The Art of Difference

Diane Arbus: In the Beginning

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, July 12–November 27, 2016; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, January 21–April 30, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Jeff L. Rosenheim
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 269 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)

Diane Arbus: In the Park

an exhibition at Lévy Gorvy Gallery, New York City, May 2–June 24, 2017
The Estate of Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus: A young man and his girlfriend with hot dogs in the park, N.Y.C. 1971

In the mid-1990s, when The New Yorker’s offices were a stone’s throw from the main branch of the New York Public Library, I worked down the hall from Joseph Mitchell. The great writer was in his eighties then. It had been decades since he’d published anything, but it was thrilling to discover his old pieces in the bound volumes that lined the magazine’s library shelves: back issues made the past feel present. When Mitchell became a staff writer in 1938, he introduced The New Yorker’s readers to a world I recognized as not too far removed from the Manhattan I knew—a universe peopled by characters in sour barrooms, a bearded lady or two, black men who wore their self-protective reserve like a second suit. Indeed, Mitchell’s portraits—snapshots—of outsiders spoke to me of difference in a way that strenuously “queer” literature of the time did not.

The longest conversation I ever had with Mitchell was not about writing, though. It was about the photographer Diane Arbus, and took place around the time The New Yorker published my review of Untitled, her third posthumous book of photographs. (She died by her own hand in 1971.) Both he and Arbus used the word “freaks” to describe their subjects (a word I found disparaging and objected to, albeit silently in his presence). But Arbus’s subjects were unlike Mitchell’s: her photographs showed them pursuing their otherness with a fierce velocity that had little in common with his ultimately more assimilated characters, seen through the skein of his elegant and sometimes ironical prose.

Arbus’s photographs were elegant, too—classically composed and cool—but they were on fire with what difference looked like and what it felt like as seen through the eyes of a straight Jewish girl whose power lay in her ability to be herself and not herself—different—all at once. The story she told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” Arbus once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”

When my review of Untitled appeared in The New Yorker Mitchell stopped me in “our” hall to say that Arbus had first telephoned him in 1960, after she read his work. She wanted to talk about his subjects—the “freaks” that he had described on the page and that she was attempting to describe in her photos. He told Patricia Bosworth for her Diane Arbus: A Biography (1984):

I urged Diane not to romanticize freaks. I told her that freaks can be as boring and ordinary as so-called “normal” people. I told her what I found interesting about Olga, the bearded lady, was…

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