Diane Arbus Profile
Arbus’s life was as intense and tragic as her portraits were powerful and groundbreaking. This month, Peter Silverton profiles the life of the slight photographer whose vision was large.
Diane Arbus was born in New York in 1923, into a rich, cultured, deeply troubled, Jewish world. The family business was a Fifth Avenue furriers. Her brother Howard Nemerov was the American poet laureate – twice. The pictures that made her name were of a quite different world: outwardly, at least. They were images– always black and white, never colour – of society’s margins. The dispossessed and the possessed. The strange, the estranged and the downright odd. “Among the most compelling images of the last half century,” wrote Philippe de Montebello, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
“My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” That was the opening sentence of the 1972 Aperture monograph, which appeared the year after Arbus’s suicide. That same year, there was a retrospective of her work at New York’s MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), which then toured North America, drawing 7.25 million visitors. Together, book and show established her as photography’s first art superstar. The book is the biggest-selling photography monograph, with more than 100,000 copies sold.
Arbus started out as a kind of assistant to her photographer-turned-actor husband Allan. Together, they fashioned fashionable Manhattan fashion photographs. From 1956 onwards, though, she worked on her own, studying with both Alexey Brodovitch (Irving Penn’s mentor) and Lisette Model – who pushed her to chase down and capture “the forbidden”. She photographed what looked, to most of us, like a freak show of life’s margins and marginals. The Mad Man from Massachusetts (bare-chested, in the city room of The Bowery News). A male midget Marilyn Monroe impersonator (in his Times Square hotel room). Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother (in a leather chair, perhaps smiling). A Jewish giant (in the Bronx, with his parents).
“Diane [pronounced Dee-Ann] was fascinated by weirdos,” said another of her subjects, the Amazing Randi, an escapologist. “Not just by their weirdness, but by their commitment to weirdness.” Yet she was primarily a jobbing magazine photographer and, later, a teacher. Her first published pictures appeared in Esquire in 1960. She worked for Sports Illustrated, Glamour, New York Times Magazine and Holiday. She shot a Santa Claus school for US magazine Saturday Evening Post and James Brown for New York’s Herald Tribune – for a piece by her daughter Doon.
She shot child fashion: big-eyed princes and princesses of the city, probably much like her own younger self, only happier maybe. Much of her later work was for British magazines. She shot motorbikers and Lulu for Nova magazine. One of her best-known images, of a young New York couple with their two children, one of them “retarded”, was taken for a feature in the Sunday Times Magazine. It was paired with her picture of legendary record businessman Nat Tarnopol’s family at his poolside. She never lost or foreswore her uptown connections and has regularly been critiqued as an Upper West Sider slumming it.
An even more common criticism is that she despised her subjects and offered us an otherwise forbidden chance to sneer at the misfortunes of others. Perhaps she does express our secret hatreds – and fears. It is certainly one explanation of her public success. Yet every camera is also a mirror; of the photographer, of the photographed and, in time, of the viewer. Arbus’s photographs are a hall of mirrors. Her lens – literally, metaphorically, deliberately – distorts. Contact sheets often help uncover and clarify the peculiarities of a photographer’s vision. When Arbus printed her famous shot of a boy with a toy grenade and a terrifying/terrified facial expression, she passed over earlier shots in which he is just a normal boy playing.
So far, so distorted, so… fictional. Listen, though, to what the subject had to say in 2005, by which time he was a middle-aged insurance agent. “She catches me in a moment of exasperation. It’s true, I was exasperated. My parents had divorced and there was a general feeling of loneliness; a sense of being abandoned. I was just exploding. She saw that and it’s like… commiseration. She captured the loneliness of everyone.” Maybe there’s a hint to her popularity: her visual world resonates somehow with our own interior landscapes.
She died in 1971, of pills, a razor blade and depression. She was 48. Richard Avedon was one of the few at her funeral. “I wish I could be an artist like Diane,” he said. “Oh, no you don’t,” snapped fellow New York photographer Frederick Eberstadt.
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