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.
The most novel feature of the Aperture monograph, and perhaps the editors’ canniest move, is the absence of any prefatory critical text. Instead, there are fifteen pages of short fragments of Arbus’s speech and writing—derived largely from a tape recording made by one of the students in the 1971 class, as well as from interviews and letters—from which Arbus emerges with the vividness (and some of the speech mannerisms) of a Salinger character. As rendered by the fragments, Arbus is as brilliant and likable and amusing and off-kilter as a Glass. Here she is on the people she photographs:
Actually, they tend to like me. I’m extremely likable 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 Ooooo. I hear myself saying, “How terrific,” and there’s this woman making a face. I really mean its terrific. I don’t mean I wish I looked like that. I don’t mean I wish my children looked like that. I don’t mean in my private life I want to kiss you. But I mean that’s amazingly, undeniably something.
And on freaks:
Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot…. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. 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.
And on her own achievement:
I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. 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.
This is all very disarming (what a clever rhetorical stroke that “a little embarrassing to me” is) and it hovers over the pictures. A photograph may be worth a thousand words, but a photograph and words—the right words—are an unbeatable combination. Looking at Arbus’s pictures of freaks in the light of her remark about the test they’ve passed in life is to look at them with new eyes.
Revelations, in contrast, causes us to look at Arbus’s work with tired eyes. The book reminds me of a porch I know with a lovely view of a valley, but where no one ever sits, because it is crammed from floor to ceiling with mattresses, broken chairs, TV sets, piles of dishes, cat carriers, baby strollers, farm implements, unfinished woodworking projects, cartons of back issues of Popular Mechanics, black plastic bags filled with who knows what. Revelations, following a recent trend of gigantism among the publications that accompany museum photography shows,3 is similarly encumbered. In addition to the 104-page “Chronology” (itself crammed with illustrations) and Doon’s afterword, there is a long essay by the other curator of the San Francisco exhibition, Sandra S. Phillips, also heavily illustrated, a short essay on Arbus’s darkroom technique by Neil Selkirk, who had worked with Arbus, and printed her photographs after her death, eleven pages of biographical notes by Jeff L. Rosenheim, associate curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum, on people who appear in the “Chronology,” fourteen pages of footnotes, and the obligatory director’s letter by Neal Benezra of the San Francisco Museum and a sponsor’s statement by Charles Schwab.
But what distinguishes the book from other recent SUVs of photography publishing, and makes them inoffensive in comparison, is the way Arbus’s photographs are presented. There is no one place in the book devoted to the work. Instead, someone had the horrible idea of mingling Arbus’s photographs with the various texts. You look at a few pages of Arbus photographs, and then bump into one of the texts. Then there are more Arbus photographs, and then another bump. This is no way to look at photographs. Nor should photographs be bled over to the opposite page, so that two inches are in effect chopped off. Some of Arbus’s best-known images—the Russian dwarfs at home, the Christmas tree in a living room in Levittown, the couple in the woods at the nudist colony—are manhandled in this way. The new photographs, with a few exceptions, only subtract from our sense of Arbus’s achievement. The collection feels padded. Its cluttered cover, showing a double exposure of Arbus’s face superimposed on a night view of Times Square, presages the clutter within. The Aperture monograph, with its serene and uncanny cover image of twins in dark corduroy dresses posed against a white background, is secure in its canonical status.
Arbus came from a wealthy family—her father, David Nemerov, was the owner of the Russeks department store on Fifth Avenue—but it was evidently not the kind of wealthy family that shares its wealth with the children after they grow up. Diane married Allan Arbus at the age of eighteen, and, until they amicably separated and then divorced in the late Sixties, the couple supported themselves and their two children by working as advertising and fashion photographers. They worked as a team—Allan did the actual photographing and Diane fussed with the models’ clothes and thought up the ideas (rather conventional ones, not at all Arbus-like) of the photographs. Arbus started taking her own photographs on the side, and gradually began to get assignments from magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.
In 1963, seeking a recommendation for a Guggenheim grant, she brought some of her photographs to John Szarkowski, head of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, who was unimpressed. As Szarkowski told Doon Arbus in 1972: “I didn’t really like them. I didn’t think they were quite pictures somehow. But they were very forceful. You really felt somebody who was just enormously ambitious, really ambitious. Not in any cheap way. In the most serious way. Someone who was going to stand for no minor successes.” Szarkowski soon came to think better of Arbus’s work, and in 1967 he included thirty of her photographs in a show at the museum called “New Documents,” featuring two other innovative photographers, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand.
But in spite of her major success as a Szarkowski annointee, and as the recipient of two Guggenheims (one in 1964 and the other in 1966), Arbus had to struggle to support herself after she and Allan closed down the commercial photography business and went their separate ways. To augment her income, she was sometimes obliged to put her artistic ambition aside and do work that simply brought in money. One such project of necessity was a private commission in December 1969 to photograph a rich and successful New York actor and theatrical producer named Konrad Matthaei and his wife, Gay, and three children, Marcella, Leslie, and Konrad Jr., at their East Side townhouse during a Christmas family gathering. Arbus exposed twenty-eight rolls of film on the two-day project, and received a flat fee as well as fees for the prints the family ordered from contact sheets and work prints she submitted. Nothing was known of the Matthaei shoot until the fall of 1999, when Gay and the older daughter, Marcella, came forward with dozens of prints and twenty-eight contact sheets, and offered them on loan to the Mount Holyoke College Museum of Art for public viewing. (Gay Matthaei was a Holyoke alumna.) From this offering comes the exhibition, and an accompanying book, called Diane Arbus: Family Albums, originally at Mount Holyoke and now at the Grey Art Gallery at NYU.
The title derives from a marginal scribble in a letter Arbus wrote in 1968 to Peter Crookston, an editor at the London Sunday Times, about a book of photographs she wanted to produce but “which I keep postponing.” “The working title…is Family Album,” she told Crookston and went on, “I mean I am not working on it except to photograph like I would anyway, so all I have is a title and a publisher and sort of sweet lust for things I want in it.” In the same letter Arbus delivered herself of her famous line: “I think all families are creepy in a way.”
In the perceptive essays they have written for the accompanying book, John Pultz, associate professor of art history at the University of Kansas, and Anthony W. Lee, associate professor of art history at Mount Holyoke, both begin by quoting Arbus’s marginal scribble—and then go on to write the way they probably would anyway, taking up such subjects as (Pultz) the magazine culture of the Fifties and Sixties and (Lee, in a longer essay) postwar Jewish-American identity, cold-war culture, the influence on Arbus of Walker Evans and August Sander, and John Szarkowski’s promotion of photography as a modernist art form. Their efforts to connect everything they say to the family-album theme—to the idea that Arbus’s mature work reflects a special obsession with the family—are ingenious but not always persuasive. Don’t we all have families, and aren’t we all obsessed with them on some level?
There are two parts to the Family Albums exhibition and book. The original idea had been to show only the Matthaei pictures. But this was thought “too narrow” (as the director of the Mount Holyoke museum, Marianne Doezema, put it to me) by the university presses approached to do the book, so a mollifying extra group of pictures was tacked on—photographs of Mae West, Bennett Cerf, Marguerite Oswald, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Tokyo Rose, and Blaze Starr, among others, that Arbus took for Esquire in the Sixties. Unlike the Matthaei pictures, the Esquire pictures are not unknown. They appeared in a book called Diane Arbus: Magazine Work (1984), edited and designed by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, though this time without art. What has never been seen before are the contact sheets from which the published Esquire photographs derive.
It is fascinating to peer at the many pictures Arbus took of each celebrity, and to ponder and even sometimes question the choices she (or the editors) made. Unfortunately, however, one can only do so if one attends the exhibition, for as the book was going to press the Arbus Estate made one of its characteristic moves of repression. Lee and Pultz were obliged to pull the contact sheets of the Esquire pictures from their book. (The show, evidently, is out of the reach of the estate and the Esquire contact sheets remain in it.)
As if this pre-publication tsuris wasn’t enough, the Matthaeis’ younger daughter, Leslie, suddenly decided she didn’t want any pictures of herself published. This forced Lee and Pultz to remove from the book every print and contact image in which Leslie appears, alone or in a group. Here, perhaps even more urgently than with the Esquire contacts, it is advisable to see the show for what it reveals about Arbus’s photographic practice.
In the section of his essay devoted to the Matthaei commission, Anthony Lee, a little cruelly perhaps, elaborates on the celebrity Konrad Matthaei enjoyed when Arbus came to photograph him and his kin in December 1969. Matthaei, Lee writes, “was becoming an enormous mover and shaker on the New York theater scene, was intimate with the city’s, indeed the country’s, most famous stage actors and actresses, and was held as a fast-rising star whose good fortune was only beginning.” His townhouse, Lee notes, was filled with eighteenth-century French furniture and paintings by Monet and Renoir; he and Gay regularly appeared in newspaper and magazine society columns. Lee cannot resist quoting from a clipping that the guileless Konrad had produced from his files: “Mr. Matthaei wears a fitted double-breasted suit by Pierre Cardin, brown with a purple over-check, and a lavender shirt and tie. ‘I was heavily Paul Stuart oriented,’ he wryly remarks, ‘before I discovered Cardin.'”
The uncut Matthaei contact sheets straightforwardly tell the story of Arbus’s two-day-long struggle with her commission. Family gatherings are no place for photographers of even minor ambition. The photographs they yield are necessarily messy, shapeless, unbeautiful. The photographs Arbus took of the Matthaeis and their relatives at the dinner table and in decorous horseplay in the living room are no different from the photographs today’s Instamatic cameras have made it unnecessary to hire professional photographers to take. Arbus tried to put a little order into her pictures by posing family members in a row on a sofa over which the Monet hung or in groups in one of the ornately draped windows. But these images, too, are indistinguishable from the worthless snapshots some annoying relative can always be counted on to take at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Finally, Arbus began taking people off in pairs or alone to other parts of the house to photograph against plain backgrounds. She took some pictures of a girlishly dressed older woman, Konrad’s mother, who in other circumstances might have given Arbus good value for her ongoing project of documenting, as she put it, “the point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.” But the older Mrs. Matthaei was clearly not the person with whom to pursue this dangerous inquiry. When she posed alone for Arbus, Arbus simply accepted Mrs. Matthaei’s idea of herself as a woman with a nice smile and good legs. This left the children. With them Arbus was finally able to solve the koan of how to please the family and not disgrace herself as an artist. Her quarry was the two daughters. She had already used up a roll of film on little velvet-suited Konrad Jr. posing for her on his free-form rocking horse, and never ceasing to look banally cute. Marcella and Leslie, ages eleven and nine, in their white party dresses, held out greatest promise of pictures that would not give offense but might be Good.
When I went to see the Mount Holyoke show, I naturally sought out the missing pictures of Leslie, and immediately understood why she had not wanted them preserved in a book. Leslie, an attractive girl, is the disobliging daughter, the Cordelia of the shoot. In almost every photograph, she sulks, glares, frowns, looks tense and grim and sometimes even outright malevolent. In his discussion of the Matthaei commission, Lee quotes an account Germaine Greer gave Patricia Bosworth of a photographic session with Arbus that
developed into sort of a duel between us, because I resisted being photographed like that—close-up with all my pores and lines showing! She kept asking me all sorts of personal questions, and I became aware that she would only shoot when my face was showing tension or concern or boredom or annoyance (and there was plenty of that, let me tell you), but because she was a woman I didn’t tell her to fuck off. If she’d been a man, I’d have kicked her in the balls.
Lee goes on to write that “unlike Greer, neither Gay nor Marcella Matthaei recalls wanting to kick Arbus in her balls,” but Leslie might recall otherwise: her resistance to Arbus’s project is almost palpably evident. Arbus’s too-niceness didn’t do its usual work on this thorny girl. Leslie hated every moment of being photographed. In one exceptional moment, Arbus extracted a reluctant smile from the girl. She stands next to her sister—who also looks amused—in an uncharacteristically relaxed pose with her hands thrust deep into the pockets of her short white satin sheath dress. Something pleasant has passed between the girls and Arbus.
But pictures of pretty smiling girls were not what Arbus was after. Marcella gave Arbus what Leslie refused her. The two portraits of Marcella that Lee and Pultz reproduce in the book are true Arbus photographs. They have the strangeness and uncanniness with which Arbus’s best work is tinged. They belong among the pictures of the man wearing a bra and stockings and the twins in corduroy dresses and the albino sword swallower and the nudist couple. Like these subjects, Marcella unwittingly collaborated with Arbus on her project of defamiliarization. The portraits of Marcella—one full-figure to the knees, and the other of head and torso—show a girl with long hair and bangs that come down over her eyes, who is standing so erect and looking so straight ahead of her that she might be a caryatid. The fierce gravity of her strong features further enhances the sense of stone. Her short sleeveless white dress of a crocheted material, which might look tacky on another girl, looks like a costume from myth on this girl. To contrast the pictures of balky little Leslie with those of monumental Marcella is to understand something about the fictive nature of Arbus’s work. The pictures of Leslie are pictures that illustrate photography’s ready realism, its appetite for fact. They record the literal truth of Leslie’s fury and misery. The pictures of Marcella show the defeat of photography’s literalism. They take us far from the family gathering—indeed from any occasion but that of the encounter between Arbus and Marcella in which the fiction of the photograph was forged.
How Arbus got Marcella to look the way she did (a way no real-life eleven-year-old girl looks), how she elicited from her the magnificent grotesquerie by which the portrait is marked, remains her artist’s secret. From Lee’s interviews and correspondence with Gay, Konrad, and Marcella Matthaei, he gathered that Arbus’s manner with the family was “pleasant but reticent” and that “she did not interrogate or interact with her subjects—in fact, barely spoke to them.” The close-up portrait of Marcella is reproduced on the cover of Family Albums, and on the various announcements relating to the book and the exhibition. Walter Benjamin’s famous notion in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that works of art lose their aura once it becomes possible to reproduce them does not apply to photography itself. On the contrary, each time a photograph is reproduced it acquires aura. Even a photograph of no special distinction will take on aura if it is reproduced over and over again. The distinguished portrait of Marcella—hidden from the world’s view for thirty years—gleams out of Arbus’s photographic universe like a new star.
January 15, 2004
Letter to Allan Arbus and Mariclare Costello, January 11, 1971. ↩
Letter to Allan Arbus and Mariclare Costello, January 31, 1971. ↩
For example, the modest book of photographs accompanying the 1971 Walker Evans show at MOMA (the one Arbus found so boring) contained a single essay by John Szarkowski; the grand book accompanying the 2000 Walker Evans show at the Metropolitan Museum contained six essays. ↩