Before taking her own life in 1971, Arbus made photographic portraits of society women, crying babies, nudists, people with developmental disabilities and people in masks, as well as sex workers, twins, people with dwarfism, teenage couples and crossdressers. Or, as her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, put it, “freaks, professional transvestites, strong men, tattooed men, the children of the very rich.” (The show’s promotional image fits into this last category: it’s Arbus’s brilliant photo of journalist Anderson Cooper as a baby, whose sleeping face eerily resembles a death mask.)
The Arbus exhibition of 1972-1973, then the most-visited solo exhibition in MoMA history, had a depth-charge—first in the refined world of fine art photography (a contentious category at the time) and then in culture at large. Few people had heard of Arbus in his lifetime. Then suddenly, within a year of her death at the age of 48, everyone knew her, everyone had strong opinions and – perhaps most remarkably – no one doubted that photography could be art. “People walked through this exhibition as if they were queuing for communion,” John Szarkowski, a MoMA photo curator who championed her work, once commented.
The Zwirner display is awesome. It stages the problem (an excess of comments, a fire hose of controversy) and then magically throws it off. Entering the gallery you will see a wall covered with excerpts from writings about Arbus:
“The work of Arbus shows people who are pathetic, pathetic, but also terrible, repulsive, but it doesn’t arouse compassionate feelings.”
“Their subjects are all flesh, they have very few resources – they don’t have much brains.”
“[Arbus] shows us people so locked into their physical and mental limitations that their movements are meaningless charades. You are almost a loser for a man.”
“You don’t get majesty and beauty in photographing midgets. You get dwarves.”
Etc. The show coincides with the release of a nearly 500-page book, Diane Arbus: Documents, covering more than 50 years of Arbus criticism from Hilton Kramer, Hilton Als and Robert Hughes to Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer and Janet Malcolm reprints.
But the wall of text is like a curtain or the meniscus on a body of water. You cross the threshold of the show like a masked snorkeler on a stormy day, dipping his head under. Suddenly you are in a new element, another universe. It is quiet. You’re on your own. There is no text in sight, not even a title. It’s just the photos of you and Arbus, their gallery of characters – the same 113 images that made up their MoMA retrospective 50 years ago.
Seeing the exhibition in 2022 underscores the extravagance of many reactions to Arbus. It also offers a great chance to forgo the silliness.
The debate that Arbus has sparked for 50 years has always revolved around the question of “freaks”. The problem has generally taken the form of two questions: Why was she attracted to these subjects? And has she somehow betrayed them or betrayed them, despised them or unfairly exploited them?
That is, it seems, all one would want from their work.
Arbus’ themes were not as broad as the themes of, say, Walker Evans or Robert Frank. Her work is so focused that it’s clear she’s trying to tell you something. But her images of the institutionalized, the physically abnormal, the socially irregular and the otherwise marginalized make up only part of her oeuvre. Seeing them alongside all of her other images is crucial to understanding her work.
The other images, showing men and women of high or low social status and babies and children (who were too young to have significant status), are just as important as their photographs of so-called freaks. They all relate. And as the feelings evoked by each image are inevitably shifted to the others, they add up to an idea that deepens as the number of her photographs increases.
The idea is simple. In short, we’re like monkeys at a tea party. We all. Beyond that, we deny. We hone our self-image and accessorize it, but those very accessories (in Arbus’s world it can be leopard skin pillbox hats, beaded strings, Halloween masks, skinny jeans, tattoos, tidy bourgeois interiors, boaters, bow ties, or even brazen, Dare to contradict nudity) constantly give the game away.
Bob Dylan once sang that a leopard skin pillbox hat “balances on your head like a mattress on a bottle of wine”. But for Arbus, who started out as a fashion photographer, the various forms of our denial were not despicable. They were strange, captivating, poignant.
Arbus was as averse to sentimentality as he was to disgust or contempt. Her insight was not in itself original. Still, it deepened in her hands in a unique way. Being a photographer and not a painter or sculptor was crucial to her expression of the idea of ”We’re all monkeys at a tea party”.
For decades we’ve been drilled into all the ways the camera lies. But cameras also reveal many facts. You can point them to topics that interest you, but they remain uninterested. The reason we dislike about nine out of ten photos we see of ourselves isn’t because those nine are fake, it’s because they reveal things we don’t like to acknowledge.
Precisely because the camera can ridicule us with its special evidential power, we call it cruel. We’re wary of the power of the professional photographer, which we think of as a sort of rolling, unspoken negative review (“You don’t realize how ridiculous you look”). We only hope that the photographer, out of pity, will conspire with us to reverse the camera’s (as we see it) negative bias.
But Arbus accepted the camera’s tendency to show what is really there. She found the phenomenon interesting. She didn’t try to turn it into a rhetoric of cruelty, nor did she try to turn it into a smug orgy of empathy, much less a “celebration” of people’s “identities.” She saw too much inner division, in herself and in others, to believe in “identity.”
Susan Sontag, who set the agenda for all the wrong thinking about Arbus in a 1973 essay for the New York Review of Books, did not like this lack of advertised empathy. Arbus used her camera, Sontag wrote, as “a sort of passport that shatters moral boundaries and social inhibitions and absolves the photographer of any responsibility to the people photographed”.
But that’s tendentious. Passports do not “destroy” borders; they only allow you to cross them. Arbus can be said to have exploited a “passport” to amorality, if you will. But what artist isn’t interested in the gaps between our instincts and inhibitions, between our private selves and the selves we present in public? Arbus was simply one of the first to recognize the camera’s unique way of revealing it.
According to Sontag, Arbus “created a world where everyone is a stranger, hopelessly alienated”. But that too is off-base. Check out the photos. Arbus captured expressions of exuberance, delight in camaraderie, parental tenderness, self-love, penetrating intelligence, wry weariness, politeness, bados, aggression, perplexity, and various expressions of curiosity (or boredom) about the process of photography.
It was all intriguing to Arbus. And what made it so poignant, after all, was the impossibility of being to penetrate the minds of the people she photographed, which she clearly longed to do. Arbus was a complicated man. Depressed, restless, and sexually adventurous, she craved intense experiences. But it was her complexity that allowed her to see and capture the complexity and unknowability of her subjects.
Her success had its moral impact, which is evident to anyone who sees her paintings today. Arbus’ crossdressers and nudists, their Down’s Syndrome people and Halloween celebrations don’t look like “freaks” anymore. They look like what they are: fellow human beings. We can look at the issues with as much honesty as we can muster by looking at ourselves. And we need not pity them any more than we pity ourselves.
Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus retrospective revisited Until October 22 at David Zwirner’s Gallery 537 West 20th St., New York. davidzwirner.com/exhibitions.