Another new view; The evolving perspective of Diane Arbus
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 July 2016)

When the photographs of Diane Arbus began appearing in the 1960s, critics knew immediately what should be said about them. Clearly, she was a clever intellectual exploiting the marginalized people she chose as her subjects. Oddlooking and even grotesque men, women and children populated her pictures. She saw nudists, female impersonators, dwarfs and circus performers from a cool, cruel distance. An uncaring approach gave her pictures their special energy and gave Arbus a reputation for originality. Or so it seemed. That was Susan Sontag's view. Her essay on Arbus, titled Freak Show, criticized her lack of compassion for her subjects. Coming from a critic of Sontag's stature, that assessment carried force.

Echoes of it appeared in the work of other critics for many years, even as Arbus developed into a major influence on photography, her work collected by museums around the world. Though she rarely photographed celebrities, she took a picture of Norman Mailer for Esquire. He didn't like it and fired back at her with a remark that became famous: "Giving a camera to Diane is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child." It seemed right for an Arbus picture to be compared to a weapon.

At its worst, this negative reaction came close to violence. During a Museum of Modern Art show in 1967, so many people spat on her pictures that they had to be cleaned every day.

But gradually views softened. Over the years a more generous understanding of her motives has taken hold. People began noticing the humanity that shone through her pictures. Those who studied her work now saw in it deeper meanings than those that were evident at the beginning.

People assumed that Arbus pictures taken on the street were done on the sly, which was the case with many other photographers: Walker Evans, for instance, rode the New York subways with a camera hidden in the folds of his coat, covertly shooting passengers across the aisle. Arbus claimed plausibly that she always asked the permission of subjects (most of them said yes) and collaborated with them. Far from keeping her distance, she talked to them and understood how they liked to be seen.

This evolving view of Arbus reaches a fresh level with an exhibition of her earliest work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Met Breuer gallery, opening on Tuesday. A handsome catalogue, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, reproduces the 107 pictures in the show, with a text by the curator, Jeff L. Rosenheim.

He explains how she spent an apprenticeship of seven years, ending in 1962, honing her talent and defining her subjects, studying with two distinguished photographers, Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, before launching her career as a serious photographer.

Examining these previously unknown pictures is like watching an actress in an audition. She tries on different manners, hoping that one of them will fit her taste and her talent. She shoots an empty, melancholy snack bar, reminding us of Edward Hopper's paintings. She shoots an abstract painting of moonlight reflected in a gutter. She goes to the morgue and records a bloodstained body. A man in a clown face wears a fedora, perhaps waiting to go on at the circus -- or perhaps Arbus was attracted to the surrealistic contrast between face and hat. She goes to the movies and photographs audiences and what they see on the screen -- in one case Bela Lugosi in a horror film, in another a beautiful actress who appears to be nervously waiting to be kissed. A Russian dwarf smiles at the camera in her kitchen. In a wax museum Arbus comes upon an effigy of James Dean.

Like Samuel Beckett and many others, Arbus believed that failure was an essential stop on the road to an artist's maturity. She knew that these photographs, interesting though they might be, were all failures. Paging through In the Beginning, I recalled a few words from a Beckett story: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Failing better was Arbus's goal.

That required considerable courage. Her determined effort to make serious photographs was enacted against a background of persistent depression, which led to her suicide in 1971 when she was 48. She married at age 18 and became a partner with her husband, Allan Arbus, in a fashion photography business. They had two daughters, Doon, who (became a writer) and Amy (who become a photographer). The couple divorced in 1969.

Rosenheim, who shepherded the donation of her papers and her early works from her daughters to the Met, locates the beginning of her ambition in a high-school essay she wrote at 16. She defined herself as insatiably curious. "Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing," she wrote. "That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things. I see the divineness in ordinary things." Life was endlessly significant, and she was determined to learn whatever she could about it. Her spirit was deeply troubled but in an important sense her life was fulfilled.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image