Before Arbus took her own life in 1971, she photographed community women, crying infants, nudes, people with developmental disabilities and people wearing masks, as well as sex workers, twins, dwarfed individuals, teenage and transgender couples sexually. Or, in the words of her brother, the poet Howard Nemirov, “freaks, professional transvestites, strongmen, tattooed men, sons of the rich.” (The promotional photo for the show fits into the latter category: it’s the adorable Arbus photo of journalist Anderson Cooper as a child, his sleeping face eerily resembling a death mask.)
The Arbus 1972-1973 show, then the most attended solo show in MMA history, worked like a profound charge – at first in the contested realm of artistic photography (a contested category in those days) and then in culture in general. Few people had heard of Arbus when she was alive. Then suddenly, within a year of her death at age 48, everyone knew her, everyone had a strong opinion and – perhaps most importantly – no one doubted that photography could be an art. “People went to this fair as if they were in line to participate,” John Szarkowski, a MoMA curator of photography who has championed her work, once commented.
The Zwirner screen is ingenious. He. She It initiates the problem (excess of comments, controversial fire hose) and then magically casts it. As you enter the gallery, you see a wall covered in excerpts of writings about Arbus:
“Arbus’ work shows pathetic, pathetic, as well as horrible, disgusting people, but it does not evoke any compassionate feelings.”
“All her subjects are flesh, and they have very few resources – they don’t have much thought.”
“[Arbus] Locked in their physical and mental chains, people show us that their movements are meaningless charades. They are almost losers to a man.”
“In portraying dwarves you don’t get majesty and beauty. You get dwarves.”
and so on. The show coincides with the publication of a nearly 500-page book,”Diane Arbus: DocumentsThis reprints more than 50 years of Arbus criticism by everyone from Hilton Kramer, Hilton Alice and Robert Hughes To Susan Sontag, Jermaine Greer And the Janet Malcolm.
But the text wall is like a canopy, or meniscus on a body of water. You cross the threshold in the parade like a masked dive on a windy day with his head down. Suddenly, you are in a new element, a different universe. It is quiet. are you alone. No text in sight, not even a title. It’s just your photos of you and Arbus, her gallery of characters – the same 113 photos that made up the MoMA retrospective 50 years ago.
Watching the show in 2022 underscores the extravagance of many reactions to Arbus. It also provides a great opportunity to get rid of absurdity.
Arbus’ 50-year controversy has always revolved around the question of “freaks”. The problem generally comes in the form of two questions: Why are you drawn to these topics? Did she somehow betray them or replace them, despise them or take advantage of them without justification?
That seems to be all anyone would want to ask of her work.
Arbus topics were not as extensive as those of, for example, Walker Evans or Robert Frank. She focuses her work in such a way that she is trying to tell you something. But her images of the institutionalized, the bodily gay, the socially irregular, and the otherwise marginalized are only part of her work. It is crucial to any understanding of her work that they are seen alongside all of her other images.
Other images, showing men and women of high or unremarkable social status and babies and children (who were too young to have any meaningful status), are just as important as her images of so-called freaks. They are all related. And since the emotions that each image evokes are inevitably transferred to the others, it adds to an idea that deepens as its images accumulate.
The idea is simple. In short, we are like monkeys at a tea party. all of us. Moreover, we are in denial. We design our self-image and add accessories to it, but those same accessories (in the Arbus world might be leopard round hats, pearl chains, Halloween masks, skinny jeans, tattoos, bourgeois-chic interiors, boats) , ties or even rude, dares to object to nudity) constantly abandons the game.
Bob Dylan once sang in a sarcastic manner that a Leopard round hat “It balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine.” But for Arbus, who started as a fashion photographer, the various forms our denial takes on were not worthy of contempt. It was weird, interesting, and poignant.
Arbus hated passion as much as it was devoid of disgust or contempt. Her vision was not original in itself. Yet it has gone deeper into her hands in unique ways. Being a photographer rather than a painter or sculptor was crucial to her articulating the idea of ”we are all monkeys at a tea party”.
For decades, we’ve been digging into all the ways the camera lies. But the cameras also reveal a lot of facts. You can direct them to topics that interest you, but they remain uninterested. The reason we hate nine out of 10 pictures we see of ourselves isn’t because those nine pictures are wrong, but because they reveal things we don’t like to admit.
Precisely because the camera, with its own evidential power, can make us look silly, say cruel. We are on guard from the power of a professional photographer, which we imagine as a kind of unspoken negative assessment (“You don’t realize how ridiculous you look”). We only hope, unfortunately, that the photographer will conspire with us to overturn the camera’s negative bias (as we see it).
But Arbus accepts the camera’s penchant for revealing what’s really there. I found this phenomenon interesting. She did not attempt to capitalize on that in a discourse of cruelty, nor did she attempt to turn it into a self-congratulatory orgy of sympathy, let alone a “celebration” of people’s “identities.” She saw too many internal divisions, in herself and in others, to believe in “identity.”
Susan Sontag, who set the agenda for all the wrong ways of thinking at Arbus In an article in 1973 For the New York Review of Books, they didn’t like this publicized lack of sympathy. Sontag wrote that Arbus used her camera “as a kind of passport that eliminates moral boundaries and social barriers, and frees the photographer from any responsibility towards the people being photographed.”
But this is disinterested. Passports do not “eliminate” borders. They just let you cross them. You could say that Arbus took advantage of the “passport” immorally if you like. But who is an artist who does not care about the gaps between our instincts and our inhibitions, between our private selves and the selves we present in public? Arbus was simply one of the first to learn about the camera’s unique way of detecting them.
According to Sontag, Arbus created “a world in which everyone is an alien, hopelessly aloof.” But this is also outside the norm. look at the pictures. Arbus captured expressions of abundance, delight in companionship, parental tenderness, self-love, insightful intelligence, cynical fatigue, tenderness, dovetailing, aggression, bewilderment, and various expressions of curiosity about (or boredom of) the process of capturing a person’s picture.
For Arbus, it was all fun. And what made it impactful was an impossibility, finally Universe The people she pictured, coming into their minds, was what she clearly longed for. Arbus was a complicated person. Melancholic, restless and sexually adventurous, she longed for intense experiences. But it was her complexity that allowed her to see and capture the complexity and unknowing of her subjects.
Her success had a clear moral impact on anyone who sees her photos today. Arbus, its Down Syndrome folks and Halloween revelers no longer look like ‘freaks’. They look what they are: their fellow human beings. We can look at subjects with the utmost honesty we can muster when we look at ourselves. We need not pity them any more than we pity ourselves.
Disaster: Revisiting the 1972 Diane Arbus Exhibition Until October 22 at David Zwirner Gallery 537 West 20th Street, New York. davidzwirner.com/exhibitions.