Random House, 351 pp., $100.00
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.