Diane Arbus (née Nemerov) was born in New York on March 14, 1923, into a rich, cultured, deeply troubled, Jewish world. The family business was a Fifth Avenue furriers. Diane – pronounced Dee-Anne – grew up with a French nanny. 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 still the biggest-selling photography monograph, with more than 100,000 copies sold.
Which raises deep, never resolved questions about what all those book-buyers saw in her pictures. A foreign, disturbed and disturbing world from which their affluence and education shielded them? Or a crack in their own façade through which they could glimpse their own secret and secreted selves?
Arbus started out as a kind of assistant to her photographer husband Allan. Also a product of Manhattan’s upper reaches, he had a German nanny. Together, the couple fashioned fashionable Manhattan fashion photographs. But from 1956 onwards, Arbus 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 also gave Arbus a technique to do it, persuading her to intensify her vision by moving from 35mm to the larger Rolleiflex square format – which ensures you have to get close to your subject. ‘I always thought of photography as a naughty thing to do – that was one of my favourite things about it, and when I first did it, I felt very perverse.’
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). ‘Freaks’ as she called them.
‘Diane 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.’ She talked and wrote about them, too. More than most photographers, she provided her viewers – her art world audience, anyway – not just explanations, justifications even, for her work but something like a manifesto. It’s one of bravado, of violence even. ‘Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,’ she said. ‘Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.’
She made words-and-pictures essays for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. Her prose is not really prose, mostly just long, long lists of facts — as if the truth could only be revealed that way. In a very real way, there is a clue there, a window into the rhetorical heart of her work, the same one you can see in the title for her 1966 Guggenheim Fellowship project, American Rites, Manners and Customs. It is there, too, in something else she wrote: ‘What is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.’ She was talking of her own work, of course, and she’s right, too.
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.
She shot authors and writers. They didn’t always like the result. Norman Mailer, in particular. ‘Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child,’ he said when he saw her portrait of him — in which the eye is drawn, with discomforting equivalence, to the author’s eyes, gesturing right hand, pursed lips and trouser crotch.
Mailer wasn’t the only subject who wasn’t made happy. In 1967, she photographed a pair of identical twins in Roselle, New Jersey. Years later, they were identified as Cathleen and Colleen Wade. ‘We thought it was the worst likeness of the twins we’d ever seen,’ said their father Bob. ‘I don’t press the shutter,’ Arbus wrote. ‘The image does. And it’s like being gently clobbered.’ She seduced her subjects into uncomprehending acceptance. ‘I think I’m kind of two-faced,’ she said.
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 – a modern echo of our ancestors peering through bars at asylum inmates and sometimes paying good money to do it. Arbus’s photographs are a hall of mirrors. Her lens – literally, metaphorically, deliberately – distorts.
Every camera is also a mirror: of the photographer, of the photographed and, in time, of the viewer. What Arbus does is to express our secret hatreds and fears. When we look at her pictures, we are really looking into ourselves. Her rhetoric, her poeticised sense of her work, echoes our own hidden thoughts – and fear of those thoughts. Her pictures tell us: we are all crippled inside and this is what that psychic crippledom would look like if it were given human form.
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 that boy with a grenade had to say in 2005 – by which time he was a middle-aged insurance agent, with a real name, Colin Wood. ‘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.’ Again, her visual world resonates somehow with our own interior landscapes.
She and Allan separated in 1958, then divorced in 1969. He gave up photography and turned to acting, finding fame as the army psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, in the TV show M*A*S*H. She lived the life she photographed, hanging out on Manhattan’s social fringes, having sex on the back seat of Greyhound buses with strangers. A kind of self-harming perhaps.
She died on July 26, 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.
© Peter Silverton 2019