The questionable legacy of Diane Arbus.

From daguerreotypes to digital.
Oct. 6 2003 6:34 PM

Diane the Coed

Arbus' photos of freakish, strange people are disappointingly pious.

Click here to view a slide show of Arbus' photographs.

If success in the visual arts is measured by familiarity of style and image, then Diane Arbus might well be the most successful photographer of all time. Most people with a passing interest in the medium can recognize the manner of Avedon's portraits; most can identify a Man Ray or two, maybe an Atget, a few images by Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, or even—thanks to Jesse Helms—by Robert Mapplethorpe. But Arbus' fame is of another sort altogether. The style is unmistakable, the subject matter all her own, and chances are I need only half-describe a few of her images for the corresponding picture to appear immediately before your mind's eye: the little girl twins, the Jewish giant in his parents' living room, the psycho-child with the toy hand grenade, the man in the straw boater at the pro-war parade.

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So it's surprising to realize that the last comprehensive exhibition of Arbus' work was also the first: the immediately posthumous survey that the Museum of Modern Art mounted more than 30 years ago. There's no way of knowing just how many people saw that show or how many bought the catalog, but it must have been a lot: My own copy of the book is from its 11th printing, and I'm sure there've been quite a few more since I acquired it, well over a decade ago.

Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents
Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents

This is not a bad thing, but it does make Arbus' work a little bit difficult to evaluate; her pictures are so familiar that it's almost impossible to see them with fresh eyes, and the absence of a follow-up show to provide a further context hasn't helped. So the vast new exhibition of Arbus' work and memorabilia—titled "Revelations" and opening this fall at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveling across America and on to Europe over the next three years—is an unusually valuable piece of curatorship, and the vast, deluxe, and exhaustive catalog put out by Random House to accompany the show is an uncommonly useful publication. Figuring out, from all this, how good the work actually is remains a strangely difficult task.

All artists are, in some sense, singular, but Arbus was more unusual than most. Her work was in direct opposition to the tendencies of her times. To begin with, there's the matter of her equipment. Photography in the '50s and '60s was getting freer; cameras grew lighter and lenses quicker; film was faster, which meant it could be used for shorter exposures in lower light. The result was a more spontaneous style: street photos shot on the fly, looser compositions, a sense of intimacy and casualness. Arbus went in the opposite direction: In the early '60s she traded in her little Nikon 35mm for a Rolleiflex, a relatively cumbersome machine that's held at waist level while its user peers down through a viewfinder built into the top. The Rolleiflex produces a large and finely detailed negative, but it also changes the kinds of pictures you can take, and as much as it helped Arbus find her style, the format ultimately forced her into an aesthetic that didn't serve her well.

Young Man in Curlers
Young Man in Curlers

Whether by convention or because of the habits of human vision, most pictures are rectangular—either portrait or landscape; but cameras like the Rolleiflex make square negatives, which tend to feel boxy and unnatural, an effect heightened by Arbus' tendency to shoot her subjects head on. It's a particularly unnerving way to make portraits, since it tends to leave the subject stranded in a picture field that bears no real relationship to the proportions of the human body. Moreover, the lenses on large-format cameras tend to be slower; natural light is often not enough to produce a good exposure. Arbus herself used a big bright flash, which produced deep shadows and a slightly garish shine on fleshy highlights. Again, the wide-angle lens she favored requires that the photographer be right up against her subjects—in some cases she seems to be jamming the camera in their faces—and it flares slightly at the edges, a fisheye effect that almost imperceptibly distorts the final image.

The Human Pincushion
The Human Pincushion

This explains why even ordinary people tend to look odd in Arbus' photos and why unusual people look unregenerately bizarre. Bizarreness, of course, was Arbus' specialty; she was a collector of freaks and outcasts, subcultures and sports of nature, and most people who remember her work are calling to mind that sideshow quality. But while such things seemed bold 40 years ago, they carry a little less kick today. Grotesquerie is in the eye of the beholder, and in an age like our own, where much that once seemed odd is simply part of the scene, Arbus' fondness for disquiet seems a little forced: Drag queens? Sure. Dwarfs, OK. Mongoloidism. We call it Down syndrome now, and few people have to try not to stare. What's more, when the stress falls so regularly on the idea of strangeness, some unseemly implications can arise. With a picture like A Jewish Couple Dancing, or Mexican Dwarf in His Hotel Room, or A Puerto Rican Housewife, it's hard not to wonder what Jewishness or Mexicanness has to do with anything; it's as if Arbus, who was Jewish herself, is suggesting that ethnicity was a kind of disability or disfigurement, such that a picture of Jews dancing is on a par with a picture of, say, albinos playing billiards (and while we're at it, what would be so inherently interesting about that?).

Arbus once said that freaks were "aristocrats": But of course they're not. As a group they're no better or worse than anyone else. To say that they are is to make a virtue of suffering, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that she's doing so to elevate the status of her own unhappiness (she committed suicide in 1971). It's troublesome when people identify too closely with the problems of others, not as a means to alleviating needless unhappiness, but simply to save and sanctify themselves; it's deadly when an artist does it. There's something improper about annexing someone else's pain; the point, if point there must be, is to make it stop.

Albino Sword Swallower
Albino Sword Swallower

The standard charge against Arbus is that she exploits her subjects. But I don't think that's right: The problem is that she's not exploitive enough. In her letters to family and friends, many of which are reproduced in the catalog, she comes across as lively, funny, and loose—curious and amoral, like a softer version of Weegee, whom she admired enormously. It seems there was a side of her that just wanted to go out and photograph weird folks, because they were interesting and it was fun, and if the pictures she made showed any of that, if they had even a touch of lightheartedness and vulgarity, they'd be much easier to appreciate. But they're so stony, so square and pious and solemn. They feel like she made them because she thought they'd be purifying, like a college girl working with lepers in India on her spring break. What's worse, they feel like they're supposed to purify us, too, by forcing us to acknowledge the otherwise invisible elements of humanity.

Well, art doesn't work that way. A picture is only redemptive, for its maker, its audience, or its subject, when it isn't trying; morality, if it exists at all, arises only as an unintended byproduct of the work's own demands. Arbus was a great photographer, yes; there's no denying that. She was a master of the medium, and she had an eye like no one else's. But imagine how much better she might have been, if she wasn't trying so hard to be good.