[Paleopsych] 'Diane Arbus Revelations': The Profound Vision of Diane Arbus: Flaws in Beauty, Beauty in Flaws

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Arts > Art & Design > Photography Review | 'Diane
Arbus Revelations': The Profound Vision of Diane Arbus: Flaws in Beauty,
Beauty in Flaws
March 11, 2005


The Profound Vision of Diane Arbus: Flaws in Beauty, Beauty in Flaws


    A TEENAGER in a straw boater, with big apricot-shaped ears, thin lips
    and matching bow tie, gazes out from the photograph, whose date is
    1967. He is standing beside, and perhaps he's holding (his hands are
    out of the frame, so it's hard to tell) an American flag. He wears a
    bowtie-shaped flag pin, too, with buttons affixed on each lapel. "Bomb
    Hanoi," one says.

    Presumably the audience Diane Arbus imagined for this picture would
    have regarded the boy, if not as another of her "freaks," then as
    somebody different from them. Arbus once said that she wanted to
    photograph "evil," about which her daughter, Doon, ventured that what
    Arbus really meant was that she wanted to photograph what was
    "forbidden." "She was determined," Doon Arbus explained, "to reveal
    what others had been taught to turn their backs on." Or you might say
    she wanted to find the humanity in people that others shunned.

    A contrarian, Arbus could do the opposite - she could revel in flaws
    in the admired and celebrated. But this boy's gentle, open face, his
    obvious vulnerability, convey the tenderness and bittersweet
    melancholy that are Arbus's finest modes of expression, the emotions
    that reveal themselves after her best pictures leave their first
    impression, which is often alarm, distrust or unease.

    "Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way, but they
    come out looking another way, and that's what people observe," she
    wrote. "You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice
    about them is the flaw." While spotting the flaws, much of the time
    Arbus transformed them into gifts.

    Her powerful and moving retrospective, the first full-dress overview
    in more than three decades and, with the cooperation of the Arbus
    estate, the most extensive ever organized, has finally arrived at the
    Metropolitan Museum. It opened more than a year ago at the San
    Francisco Museum of Modern Art, trailing in its wake the expected
    arguments about her work. Last year a separate exhibition at the Grey
    Art Gallery proffered some of Arbus's commercial work, for Esquire
    magazine; it included a cache of previously unseen pictures she shot
    for an affluent Upper East Side family on commission. Tendentious but
    instructive, that comparatively smallish event revealed what Arbus did
    when she didn't have her heart in her work. Arbus without heart was

    By contrast, this retrospective proves that her memorable work, which
    she did, on the whole, not for hire but for herself, was all about
    heart - a ferocious, audacious heart. It transformed the art of
    photography (Arbus is everywhere, for better and worse, in the work of
    artists today who make photographs), and it lent a fresh dignity to
    the forgotten and neglected people in whom she invested so much of
    herself. In the process, she captured a moment, the anxious 1950's and
    60's, and - this probably applies as much to Arbus as to any other
    photographer of the second half of the last century - she captured New

    Appropriately, she is given the royal treatment at the Met. Put
    together by Sandra S. Phillips and Elisabeth Sussman in San Francisco,
    the exhibition is here laid out with leisurely amplitude by Jeff
    Rosenheim, an associate curator at the Met. Photographs sprawl through
    huge galleries that on earlier occasions featured Ingres and El Greco.
    Rooms are specially set aside for letters, cameras, books and other
    Arbus memorabilia - chapels of relics, maddeningly dark, dense and
    theatrical but implying the extent to which her photography was
    connected with her interests in literature, history, art and the
    photographic traditions that encompassed figures like August Sander,
    Walker Evans, Weegee and Arbus's teacher, Lisette Model (a Model show
    is now at Ricco/Maresca in Chelsea; review, Page 39).

    With more than 175 pictures, the Met retrospective fleshes out that
    limited core of Arbus photographs canonized by the landmark show at
    the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, a year after her suicide, at 48. By
    that time she had become a kind of legend and the debate had
    polarized: Arbus as a compassionate champion of the neglected versus
    Arbus as exploitative, a narcissist of morbid eloquence. Or as Susan
    Sontag infamously put it, the photographer of "a single village":
    "only, as it happens the idiot village is America."

    Arbus could be both, in retrospect. In another photograph from 1967,
    she turns a different patriotic young man brandishing his flag into a
    rabid, pimply fool, leering into the merciless glare of her camera's
    flash. But even that cruel picture, with his intense, almost
    otherworldly expression, has an intimacy that breaches the customary
    space separating subject and viewer, insisting that the people who
    look at it confront, close up, somebody whom they might not otherwise
    have met or wished to meet.

    This was Arbus's project from the beginning. Her work derived partly
    from Sander's sweeping chronicle of German society but was narrower in
    scope and less documentary. Arbus looked for secret worlds and the
    uncanny. Her ambition was both novel and also novelistic. She became a
    kind of magic realist of photography, and it's no wonder, early on,
    that she photographed the inside of movie houses with their smoky
    projector beams and glimmering screens, casting the audience in
    silhouette - dream palaces where light became fiction.

    At around the same time, she was sneaking her camera, as Evans had
    done in the subway, onto a sundeck at Coney Island to photograph naked
    women sunbathing. She caught a mother in a park carrying her young
    son, a ready-made Pietà, and she snapped a woman on the street with
    her eyes closed, like Cartier-Bresson's Spanish boy tossing a ball in
    the air, as if enraptured. A girl in a cap stares out at us from yet
    another picture, with the urgency we read into the expression of the
    woman in "Bishop by the Sea," who looks possessed in her shiny gown
    and cheap tiara.

    If the proper word isn't spirituality then it's grace. Arbus touches
    her favorite subjects with grace. It's in the spread-arm pose of the
    sword swallower, in the tattooed human pincushion, like St. Sebastian,
    and in the virginal waitress at the nudist camp, with her apron and
    order pad and her nicked shin. And it's famously in the naked couple
    in the woods, like Adam and Eve after the Fall.

    Above all it's in the young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing,
    a heartbreaking photograph, which nearly harks back to Velázquez's
    "Meninas" or Goya. Mother and father are Elizabeth Taylor and James
    Dean impersonators, she looking haunted, he staring warily ahead,
    gently cupping the hand of his retarded son. As Arbus said, everybody
    concocts versions of themselves for the world, which the world sees
    through, and in the end we see ourselves in how we see each other.

    Therein is the delicate tonal balance necessary for Arbus's
    sensational art to elevate her subjects. She was a tonal craftsman,
    we're reminded. She achieves phenomenal elegance with the elderly
    woman in a turban - it's her version of a Rembrandt - the woman in
    half-shadow, crosslegged on her couch with a dangling cigarette, light
    pouring in from windows on either side.

    Likewise, look at what she manages with the familiar triplets in their
    bedroom: at the periphery, the dizzy pattern of the wallpaper playing
    against the pattern of the bedspread; the girls physically linked, and
    our vision slowed down, as we focus on the center of the picture, by
    the continuous black and white swaths of matching skirts and blouses
    and by the equally calm but slightly different expressions on the

    And then there is the naked man being a woman, a Madonna turned in
    contrapposto, flanked by parted curtains, with his penis hidden
    between his legs. The curtains are stained, the marks from his
    brassiere and panties, which he has clearly just taken off, still
    show; a Schaefer beer can is on the floor and his bed is heaped with

    But he seems at ease with himself and with Arbus, enough to have let
    her into his home. "The farther afield you go, the more you are going
    home," Arbus also wrote. It is, she added, "as if the gods put us down
    with a certain arbitrary glee in the wrong place and what we seek is
    who we had really ought to be."

    Her subjects, like that naked man and the circus performers, had
    already "passed their test in life," she added. "Most people go
    through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks are
    born with their trauma. They're aristocrats."

    Which explains her notorious late photographs of women at a home for
    the mentally retarded. Everybody notes Goya, of course. But these are
    loving pictures, and discomfort with them is not shared by the women,
    who clearly enjoy themselves. The world is full of wondrous things, if
    our eyes are open enough to recognize them, these photographs imply,
    and in the end we are all drawn together by our different flaws.

    "The world is a Noah's ark on the sea of eternity containing all the
    endless pairs of things, irreconcilable and inseparable," Arbus said
    in a letter to a friend. "And heat will always long for cold and the
    back for the front and smiles for tears and mutt for jeff and no for
    yes with the most unutterable nostalgia there is."


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=MICHAEL%20KIMMELMAN&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=MICHAEL%20KIMMELMAN&inline=nyt-per

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