She was one of the most influential photographers of her time, though too often she was dismissed as a voyeur: a mere chronicler of freaks and misfits. In fact, Diane Arbus brought an unblinking, discerning eye to society's underside and to its pathetic, heroic, frightening, hilarious, all-too-human inhabitants. Judgment rarely marked her work; only an eagle's eye for composition and for the perfect moment as well as her sympathy for people she likely saw, oddly given her background, as fellow outsiders. She died in 1971, a suicide at age 48. So tightly did her eldest daughter Doon control all that subsequently was written or shown about her mother that the legacy of this depressive photographic genius was in danger of being diminished, if not actually forgotten.
Diane Arbus: Revelations is the name both of a monumental volume of photography and primary source biographical material, and of the largest, most complete exhibition of Arbus' work ever mounted the first real show of her photography since a posthumous Museum of Modern Art exhibition in 1972. Finally, and with the ultimate approval of the ferociously protective Doon, now 58, this book and new exhibition will give a subsequent generation the means to fully appreciate what Diane Arbus did, as she wandered the streets of New York and anywhere else, for that matter in search of images that reflect "the considerable ceremonies of our present."
"I don't press the shutter," Arbus once noted. "The image does. And it's like being gently clobbered."
To anyone who began taking photography seriously in the 1950s and 60s, the name Diane Arbus signaled something new and strange and unsettling. She herself was not intimidating born Diane Nemerov in 1923, she was a short, slight Jewish girl from a well-to-do Park Avenue family. Her parents (like those of her contemporary Richard Avedon) owned a fashionable Manhattan shop, this one called Russek's her mother's maiden name and dealing in furs. Diane's older brother Howard Nemerov would later find fame as an author and poet.
An artistically gifted child, Diane grew up knowing wealth, nannies, foreign travel and the deference of strangers, which she hated. "I remember the special agony of walking down that center aisle, feeling like the princess of Russek's: simultaneously privileged and doomed," she wrote to her friend and later lover, the artist Marvin Israel, in 1960. The "family fortune always seemed to me humiliating..." she observed, reflecting the ease with which one can hate being rich never having been poor.
At Russek's Diane met a wiry young man with an intense gaze named Allan Arbus, who would change her life and lead her into photography. Allan at the time worked in the advertising department of Russek's and became infatuated with Diane Nemerov, then barely in her mid-teens. In later years, they would share a love for making pictures and later form a commercial as well as personal partnership: "Allan and Diane Arbus." They married in 1941, when Diane was 18, and for years built a career as commercial, editorial and fashion photographers. Ultimately Diane chafed at being, in effect, Allan's stylist and glorified assistant, though he always would credit her with having the ideas that often produced salable layouts. She left the partnership and the marriage to pursue her own photography. Allan, meanwhile, went to California to pursue an acting career, achieving greatest fame as the empathetic army psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, in the landmark TV series M*A*S*H.
It was during this period that Arbus flourished, though never prospered. Always suspicious, even dismissive, of her talents, she never could fully accept the fact that she was brilliant at what she did. Separated from her husband and thrust into the world without benefit of trust fund or financial portfolio from her parents, Arbus nonetheless produced a masterly body of work and held herself together while raising two daughters, Amy and Doon.
Like all of us, Arbus began shooting in 35mm and for a time loved grainy imagery, especially when she enlarged a tiny portion of a 35mm frame. But her study with the famed photographer Lisette Model transformed Arbus almost instantaneously into a devotee of medium format, with all of the detail and clarity that that format can bestow, especially in black and white. She favored two cameras for much of her career: a twin-lens Rolleiflex or Mamiyaflex, each an all-manual workhorse often used then by news photographers. Too, she loved to shoot flash, even outdoors, the better to freeze an expression or to open up shadows.
But far more important than mere technique or equipment was Arbus' ability to connect with her subjects. This was her genius; this was her art, and one reason why so much of the work by her imitators falls flat. Arbus had the innate ability to know when not to shoot, when to get to know her subjects, be they street people, nudists, cross-dressers or movie stars, and to make them feel at ease before she made a picture. Remember: her medium format gear forced her to get up close to her subjects which is just what she wanted. Arbus gained her incredible access by empathy, often photographing her subjects many times, and over years.
"There's a quality of legend about freaks," Arbus said. "Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. 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."
Nevertheless, a commonly held view has been that Diane Arbus' pictures are hard-edged, even mean-spirited: the nasty work of a rich girl slumming.
I defy anyone to look at the vast body of her pictures and retain that view.
Or to read of her seemingly solitary battle with mental illness and not be moved. "...the worst is I am literally scared of getting depressed...And it is so goddam chemical, I'm convinced. Energy, some special kind of energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street..."
When we think of Diane Arbus perhaps only a few images come immediately to mind: The twin girls, the grimacing boy in short pants holding a toy hand grenade, the Jewish giant and his parents, the straw-hatted 'Bomb Hanoi' guy, an assortment of transvestites. Again: a testament to the iron fist of Doon, who hated what she called the "onslaught of theory and interpretation [after her mother's death], as if translating images into words were the only way to make them visible."
The pictures, Doon seemed to say, must speak for themselves or not at all. And so for decades she would not let writers, essayists or biographers publish Diane's pictures to accompany their work a practice for which she became notorious, and which inevitably lessened and weakened the public's knowledge of this brilliant photographer.
But even if there were not hundreds of other gripping images in Diane Arbus' portfolio (there are, and many of them appear for the first time in Revelations) the early handful of Arbus images would by themselves define the remarkable way she transformed 35 mm street photography, melding the formalism of August Sander with the grit of Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank.
As a book, Diane Arbus: Revelations must be viewed as seminal and unsurpassed. Looking at the book not only as a photographer but as a biographer (of John Glenn in 1983), I marvel at the degree to which diaries, letters, interviews, notebooks, snapshots, and God knows what other primary source material, have been included in the voluminous text. Much of this information a treasure trove to a writer is included in a lengthy, lavishly illustrated chronology.
In addition there are long essays on Arbus, including a fascinating piece by photographer Neil Selkirk on Arbus as a superb photographic printer. (More on that and on Neil's efforts to duplicate Arbus' printing technique after her death in later columns). There also are literally hundreds of detailed footnotes.
And, of course, there are the photographs themselves, gorgeously printed in a mammoth coffee table tome that is worth every penny of its $100 hardcover asking price. It might fairly be argued that this is the book that Arbus herself would have put together to chronicle her own too-short career.
But is this the final word? Of course it isn't, though one suspects that Doon Arbus hopes it is.
"This book and exhibition," Doon writes in an afterword, "by integrating [Diane's] photographs and her words with a chronology that amounts to a kind of autobiography, do not signal a change of heart, but one of strategy." The hope, Doon seems to say is that, by providing so much information this one time, the public will now be able to view her mother's photographs "in the eloquence of their silence."
That may be true, but in fact the generous and voluminous information presented here only raises more intriguing questions about Diane Arbus' tenuous relationships with her fame, her talent, her family, her photography, her sanity. Questions that should be answered, or at least addressed, by a competent biographer with full access, the better to complete the story of this monumental and tormented talent.
Diane Arbus: Revelations October 25, 2003-February 8, 2004, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The show then travels nationally and internationally for the next two years. The closest it will come to Washington, DC will be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, February through May, 2005.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.