Diane Arbus Revelations

by Doon Arbus
ISBN: 0375506209

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A Review of: Diane Arbus Revelations
by Christopher Ondaatje

When Diane Arbus died in 1971 the library she left behind showed her active interest in myth. Among the volumes found were several by Robert Graves, The White Goddess and The Golden Ass. Others included James Stephens's The Crock of Gold, J R Tolkien's The Hobbit, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Sigmund Freud's An Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, C G Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zanathustra, and Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces were also there. She was a serious reader and her literary works are an intriguing insight into her development. She became involved in photography when she married Allan Arbus in 1941, but it was only after her marriage floundered in 1957 that she devoted herself to photographing society's outcasts. Then, almost with a manic zeal, in a mere thirteen years, she brought forth an astonishing collection of material which explores a wholly original force in photography.
Diane Arbus: Revelations, the retrospective of her work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern art, which ends this month on the 8th February, is only the second major exhibition since the artist died. The last was held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1972. The retrospective will be shown in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum in October 2005. This book, by far the most expansive of any book on Arbus so far, and published in tandem with the retrospective, shows two hundred full-page duotones of the artist's photographs, many of which have never been seen before. The book also includes an explanatory and compassionate essay by Sandras Phillips-the senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and a discussion of Arbus' printing techniques by Neil Selkirk, the only person authorised to print her photographs since her death. There is also a 104-page chronology compiled by Doon Arbus, the artist's eldest daughter, and Elizabeth Sussman, a guest curator at San Francisco's museum, which, by using three hundred additional images together with letters, notes and other writings, provides a mesmerising biography of the tortured photographer. It is bound to be a compelling and controversial document.
Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923, into a wealthy New York Jewish family. She grew up privileged but isolated in the 1930s, sent to the best private New York schools, but not to college. She married Allan Arbus when she was nineteen years old, and the following year opened a fashion photography studio with her husband. Eleven years later, separated from her husband, and having devoted herself for over a decade to stylised fashion photography, she changed her focus to photographing people who lived "on the edge". The following industrious thirteen years provided the main body of work featured in the retrospective and in this book.
Norman Mailer once said "giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby." He was one of her early sitters, as were the lovers Erik Bruhn and Rudolph Nureyev, as well as the seductress Mae West in her bedroom. "I want to photograph evil," she declared. She also photographed herself nude and pregnant-a strangely alluring and vulnerable portrait. But increasingly Arbus directed her attention to photographing outsiders: eccentrics, nudists, the mentally retarded, transsexuals, dwarfs, vagrants, female impersonators, freaks. Forbidden fruit. She developed a unique understanding of the relationship between photographer and subject. "I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them," she said, and added, "For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture." She did not romanticise her subjects. Instead she acknowledged their complexity.
In 1962 Arbus switched from a 35mm Nikon SLR to a 2-twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera and then a Mamiyaflex. With the larger square negative she achieved a more precise sharper image-more light and more clarity. Using a 35mm camera allowed Arbus to capture her subject and then divorce herself from it just as Cartier-Bresson did, calling the resulting photographs "images la sauvette" (pictures on the run). However, looking down into the bulkier 2-camera, invariably held at waist level, forced the subject to cooperate and participate. Conseqently, this permitted Arbus to create a tension and to become emotionally involved with her subjects. She captured this tension and looked for it, admitting "I think it does, a little, hurt to be photographed." Indeed, some of her heart-rending portraits like Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, NYC, 1962, and A Jewish giant at home with his Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970 defy analysis. Initially, with the wide-angled Rolleiflex Arbus tended to isolate her subject: " this visual effect served to emphasise the psychological component of the subject " The later 2-Mamiyaflex she favoured did not have a wide-angle lens and enabled her to frame her intensely personal square-shaped portraits with irregular black borders. "The borders called attention to the fact that the print is an image on a two-dimensional sheet of paper rather than an objective', window-like view onto the subject. This in combination with the use of flash helped to assert the picture as a real, tactile object made by someone, an expression of someone's point of view." Certainly no photographer before or after Arbus has been able to use the uncropped square image to such enduring advantage. Her subjects literally expose themselves in the centre of the square format which became her trademark.
For many years Diane Arbus had suffered from severe depression. She contracted hepatitis in 1966 and then again in 1968-a devastatingly depressive sickness. Nevertheless she had completed an amazingly productive period of work. In 1971 she was 48. She spent the last week of June 1971, teaching at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. She then returned to her apartment on Central Park West in New York. She saw friends, but she was alone. Her ex-husband, Allan Arbus, had left for California. Her daughter Doon was in Paris, and her younger daughter Amy was in boarding school. On July 26 ,1971, after swallowing barbiturates, she slashed her wrists and died with her clothes on in an empty bathtub. When her body was found some days later decomposition had already set in.
The manner in which Diane Arbus died was a symbolic and grotesque conclusion to an unhappy life. In a curious way it drew attention to the very sincerity of her photographs. It certainly changed forever the way in which her work was viewed. We are indeed lucky to be able to revel in the genius of this extraordinary artist in this exceptional documentary of her work.

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