Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Rough Empathy: The Photographs of Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph

An unflinching poetry inhabits the pages of the recently published Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph: Fortieth-Anniversary Edition, a reissue of the volume that accompanied her posthumous 1972 MoMA retrospective.  The book’s introduction consists simply of Arbus’ words, compiled from interviews, recorded lectures, and jottings. And then, again very simply, there are the photographs: the midgets and giants, the sagging nudists, the middle-aged battle-axes with their pearls and jowls, and most powerfully, seven of the late photographs taken at institutions for the mentally disabled. (Fifty-one of these are collected in Untitled, published by Aperture in 1995.)

Diane Arbus, Patriotic young man with a flag, 1967. © The Estate of Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus, Patriotic young man with a flag, 1967. © The Estate of Diane Arbus

Arbus is a practically canonized artist whose work is now acknowledged for its rough empathy. Her influence can be seen in the work of photographers from Sylvia Plachy to Robert Mapplethorpe to Rineke Dijkstra. Like other artists such as Ana Mendieta, Sylvia Plath, and Francesca Woodman, her narrative carries with it an often gendered quality of martyrdom and neurosis, which can distort her work’s clarity of intent. She has been described as the photographer of the marginalized, the ugly, and the impaired, for which she has had her detractors, notably Susan Sontag. In her 1973 essay Freak Show, Sontag argued that Arbus’s work is ethically and artistically compromised because of the photographer’s vulnerable, flawed subjects, who seemed to Sontag “pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive.”

What strikes me as I leaf through this book is Arbus’s convincing sensibility of the world, and how thoroughly her subjects inhabit it. Reducing Arbus to the Photographer of Freaks does not begin to capture the delicate feeling of otherness pervading the images. When Arbus photographs people without external flaws, she often finds the off moment, the odd framing, the disturbing lighting that un-normalizes them. Loser at a diaper derby, N. J. (1967) shows a baby close-up, weeping inconsolably, his fat fists clasped in a keening gesture of mourning, his mother an uncomforting silhouette. It’s a moment of existential loneliness that disturbs the field of cute baby photos. In one of her most iconic images, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J., (1967) two perfectly lovely twin sisters stand so close together that they seem to share an arm. The inner hems of their dresses curve up toward each other, an uncanny symmetry. We travel along the edge where their bodies meet, and look back and forth from face to face, noticing similarities and differences, feeling creepily as though we are contemplating a zygote actually splitting apart.

But, in what I find to be a lovely twist, many of Arbus’ most “othered” subjects are normalized by her lens. Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th street, N.Y.C. (1963) is just what the title describes. Three elderly midgets sit in a living room, hands on each others’ knees, directly meeting the camera’s eye. Friends, they lean in towards each other, and they lean forward as well, slightly, into the space of the room and towards us. We are given license to gaze at their tininess and their wizened faces, but there is no question that they are unflinchingly themselves, and they stare right back at us. They are not ashamed, and Susan Sontag need not have been ashamed on their behalf. Says Arbus in the book’s introduction, “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.”

To acknowledge the empathy and identification that Arbus clearly felt with her subjects is, of course, not to gloss over the photographs’ darkness and, at times, biting satire. The artist acknowledges photographic portraiture’s potential for cruelty: “The process itself has a kind of exactitude, a kind of scrutiny that we’re not normally subject to… We’re nicer to each other than the intervention of the camera is going to make us. It’s a little bit cold, a little bit harsh.” Patriotic young man with a flag, N.Y.C. (1967) might actually flirt with contempt. The subject seems deranged, and his acne-covered face, receding chin and bad teeth become editorial weapons employed by Arbus to undermine the I’M PROUD American flag pin on his lapel. The more marginal to American society her subjects are, the more dignity Arbus affords them: though these people are unquestionably vulnerable, it is her wealthy, Caucasian, or reactionary subjects that she allows herself to really skewer.

Images of the mentally impaired in the late series Untitled could be the most troublesome but to my eyes they are also Arbus’s most devastatingly beautiful, and rich with meaning. The subjects are almost all women, and are often pictured in strange, dark fields, wearing nightgowns. Sometimes they wear masks. (I have often wondered who got there first, Arbus or her contemporary, photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.) Untitled (6) (1970–71) shows three dumpy, awkward women striking calisthenic poses on the grass. Their lack of self-awareness is painful to behold because we are able to see what these subjects cannot know about themselves. Untitled (7) (1970–71) depicts a band of these brave fools sallying forth, their nightgowns glowing in unearthly fashion against a dark sky. Two of them wear masks; some have mustaches drawn on their faces. Arbus could be quoting Breugel’s The Blind Leading the Blind, or one of Ensor’s danses macabres. Is this an image of retarded adults dressed for a Halloween party at their institution? Probably. But it is also an uncannily poetic moment: the central figure looks off to the side, pausing, his hand lingering in the air, while the others surge forward. They seem to be questing after something; the moment becomes elevated. Arbus makes us know that they are just like us.

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph: Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Edited by Marvin Israel, Doon Arbus (Aperture; 40 Anv edition, September 30 2011. 184 pgs ISBN: 1597111740. $65)

Diane Arbus, Untitled (6), 1970-71 © The Estate of Diane Arbus
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cover of the book under review
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