Recognized for a body of photographs that explore and question the fine line between normality and difference, Diane Arbus, nee Nemerov, is popularly described as a photographer of misfits and freaks. As Arbus explained, “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don't quite mean they're my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There's a quality of legend about freaks. 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” (Arbus and Israel, 3). Indeed, during her brief career Arbus photographed those on the margins—nudists, dwarfs, and transvestites, for example—and also exposed the abnormal in what appears at first glance to be ordinary. One of her canonical pictures, A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., 1966 (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.), shows a husband and wife walking down the street with their infant and son. Pictured fully frontal, the family is captured at an awkward moment, when the cross-eyed son squirms and contorts his face oddly, almost as if he is deranged. Moreover, the wife, with her bouffant hairstyle, large physique, and leopard coat, resembles a drag queen. Her stiff husband looks tiny in comparison and the infant appears as a bundled package. This photograph and others confirm Arbus' assertion that “a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know” (Arbus, “Five Photographs,” 64). In opposition to the suggested objectivity of documentary photography, Arbus' work is clearly subjective. Moreover, Arbus' America is disturbing and unsentimental, much like the vision presented by Weegee and Robert Frank.
Arbus' early life belies the subject matter of her unsparing, raw photographs. Born to a wealthy family in New York City, Arbus' interest in photography began after her husband, Allan Arbus, who she married in 1941, bought her a camera around 1943. Following the war she and Allan opened a fashion photography studio, taking pictures for magazines such as Glamour, among other periodicals. By 1956 Arbus decided to leave fashion photography to explore commercial and personal photography on her own. She took classes with Berenice Abbott and Alexey Brodovitch in the early 1950s. Lisette Model made the most lasting impact on Arbus, encouraging her pupil to take pictures that explored her individual vision (c. 1956–57). Allan and Diane separated in 1959, a year before her first solo commercial photographs appeared in Esquire, and subsequently in other magazines such as Harper's Bazaar. Taken with a 35-mm camera, these early photographs possess a hazy quality around 1962 when Arbus began using a Rolleiflex and then a Mamiyaflex camera that enabled her to produce the higher contrast images synonymous with her name. Arbus' move from a grainy quality to sharply focused images enabled her to clarify—literally and figuratively—the psychological elements of her subjects.
In 1963 Arbus received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her project “American Rites, Manners and Customs,” a project that aimed, to use Arbus' words from her grant application, “to photograph the ceremonies of our present. … I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonial and curious and commonplace will be legendary” (Phillips, 57). She received a second Guggenheim Fellowship for “The Interior Landscape” in 1966. A few of Arbus' photographs appeared in the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) New Documents show (1967)—the only museum appearance during her lifetime—along with the work of Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand.
Her narrative titles typically provide a brief description of the picture's subject, a notation of the space the photograph was taken (e.g., an apartment, a room, etc.), and a broad address (e.g., NYC), as exemplified by A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). For nearly a decade, Arbus tried to capture the 495-pound, 8-foot tall Eddie Carmel on film in just the right way. It was not until she shot Carmel hunched over in his natural environment against the startling juxtaposition of his normal-sized, bewildered parents in their cramped middle-class apartment that she discovered the moment she was waiting for. Under Arbus' eye, what could be a sentimental picture of family life instead becomes a portrait of absurd oddity within what might have been a typical family if not for a genetic aberration. For Arbus, the extended process of picture making depended on her subjects' cooperation. Although she had photographed Carmel many times, at work, at play, and then at home, it took the collaboration of both subject and artist for Arbus to find her final vision.
A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970 is one of several shots of Jews, both named and unnamed. For instance, Andrew Ratoucheff, actor in his rooming house, N.Y.C., 1960 (Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, Kansas) pictures a Jew, although not specified by the title, while the title A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C., 1963 specifically notes the religious character of the dancers. Such identifications or nonidentifications in captions influence the viewer's perception of the imagery. As literary critic Leslie Fiedler observed, Arbus' “title and treatment strip the Barnum and Bailey show Giant [sic], who lived from 1938 to 1972, of all identity except his Jewishness. And precisely this gives an added frisson to the picture, since in legend Giants are the most goyish of all Freaks–typified by the monstrous Goliath sent against the frail champion of the Jews, the boy-man David. Yet to compound the irony, American-born children of East European immigrants do customarily tower over their parents, though not to so exaggerated a degree” (118; emphasis in original).
Arbus' many shots of families were intended for a planned book project, never published, with the working title “Family Album.” Art historian Anthony W. Lee offers conjectures about the book, tentatively connecting Arbus' interest in families to her Jewish background, notably the dilemma of the postwar Jewish American family. Lee suggests that the successful integration of the Jewish American family into the mainstream threatened the survival of Judaism in the country, for what distinctive religiocultural elements remained amid such rapid assimilation? He links Arbus' pictures of Jewish families, including A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970 and A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C., 1963, with some of Arbus' comments about her own Judaism, including a statement Arbus gave Studs Terkel for his seminal book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression and her other commentary on the subject. For example, quoted in Terkel under the pseudonym Daisy Singer, Arbus asserted that raised “upper middle-class Jewish, you know, second-generation American. … I grew up feeling immune and exempt from circumstance. One of the things I suffered from was that I never felt adversity. I was confirmed in a sense of unreality” (110–111). Arbus' ambivalent position as a Jew and an American was worthy, in her mind, of investigation—of exploring the “unreality” of her Jewishness (31). Thus, Arbus' photographs of Jewish subjects, who at times would be unmarked without the identification of them as Jewish—A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C., 1963 is a close-up shot of a smiling elderly couple on the dance floor—was an obvious accentuation of Jewishness. Lee concludes that “Arbus' interests in the family can be situated in a larger framework of social visibility and competing meanings for the Jewish family. … For Arbus, those pressures made it a deeply fraught and therefore deeply interesting subject, full of the strangenesses and oddities—the fascination and creepiness of families trying to name themselves—that easily attracted a photographer on the prowl for her album” (32).
A year after she committed suicide at age forty-eight, Arbus' work was shown at MoMA. Her first major retrospective since then, Diane Arbus Revelations, appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2003, traveling until late 2006 to other venues in the United States and Europe. Arbus taught photography at several venues, notably the Parsons School of Design where her students included Barbara Kruger.
Cleveland Museum of Art
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
New Orleans Museum of Art
Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
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