitly, over and over and over, in the prefaces and the poems. This longing to proposition the whole world also dictated his poetry’s form and tone. Whitman’s poems are a psychic technology to chant the reader into a new state of being (a microcosm of the “new order” envisaged for the polity); they are functional as mantras, ways of transmitting charges of energy. The repetition, the bombastic cadence, the run-on lines, and the pushy diction are a rush of secular afflatus, meant to get readers psychically airborne, to boost them up to that height where they can identify with the past and with the community of American desire. But this message of identification with other Americans is foreign to our temperament now.
The last sigh of the Whitmanesque erotic embrace of the nation, but universalized and stripped of all demands, was heard in the “Family of Man” exhibit organized in 1955 by Edward Steichen, Stieglitz’s contemporary, and cofounder of Photo-Secession. Five hundred and three photographs by two hundred and seventy-three photographers from sixty-eight countries were supposed to converge—to prove that humanity is “one” and that human beings, for all their flaws, are attractive creatures. The people in the photographs were of all races, ages, classes, physical types. Many of them had exceptionally beautiful bodies; some had beautiful faces. As Whitman urged the readers of his poems to identify with him and with America, Steichen set up the show to make it possible for each viewer to identify with a great many people depicted and potentially with the subject of every photograph: citizens of World Photography all.
It was not until seventeen years later that photography again attracted such crowds at the Museum of Modern Art: for the retrospective of Diane Arbus’s work that was shown between November, 1972, and February, 1973. In the Arbus show, a hundred and twelve photographs all taken by one person and all similar—that is, everyone in them looks (in some sense) the same—impose a feeling exactly contrary to the reassuring warmth of Steichen’s material. Instead of people whose appearance pleases, representative folk doing their human thing, the Arbus show lines up assorted monsters and border-line cases—most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothes; in dismal or barren surroundings—who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not “one.”
The Arbus photographs convey the anti-humanist message which people of good will in the 1970s are eager to be troubled by, just as they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. There’s not as much difference between these messages as one might suppose. The Steichen show was an up and the Arbus show was a down, but either experience serves equally well to rule out a historical understanding of reality.
Steichen’s choice of photographs assumes a “human condition” or a “human nature” shared by everybody. By purporting to show that human beings are born, work, laugh, and die everywhere in the same way, the “Family of Man” systematically denies the determining weight of history—of genuine and historically embedded differences, injustices, and conflicts. Arbus’s photographs suggest a world in which everybody is an alien—hopelessly isolated, immobilized in mechanical, crippled identities and relationships. But both the pious uplift of Steichen’s photograph anthology and the cool horror of the Arbus retrospective render history and politics irrelevant. One does so by universalizing the human condition, into joy; the other by atomizing it, into horror.
Diane Arbus’s photographs are a good place to examine more closely this recent and widespread turn of the American sensibility downward—into a pessimism that, at the turn of the century, would have been routinely labeled as decadent, but which now is hailed as simply tough-minded. Professional and successful as a fashion photographer since her late teens, Arbus began doing serious photography only around 1958 when she was thirty-seven, and died in 1971; about a decade of work is represented in the Museum show and the book. Only three of the 112 photographs in the retrospective are landscapes: either dead, or, literally, fake. The rest are portraits, most of them of a single person or some kind of couple; and all the people are grotesques.
The ambiguity of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most visible enterprises—concentrating on victims, the unfortunate, the dispossessed—but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve. Arbus’s work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as horrible, repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings. Nevertheless, despite this evident coolness of tone, the photographs have been scoring moral points all along with critics. For what might be judged as their dissociated and naïve point of view, the photographs have been praised for their candor and for an unsentimental empathy with their subjects. What is actually their aggressiveness toward the public has been turned into a moral accomplishment: that the photographs don’t allow the viewer any distance from the subject.
None of the qualities of Arbus’s work makes this line of praise convincing. In their acceptance of the appalling, the photographs suggest a naïveté that is both coy and sinister, for it is based entirely on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. Buñuel, when asked once why he made movies, said that it was “to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds.” Arbus took photographs to show something simpler—that there is another world.
The other world is to be found, as usual, inside this one. It explodes in photographing freaks. New York, with its drag balls and welfare hotels, was rich with freaks. And there was also a carnival in Maryland (1970), where Arbus found a human pincushion, a hermaphrodite with a dog, a tattooed man, and an albino sword-swallower; nudist camps in New Jersey (1963) and in Pennsylvania (1965); Disneyland and a Hollywood set, for their “landscapes” without people; and the unidentified mental hospital where she took some of her last, and most disturbing, photographs. And then there was plain daily life, with its endless supply of oddities—if one has the eye to see them. The camera has the power to catch so-called normal people in such a way as to make them look extremely disturbed. The camera chooses oddity, chases it, names it, elects it, frames it, develops it, titles it.
“You see someone on the street,” Arbus wrote, “and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.” The insistent sameness of Arbus’s work, however far she ranges from her prototypical subjects, suggests that her sensibility, armed with a camera, could insinuate anguish, kinkiness, mental illness with any subject. Two photographs are of crying babies; the babies look disturbed, crazy. Resembling or having something in common with someone else also nourished Arbus’s morbid sensibility. It may be two girls (not sisters) wearing identical raincoats whom Arbus photographed together in Central Park; or the twins and triplets who appear in several pictures. Many photographs point with perverse wonder to the fact that two people form a couple. In Arbus’s photographs, every couple is an odd couple: straight or gay, black or white, in an old-age home or in a junior high. People were freaky because they didn’t wear clothes, like nudists; or because they did, like the waitress in the nudist camp who’s wearing an apron.
Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak—a boy waiting to march in a pro-war parade, wearing his straw boater and his “Bomb Hanoi” button; the King and Queen of a Senior Citizens Dance; a thirtyish Westchester couple sprawled in their lawn chairs; a widow sitting alone in her cluttered bedroom. In “A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970,” the parents look like midgets, as freakish as their enormous son hunched over them because the living-room ceiling is too low.
The authority of Arbus’s photographs comes from the contrast between their lacerating subject matter and their calm, matter-of-fact attentiveness. This quality of attention—the attention paid by the photographer, the attention paid by the subject to the act of being photographed—creates the moral theater of Arbus’s straight-on, contemplative portraits. Far from spying on freaks and pariahs, catching them unawares, the photographer has gotten to know them, reassured them—so that they pose for her as calmly and stiffly as any Victorian notable sat for a studio portrait by Nadar or Julia Margaret Cameron. A large part of the mystery of Arbus’s 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.
The subject of Arbus’s photographs is, to borrow the stately Hegelian label, “the unhappy consciousness.” But most characters in Arbus’s Grand Guignol don’t know (or appear not to know) that they are ugly. Arbus photographs people in various degrees of unconscious relation to their pain, their ugliness. This necessarily limits what kinds of horrors she might have been drawn to photograph: it excludes sufferers who presumably know they are suffering, like victims of accidents, wars, famines, and political persecution. Arbus would never have taken pictures of accidents, events that break into a life; she specialized in slow-motion private smash-ups, most of which had been going on since the subject’s birth.
Though most viewers are ready to imagine that these people, certainly the members of the sexual underworld as well as the genetic freaks, are unhappy, in few of the pictures do people actually show psychic distress. The photographs of deviates and real freaks don’t stress their pain; rather, their detachment and autonomy. The female impersonators in their dressing rooms, the Russian midgets in a living-room on 100th Street, the Mexican dwarf in his Manhattan hotel room, and their kin are mostly shown as cheerful, self-accepting, matter-of-fact, unselfconscious. Pain is more legible in the portraits of the normals: the quarreling elderly couple on a park bench, the lady bartender in New Orleans at home with her souvenir dog, the boy clutching the toy hand grenade in Central Park.
Brassaï denounced photographers who try to trap their subjects off guard, in the erroneous belief that something special will be revealed about them.2 In the world colonized by Arbus, subjects are always revealing themselves. There is no “privileged moment.” Arbus’s view that self-revelation is a continuous, evenly distributed process is another way of maintaining the Whitmanesque imperative: treat all moments as of equal consequence. Like Brassaï, Arbus wanted her subjects to be as fully conscious as possible, aware of the act in which they were participating. Instead of trying to coax the subject into a “natural” or typical position, the subject is encouraged to be awkward—that is, to pose. (Thereby, the revelation of self gets identified with what is strange, askew.) Standing or sitting stiffly makes them seem like images of themselves.
In most Arbus pictures, the subjects are looking straight into the camera. This often makes them look even odder, almost deranged.3 In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness. It discloses the subject’s essence. That’s why frontal portraits seem right for ceremonies (like weddings, graduations) but less apt for photographs used on billboards to advertise political candidates. (For politicians the three-quarter gaze is more common: not the gaze that confronts but the gaze that soars; instead of the relation to the viewer, to the present, the more ennobling abstract relation to the future.) What makes the frontal pose odd in Arbus’s photographs is that her subjects are often people one would not expect to surrender themselves so amiably and ingenuously to the camera. Thus, in Arbus’s photographs, frontality also implies in the most vivid way the subject’s cooperation. To get these subjects to pose, the photographer has had to enter into a mysterious relation with them: has had to gain their confidence, has had to become “friends.” Photographing freaks “had a terrific excitement for me,” Arbus wrote. “I just used to adore them.”
Perhaps the scariest moment in Tod Browning’s film Freaks (1932) is the wedding banquet scene, when a table full of pinheads, bearded women, Siamese twins, and living torsos dance and sing their acceptance of the wicked normal-sized Cleopatra, who has just married the gullible midget hero. “One of us! One of us! One of us!” they chant as a loving cup is passed from mouth to mouth to be finally presented to the nauseated bride by an exuberant dwarf. Arbus makes some curious reflections about the charm and hypocrisy and discomfort of fraternizing with freaks. Following the elation of discovery, there is the thrill of having won their confidence, of not being afraid of them, of having mastered their terrors.
Diane Arbus’s photographs were already famous to people who follow photography when she killed herself in July, 1971, at the age of forty-nine. But, as with Sylvia Plath, the attention she has gotten since her death is much larger and of another order—a kind of apotheosis. The fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic (like Jacopetti’s Mondo Cane), that it is compassionate, not cold. It also seems to make the photographs more devastating, as if the suicide proved the photographs to have been dangerous to her.
She herself suggested the possibility. “Everything is so superb and so breathtaking,” Arbus once wrote of her work. “I am creeping forward on my belly like they do in war movies.” While photography is normally an omnipotent, and predatory, viewing from a distance, there is one situation when people do get killed for taking pictures: when they photograph people killing each other. Only war photography combines voyeurism and danger. Combat photographers can’t avoid participating in the deadly activity they record; they even wear military uniforms, though without rank badges. To say that life is “really a melodrama” (as Arbus claimed to have discovered through taking pictures), to understand the camera as a weapon of aggression, implies there will be casualties. “I’m sure there are limits,” she wrote. “God knows, when the troops start advancing on you, you do approach that stricken feeling where you perfectly well can get killed.” Arbus’s words in retrospect suggest a kind of combat death: having trespassed certain limits, she fell in a psychic ambush, a casualty of her own candor and curiosity.
In the old romance of the artist, any person who has the temerity to spend a season in hell risks not coming out alive or coming back psychically destroyed. The heroic avant-gardism of French literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries furnishes classic instances of artists who do not survive their trips to hell. Still, there is a huge difference between the activity of a photographer, which is always willed, and the activity of a writer, which may not be. One can be compelled to tell the story of one’s own pain. One volunteers to seek out the pain of others.
Thus what is finally most troubling in Arbus’s photographs is not their subjects at all but the cumulative impression of the photographer’s consciousness: the sense that what is presented is precisely a private vision, something voluntary. Arbus was not a writer delving into her entrails to relate her own pain, but a photographer with a camera—venturing out into the world to collect images that are painful. When pain is sought, the Reichian explanation seems more relevant than the example of Sylvia Plath. The masochist’s taste for pain does not come from a love of pain at all, Reich explains, but from the hope of procuring, by means of pain, a strong sensation; those handicapped by emotional or sensory analgesia only prefer pain to not feeling anything at all. But there is another explanation of why people seek pain, diametrically opposed to Reich’s, that also seems pertinent: that they seek it not to feel more but to feel less.
In so far as looking at most of these photographs is, undeniably, an ordeal, Arbus’s work is typical of the kind of art popular among sophisticated urban people right now: art that is a self-willed test of hardness. The photographs offer an occasion to demonstrate that life’s horror can be faced without squeamishness. The photographer once had to say to herself, OK, I can accept that; the viewer is invited to make the same declaration.
Arbus’s work is a good instance of a leading tendency of high art in capitalist countries: to suppress, or at least reduce, moral and sensory queasiness. Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible. By getting us used to what, formerly, we could not bear to see or hear, because it was too shocking, painful, or embarrassing, art changes morals—that body of psychic custom and public sanctions that sets a vague boundary between what is emotionally and spontaneously intolerable and what is not.
The gradual suppression of queasiness does bring us closer to a rather formal truth: life is, and always was, more than the taboos constructed by art and morals would have it. But there is a stiff price to pay for the rising grotesqueness that people are able to stomach, in images (moving and still) and in print. For most people it works not as a liberation of but as a subtraction from the self; a sense of pseudo-familiarity with the horrible reinforces alienation, making people less able to react in real life. What happens to their feelings on first exposure to today’s standard pornographic film product or to a televised genocide is not so different from what happens when they first look at Arbus’s photographs.
The photographs make a compassionate response seem irrelevant. The point is not to be upset, to be able to confront the horrible with cheerfulness. But this look that is not compassionate is a special, modern ethical construction: not hard-hearted, certainly not cynical, but simply (or falsely) naïve. To the painful nightmarish reality “out there,” Arbus applies such words as “terrific,” “interesting,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” “sensational”—the childlike wonder of the Warhol pop mentality. Arbus’s breathless, deliberately naïve comments (collected from notes, letters, tapes of her lectures) which form the preface to the book are quite remarkable. Photography is a device that captures it all, that seduces people into disclosing their secrets, that broadens experience. To photograph people, Arbus writes, is necessarily “cruel,” “mean.” The important thing is not to blink.
“Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do,” Arbus wrote. The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives—only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting “natives” and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences, or find new ways to look at familiar subjects—to fight against boredom. For boredom is the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other. “The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination,” Arbus once commented. Photographing an appalling underworld (and a horrible, plastic overworld), she has no intention of entering into the horror of those images as experienced by the inhabitants of those worlds. They are to remain exotic, hence “terrific.” Her view is always from the outside.
“I’m very little drawn to photographing people that are known or even subjects that are known,” Arbus wrote. “They fascinate me when I’ve barely heard of them.” However interested Arbus was in freaks or in very ugly people, it would never have occurred to her to photograph thalidomide babies or napalm victims—“public” horrors, deformities with sentimental or moral associations. Arbus was not interested in ethical journalism. She was drawn to subjects that she could believe were found, just lying about, without any values attached to them. These subjects are necessarily ahistorical: “private” rather than public pathology, secret lives rather than open ones.
For Arbus, the camera photographs the unknown. But unknown to whom? Unknown to someone who is basically protected, middle-class, who has been taught to see life in terms of moral response and prudence. Like Nathanael West, another artist who was fascinated by the deformed and the mutilated, Arbus came from a moralistic, inexorably upward-mobile, verbally skilled, compulsively well-nourished, genteel, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, where minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness, and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid,” Arbus wrote, “was that I never felt adversity. I was confined in a sense of unreality…. And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” Feeling much the same discontent, West was exhilarated by his job as a nightclerk in a seedy Manhattan hotel in 1927. The camera became Arbus’s way of procuring experience, and thereby acquiring a sense of reality. By experience was meant if not material adversity at least psychological adversity—the shock of immersion in experiences that cannot be beautified, the encounter with what is taboo, perverse, evil.
Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, her sense of being privileged. The 1930s yield few examples of this kind of anguish, apart from West. More typically, it is the sensibility of someone educated and middle-class who came of age after 1935 and before 1955—a sensibility that was to flourish precisely in the 1960s.
The decade of Arbus’s serious work coincides with, and is very much of, the 1960s. That was the decade in which freaks went public and became a safe, approved subject of art. What in the 1930s would be treated with anguish—for example, in Miss Lonely-hearts—would in the 1960s be treated in a perfectly deadpan way. At the beginning of the 1960s, the thriving Freak Show at Coney Island was outlawed; sometime in the 1970s the Times Square turf of drag queens and hustlers will undoubtedly be razed and replaced by skyscrapers. As the deviant underworlds are evicted from their restricted territories—banned as unseemly, a public nuisance, obscene, or just unprofitable—they increasingly come to infiltrate consciousness as the subject matter of art, acquiring a certain diffused legitimacy and metaphoric stature which creates all the more distance.
Who could have better appreciated the truth of freaks than someone who was, by profession, a fashion photographer—a professional fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the terrifying freakish world? Arbus began as a photographer doing ads for Russeks, her father’s Fifth Avenue department store, in her late teens, a job she continued to hold for twenty years. Even after starting her “serious” work she went on being a fashion photographer. (As recently as a year before her death, she did twenty-four pages of vacuous photographs for a New York Times Sunday section on children’s fashions.) Unlike Warhol, who spent many years as a commercial artist (doing such things as designing shoe ads and displays for I. Miller), Arbus did not make her serious work out of promoting and kidding the commercial aesthetic in which she had been schooled, but turned her back on it entirely.
Arbus’s work is not ironic, like Warhol’s, but reactive—reactive against gentility, against being protected. It was her way of saying fuck Vogue, fuck fashion, fuck what’s pretty. This challenge has two not wholly compatible strands. One is a revolt against the Jews’ hyperdeveloped moral sensibility. The other revolt, itself hotly moralistic, turns against the success world. In the more militant, moralistic, subversion, life as a failure is the antidote to life as a success. In the aesthete’s subversion which the Sixties was to make peculiarly its own, life as a horrorshow is the antidote to life as a bore.
Most of Arbus’s work lies within the Warhol aesthetic, that is, defines itself in relation to the twin poles of boringness and freakishness; but it doesn’t have the Warhol style. Arbus had neither Warhol’s genius for publicity nor the self-protective shrug with which he insulates himself from the freaky nor his sentimentality. And Warhol, from a working-class background, never felt any of the ambivalence toward success which afflicted the children of the Jewish upper middle classes in the 1960s. For someone raised as a Catholic, as was Warhol (and virtually everyone in his gang), a fascination with evil comes much more genuinely than it does to someone from a Jewish background. Compared with Warhol, Arbus is more vulnerable, more innocent, and certainly more pessimistic. The Dantesque vision of the city (and the suburbs) in Arbus’s photographs has no reserves of irony. Much of Arbus’s material is the same as that depicted in, say, Warhol’s Chelsea Girls. But her photographs never play with horror, milking it for laughs; they offer no opening to mockery, as do the films of Warhol and Morrissey or, more recently, John Waters’s Pink Flamingos. She allows no possibility of finding freaks endearing, as with the character played by Holly Woodlawn in Morrissey’s Trash.
Back in 1967, when the Museum of Modern Art first exhibited some of Arbus’s photographs, some staff members hesitated, worrying about the photographs of transvestites, and particularly about showing nudity. Only five years later, such hesitation was unthinkable. Preceded (in most of the spectators’ awareness) by Warholiana, gay lib, drag rock, Tod Browning revivals, the freak parades of Fellini and Alejandro Jodorowsky, R. Crumb comics, and the grotesqueries of the neighborhood porn films, Arbus’s photographs are practically the art of everyday life.
The cultural distance traversed in just a few years, between 1967 and 1972, is on its way to shifting once more. Arbus’s work expressed her turn against what was “public” (as she experienced it), approved, pretty, safe, reassuring—and boring—in favor of what was “private,” hidden, ugly, dangerous, and fascinating. Already, by the early 1970s, these terms have changed; or become more complicated. The public is no longer “safe.” Freaky is no longer “private.” People who are deformed, in sexual disgrace, dispossessed, are “public” images, too. And we are still farther away from the moral soil in which Arbus’s fantasies took root.
For the daughter of a well-off Jewish family, born in New York City in 1921, both freaks and Middle America were equally exotic. A boy marching in a pro-war parade and a Levittown housewife were as alien to Arbus as a Mexican midget or a drag queen; lower-middle-class suburbia was as remote as Times Square, Coney Island, and gay bars. But for New Yorkers born after 1945, however comfortable their family circumstances, that world could not be so fascinating. Freaks, Middle America, the sexual underground are no longer remote. They’re to be seen daily on TV, in the subways. Hobbesian man roams the streets, quite visible, with glitter in his hair.
Arbus tried to stay unsophisticated when she began doing her serious work. Ignoring her forerunners in American photography, and her relation to such Europeans as Brassaï, Arbus said that she felt closest to an anti-art photographer, Weegee, the tabloid features photographer famous in the 1940s for his brutal pictures of crime and accident victims. Weegee’s photographs are indeed upsetting, his sensibility is urban; but the similarity between his work and Arbus’s ends there. However much she was eager to disavow sophistication, Arbus was not unsophisticated. And there is nothing journalistic about her method of photographing. What may seem journalistic (read “sensational”) in Arbus’s photographs places them, rather, in the main tradition of Surrealist art—with their taste for the grotesque, the proclaimed innocence with respect to their subjects, their claim that all subjects are merely objets trouvés.
“I would never choose a subject for what it meant to me when I think of it,” Arbus wrote, a dogged exponent of the Surrealist bluff. Presumably, the viewers are not supposed to judge the people she photographs. Of course, we do. And the very range of Arbus’s subjects itself constitutes a judgment. Brassaï, who photographed people like those who interested Arbus—see his ” ‘Bijou’ of Montmartre” of 1932—also did beautiful cityscapes, portraits of famous artists. Walker Evans’s Chicago street portraits of 1946 are Arbus material. So are a number of photographs by Robert Frank. The difference is in the range of other subjects, other emotions, that Brassaï, Evans, and Frank also photographed. Arbus is an auteur in the sense in which that is most limiting, as special a case in the history of photography as is Morandi, who has spent a lifetime painting bottles, in the history of modern European painting. Arbus does not, like the great photographers, play the field of subject matter—even a little. On the contrary, all her subjects are equivalent, and it is this that constitutes the judgment at the heart of her work. Making equivalences between freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and nudists is a very powerful judgment. It is, indeed, a politics.
The photographs are hardly political in a narrow sense (being a hymn to the isolation and atomization of the individual) but they are in complicity with a particular political mood. To use a crude index: most people who like Arbus’s photographs voted for McGovern. People who voted for Nixon couldn’t like them. The canonization of Arbus’s work since her death says a lot about where urban, educated, left-liberal Americans are in the early 1970s. They are into a certain Gothic vision of America. All Arbus’s photographs are similar. They could all have been taken in one village in Lower Slobbovia. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of finding identity between things which are wildly and richly different (the Whitman dream), everybody looks the same.
Standing far from the Whitmanesque buoyancy is a bitter, sad embrace of experience. But the seeds of melancholy were already present even in the heyday of Whitmanesque affirmation, as represented by Stieglitz and his Photo-Secession circle. Stieglitz, pledged to redeem the world with the camera, is still shocked by modern material civilization. He photographed New York in the 1910s, as Berenice Abbott did between 1929 and 1939, in an almost quixotic spirit—camera/lance against the windmill/skyscrapers. According to Rosenfeld, Stieglitz’s work is “perpetual affirmation of a faith that there existed, somewhere, here in very New York, a spiritual America.” The Whitmanesque appetites have turned pious: the photographer now patronizes reality. One needs a camera to show that “running right through the dull and marvelous opacity called the United States” are spiritual patterns.
Obviously, a mission as rotten with doubt about America—even at its most optimistic—was bound to get deflated fairly soon, as post-World War I America committed itself more boldly to Empire and consumerism. Photographers with less ego and magnetism than Stieglitz gradually gave up the struggle. They might continue to practice the atomistic visual stenography inspired by Whitman. But, without Whitman’s delirious powers of synthesis, what they documented was discontinuity, material detritus, loneliness, greed.
Once a small tendency in photography, Surrealism has now become the dominant one. America has been discovered as the quintessential Surrealist country. Diane Arbus discovers America is freaks. Michael Lesy, making a collage of photographs that date from turn of the century Wisconsin, discovers that we are on a “death trip.” Since photography cut loose from the Whitmanesque affirmation—since it has ceased to understand what it could mean for photographs to aim at being literate, authoritative, and transcendent—the best of American photography (and much else in American culture) has given itself over to Surrealism.
It is simply too easy to say that America is just a freak show—the Surrealist judgment. Arbus reflects a cut-rate pessimism, naïve and, above all, reductive. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment. It can make out of history only a garbage can, a joke, a lunatic asylum. But Americans are partial to myths of redemption and of damnation. With Whitman’s dream of cultural revolution discredited, all we have left is a sharp-eyed, witty despair.
(This is the second of three articles on photography.)
November 15, 1973
I suppose that Paul Strand is the greatest American photographer, as D. W. Griffith (alas!) is our greatest film director. Strand is simply the biggest, widest, most commanding talent in the history of American photography. ↩
Not an error, really. There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they are. This is the interest of Walker Evans’s series of subway riders. He rode the New York subways for hundreds of hours, standing between rush hours with the lens of his camera peering between two buttons of his topcoat, his eyes focused on the bench opposite. In these pictures it is obvious that the subway riders, although photographed close and frontally, didn’t know they were being photographed; their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera. ↩
And it makes them look even freakier. Compare a 1912 photograph by Lartigue of a woman in a plumed hat and veil (“Racecourse at Nice”) with Arbus’s “Woman With a Veil on Fifth Avenue, NYC, 1968.” Apart from the characteristic ugliness of Arbus’s subject (Lartigue’s subject is, just as characteristically, beautiful), what makes the woman in Arbus’s photograph strange is the bold unselfconsciousness of her pose. If the Lartigue woman looked back, she could be made to look almost as strange. ↩