The wide eyes and haunting stare, the broad aura of melancholy, anchors our impression of photographer Diane Arbus. And because of her own tragic and early death, she will be, as Rod Stewart sings, forever young.
But had Diane Arbus lived had she not died by her own hand in 1971 she would be 80 years old today an old woman who would have had to fight inner demons throughout her life to reach that far. She would be, assuming she continued to photograph, ranked with such other aged and aging lions of art and photography as Richard Avedon (her contemporary), Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Louise Bourgeois and others who defied the years and continued to produce work of value.
But Arbus, subject of a stunning retrospective exhibition that opened here last week, ended her life at age 48, when many artists, visual artists especially, are coming into their prime.
We only can wonder what might have been had the depression that seemed to haunt her all of her life not driven her to slit her wrists and die alone in her bathtub more than three decades ago.
And so we are left with work and a life set in amber: Arbus' own unforgettable take, during the 1950s and 1960s, on "the considerable ceremonies of our present." Confrontational, disturbing, occasionally hilarious, always arresting above all, always honest Arbus photographs display a profound empathy for her subjects, regardless of their place on society's fringes.
"There's a sadness in her that she also saw in me," one of Arbus' better known (though at the time anonymous) subjects told the San Francisco Chronicle recently. Arbus, the subject went on, responded to "this need, which was very big in me at the time, to be appreciated or paid attention to."
The speaker is Colin Wood, failed actor, now insurance salesman, father of two, and son of a 1931 Wimbledon champ, who happened to be in Central Park in his odd short pants and toy hand grenade in 1962 when Arbus encountered him.
"That grenade was one of two I bought at the five and ten," Wood told freelance writer Hugh Hart. The second one went out the window when I tried to blow up the alley behind our apartment..."
Arbus photographed the skinny young boy who looks to be no more than 6 or 7 for only a few minutes. "I was not directed," Wood recalled in the interview, "but there was a collusion of some kind. There's almost this 'is this what you want?' feeling on my face..."
That image of young Colin Wood has achieved iconic status for its oddness, its disturbing sense that it is a harbinger of bad things to come. It is hard not to look at the photo and be both attracted to it and repelled by it. "I was not directed," Wood recalls significantly, yet leaves the impression that Arbus was after something that she wanted the boy to provide. And finally we see it.
A photographer's contact sheets are his or her profoundly private notes. In this remarkable show, overseen in large measure by Arbus' protective daughter and executor Doon, the 12-image contact sheet from that session is displayed along with hundreds of other tantalizing bits of biographical material. In nearly all the other frames of little Colin Wood the boy prances before the camera like a latter day Fauntleroy, a posturing little kid who happens to be holding a toy hand grenade. Only in the 8th frame ("Is this what you want?") does Colin strike the pose for the ages.
Arbus knew that. All the rest are snapshots.
"Diane Arbus Revelations" may be the photographic event of this year it certainly is the photographic exhibition of the year. On so many levels this show succeeds, not least because it consciously chooses not to super-size itself into an arch extravaganza, but rather, presents a huge array of this photographer's work, much of it unshown till now, in a human-scale, accessible format that respects both the artist and the viewer.
I can't help but think of previous shows in which size seemed to matter above all. Richard Avedon's elegant retrospective at the Whitney in New York last year a collage of different exhibition prints from previous shows included his mammoth prints from "In The American West." Happily, these worked once again as they did when they stood alone at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington years before when the western work debuted.
But bigness is not always better. In fact, I think it rarely is. One need only think back to Annie Leibovitz' humongous "retrospective", also at the Corcoran, and recall the hodge-podge of gargantuan imagery that the photographer insisted upon even if it meant having to piece together her mural-sized giclee prints like so many pieces of wallpaper. Not only was she not served well by these big prints (the more manageable 24x24s looked far more elegant), but she desperately needed a curator to edit her stuff, to weed out the workmanlike from the mind-blowing. The contrast between this popular (and admittedly money-making) exhibition and the far better Arnold Newman retrospective that happened to be across the hall at the time was painful.
By contrast, there rarely are any prints in the Arbus show that are much more than 2 feet wide. And, thanks to curators Sandra S. Phillips and Elisabeth Sussman, there is not a bad, or even average, image among the 200 or so on display. Most are framed 11x14s and 16x20s: a combination of Arbus' own prints and those created by photographer Neil Selkirk, both after her death and especially for this show. Selkirk, a superb photographer himself, is the only person allowed by the Arbus estate to work with Diane's negatives. He has invested decades into perfecting his/her technique to the point where it is fair to say that he has come as close as any person can to recreating Diane Arbus' work.
This show literally could not have happened without him.
Diane Arbus Revelations, San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art, through February 8, 2004. After that, the show travels over the next two years to Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Essen (Germany), London and Minneapolis.
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.