Are Diane Arbus’ photos a bad trip? Or a necessary one?
Her first, last and only monograph was published by Aperture in 1972 and it’s been reprinted many times since. It’s one of the cornerstones of photos-as-art, enough so that Susan Sontag practiced her hatchet throwing skills on Arbus in 1977’s blistering On Photography. Arbus was already dead by then.
Sontag, Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer—these are some of the notables in Arbus’ roster of haters. All three were photographed by her at some point, too. Arbus didn’t like photographing famous people, though, so perhaps she wasn’t trying very hard. After all, what could she, the chronicler of supposed ugliness, offer the admired-and-known?
Arbus’ pictures are almost antidotes to the psychedelic sixties in which they originated. They can sober a person up. Why? Are they too intimate? Exploitative and therefore uneasy? Cruel, even?
The essay that introduces her monograph doesn’t help. It might even make things worse. Arbus explains her approach and perspective with a certain flippancy. Her disdain for the palpable world is apparent. She dislikes texture, “hated” the smells and sounds of painting, and complains about outhouse smells and pond goo at a nudist colony.
With a deft blade, she splits fact and fiction equally, believing her own photographs to fall under the former (of course). Her anecdotes, her recognition of difference and trauma—there are moments of brilliance, but there’s also the creeping suggestion that photographic truth needs to be sufficiently freakish.
Regardless of what Arbus thought or set out to do, her photographs tend to usurp her authorship. They redistribute power in weird ways.
“Imputations of ‘voyeurism’ are absurd,” wrote the critic Peter Schjeldahl in 2005. “Voyeurs must feel safe, and Arbus’ pictures are like the gaping barrels of loaded guns.”
One could still look at these photographs and extract a bland progressivism. Some humanist sentimentality or pitied cooing. It’d even be easy to imagine Arbus is mocking or treating ironically her apparently conservative subjects, like Patriotic young man with a flag, N.Y.C. 1967.
It’s “an unsettling image of American patriotism,” per the National Galleries of Scotland. But is it? What unsettles isn’t the acned patriot’s fervor, or the viewer’s potential disdain for it. What unsettles in Patriotic young man is the young man himself and how he’s not us.
The dichotic force of the entire monograph is not true/false but self/Other, exemplified by the most famous image Arbus took, Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1967. No point in overextending on this one: it’s perfect.
Publisher Aperture touts the monograph as the foundation of Arbus’ reputation, and for once the ad copy is right. These photos don’t have to be seen in person, and they are better without the intrusions of glass or framing. The book’s sequencing is crucial to its cumulative effect. If you’ve never flipped through it, or haven’t in a while, it’s essential that you go slowly, page by page. You meet a new person each time.
Then again, meeting people isn’t always fun. Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C, 1970 has a kind of friendly swagger that’s magnetic and low-key erotic. But then, two pages later, there’s Young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C. 1966.
This photo pulverizes me. Something about the parents’ expressions versus their child’s smile. Do they consider their disabled child a burden? And if so, are we to think less of them? I can’t muster negativity for anyone pictured, and I want to muster more than pity, but how?
Seeing the Other so plainly can dizzy us. As Roland Barthes put it: “One cannot speak of the other, about the other; every attribute is false, painful, erroneous, awkward.”
Arbus spent a day photographing the family; she’d often meet subjects first and photograph them later. Her own assessment isn’t terribly kind: the parents were “like two children who had suddenly played Truth and Consequences and got stuck with the consequences.” Thankfully the photo doesn’t sustain that judgment.
Arbus’ images do seem to demand a flight from our own selves. Writes Byung-Chul Han: “Meaning can exist for the narcissistic self only when it somehow catches sight of itself.”
Arbus’ photographs supply no such mirrors.
She seemed to conceptualize them that way, too, writing:
One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was I never felt adversity…I was confirmed in a sense of unreality which I could only feel as unreality… The world seemed to me to belong to the world.
Perhaps this is why “the world” is such an outlier in the monograph. Only four of the images are unpeopled. There’s a Christmas tree in a living room, a lobby in a building, a house on a hill, and a castle at Disneyland.
Each is an oasis that seemingly snuck in with the crowd. The Disneylandscape stands out most. Wedged in between Mexican dwarf and Young Brooklyn family, it becomes a space of relief and portent both. There’s no one here to judge us, or our failures to relate. There is only a swan, uninterested in our freakishness or our cruelty.