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Don't Look Back

John Haber
in New York City

Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus's strangeness only begins with her subjects—the geeks and transvestites, the giant and the children almost like dwarfs. It includes her uncanny ability to entice her subjects to look back.

It is not the pampered, composed look of a celebrity. It is not the shameless look of street hustler or the endlessly beseeching look of a teenager, seeing the lens and longing to become a star. It is not the bored look of someone for whom spectacle has displaced reality.

In contrast to Arbus, Larry Clark and other, younger photographers strongly identify with their subjects. He locates his subjects' strangeness in illicit desires and acts, and he removes them from familiar surroundings while suggesting that a generic rootlessness lies everywhere in contemporary America if one only paid attention. Finally, he thrusts all that in one's face. He demands and refuses judgment. The regard in an Arbus print begs for judgment of everyone present but the sitter.

That look, that invitation to the camera to do its worst, still presents a challenge. It forces others to remember that they are looking, too, even when they blame the photographer for lingering on the freak show. It demands that one ask just who is revealing what to whom. Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park (Estate of the artist, 1962)

Who are these people?

Arbus did not always work that way. In her first solo efforts, from the late 1950s, she captures her subjects in passing. Perhaps she did not know them well enough yet, or perhaps she knew photography too well. Walker Evans had prowled the subways, his camera hidden beneath his coat. Art photographers had sought that "perfect moment," and photojournalists had walked the streets day after day. A fixation on the bizarre may already suggest documentation—whether in Leonardo's drawings or with Weegee, holding out his press pass and bulky flashbulb.

Arbus knew all that. She studied with Berenice Abbott, who had worked for Man Ray in Paris and had sought beauty in a changing New York. Arbus grew up in the city, back when it was a newspaper town. Her brother, Howard Nemerov, called one of his early poems "The Daily Globe," after the Boston daily in which "the characters in comic strips / Prolong their slow, interminable lives / Beyond the segregated photographs / Of the girls that marry and the men that die."

Soon, however, she notices that her subjects notice her, and by the 1960s people pose for her, as they will for the rest of her life. Her changing practice could reflect her exposure to the norms of fashion shoots. Arbus and her husband had partnered in the business as early as 1946, working for such magazines as Vogue and Glamour. For her own first commissions, starting in 1960, she turned to Esquire and Harper's Bazaar. I wonder if they realized what spectacle they had chosen.

Fashion, in turn, had its lessons to learn. One may spot her frontal poses and unflinching gaze later, in the work of Richard Avedon. Arbus even left black strips on her prints for a while, like Avedon until his death. But no one cherished blackness as much as she—so much that she moved it all into her subject. The exhausting reverence of the Met's retrospective can at times seem less a whitewash than a service for the dead.

Art, photojournalism, and fashion may serve as reference points, but they cannot define her style. They may suggest why she sought that uneasy closeness to her sitters. Like them and so many others, she was coming out of hiding during the 1960s. In her husband's business, she had put much of herself on hold to serve as the stylist, almost like the burlesque acts she was to seek out in their dressing room. Now separated and well into her thirties, she was taking up the camera fully on her own. She studied again, this time with Lisette Model, who taught that a photographer must have a passion for her subjects. I wonder if she knew from Lewis Carroll what kinds of passion for its subject a camera can reveal.

None of that, however, can get at the fascination of others—on both sides of the camera. Who are these people, and why do they want so much to put themselves on display? Who is she to look? Who am I to look now? Arbus does not just force one to ask. She is asking herself.

A larger theater

Arbus's sitters feel compelled to look, compelled by the very roles they assume. Sometimes, but only sometimes, that involves a casebook compulsion, as in the lives of her cross dressers and sadomasochists. It also involves the very logic of performance. In the 1950s, she snaps people in theaters, in front of a movie screen, more shadowy than the fictive lives within. She has created untitled film stills before Cindy Sherman.

Before long, Arbus penetrates the screen. She enters a theater's dressing rooms, but she never follows her actors on stage. She does not have to follow. Their performance comes into its own only when they emerge onto a larger theater. Parental guidance still suggested.

Arbus finds the artificial lights and dark shadows of stage and film in a city street. She finds its shallow stage in the constraints of a New York apartment. She shows teenagers in love, posing as a couple. They want so much to grow into their adult role, just as they are growing into their oversized topcoats. They have yet to learn how to make their faces betray affection to the camera. Perhaps they do not know yet how to see it in each other or in themselves.

The graininess of photojournalism gives way to increasing crispness, but not in order to define a coherent deep space. A flower seller appears trapped by the glare of headlights or by the night. A man stands lost in Central Park as if in a vast nowhere. Tall bare branches frame the frailness of Jorge Luis Borges as if eating into his flesh. Along with Abbott, Arbus could serve as the consummate New Yorker, but with the city as backdrop rather than as landmarks or as home.

She has found the set for a performance created solely by her and its actors, with their dearest possessions the props. Buildings may fade out of focus, but not a stuffed dog or those plastic flowers, held out for sale like a vain and lifeless gift.

Arbus moves easily from a performer with his head facing backward, a headless woman, or a human pincushion to children ballroom dancing for the prize. It seems only a short step from pinup girls in their dressing room to a barbershop with pinups between the mirrors. Each lives by its rituals, and what good are rituals if no one is there to bear witness?

Ceremonies and betrayals

She wants, she writes, to capture "the considerable ceremonies of our present . . . because they will have been so beautiful." She does not, however, leave performers in full command of their performance. She will not let them stop watching her, and she often waits until they forget that she in turn is watching them. For a moment I wondered: could I have been that child in the park with a toy grenade?

They may not turn away from the camera, but they often lose patience with or hide from each other. Her "Jewish giant" seems unreal not merely because he has to bend over to fit in the room. One may look at him with astonishment, but not half as much as he and his own parents regard each other. The number of eyes even within these multiple performers far exceeds the number of performances. Any easy interpretation simply adds one more set of eyes.

Her own motives come up again and again in interpretation. Critics have seen her work as exploitative or sympathetic, violent or erotic, the projection of a fragile mind or the creator of a family. In reality, she makes one question one's own motives and those of the photographer as much as the subject's. The Met titles its retrospective "Revelations," and I dare one to decide what it reveals. A print—or a museum—becomes neither fully public nor private. Every display, along with every act of looking, takes on unintended consequences.

Arbus is at once complicitous with each life as with a crime and in violation of her sitter's complicity. "I used not to notice the slightest difference," she writes, "between people and things." To Susan Sontag—ever the guardian of photography as witness—Arbus's village houses only idiots. I might call her art instead an inspired autism. She could pass for an extraterrestrial, fascinated by the strangeness of Earth, knowing that she, too, remains unforgivably alien.

Perhaps she always was. She attended good, reform-minded private schools, married young, had a child, never went to college, divorced, and died at her own hand. She did her own printing up to her last years, another uncertain mark of her distance from others.

She could certainly seem alien, in the Met's spooky sideshow, broken by dark alcoves filled with memorabilia but oddly reluctant to talk about her personal shadows. The exhibition passes over her life and work with her husband, as if unwilling to raise too many demons. It includes contact sheets, prints by others, and even prints she never intended to be made, but with no obvious betrayal of quality or her artistic persona. Then again, when it comes to Diane Arbus, betrayal is a loaded word.

Invisible things

In bringing to light unrecognized subjects and divided points of view, Arbus has something in common with Gary Winogrand. Like him, she documents the shifts underlining the 1960s, when personal tensions went public and merged with politics. A big-eared geek clings to his country, his pro-Vietnam War buttons, and his hopelessly crooked bow tie as if to any hope of belonging. Peace protesters look like ghosts feeling their way in the dark.

However, Arbus cares too much for the fringes of life, including old age and childhood, to belong entirely to either side in a budding culture war. Instead of the Baby Boomers' coming of age, she photographs elderly debutantes, still dressed as if for their coming out. She converts a suburban nudist colony into an aging parody of a love-in. She prefers the moment of preparation for a performance—or its remembrance decades later—to any transient illusion of wholeness.

She has had obvious influence, as in the sordid, personal documentaries of Larry Clark, Peter Hujar, Ryan McGinley, or Sam Taylor-Wood. However, those photographers beg to appear as both members of the scene and recorders of degradation. One may call them cool or revolting, brutally honest or in self-denial, but one always gets to judge. Arbus stands as neither insider nor outsider, self-indulgent nor outraged. She does not claim superiority to either her subjects or to the viewer, and in turn she allows the viewer neither belonging nor detachment as well. I can hardly imagine her beside today's round-the-clock TV coverage of celebrity and death, in which photography as witness creates its own culture of exploitation.

A point of view either inside or outside would allow for generalizations. One identifies Arbus's photographs so much with their subjects because she takes each as an individual. Only an individual, after all, can aspire to the literally eccentric. In high school, she criticized Plato's belief in universals, his distrust of the unique. Rather than the perfect moment, she cares more for the lingering imperfect that others have passed over. As her brother put it in another poem, "The world is full of mostly invisible things."

Like Plato, however, she never knows for certain what in this world to call an image or a fiction. "The world," she writes, "is full of fictional characters looking for their stories." Even in betrayal, she believes in her characters and their stories. She wants, she insists, to "believe in something," especially when the world would scorn it and turn away. "Everyone doubts, she writes, "any dumb but pregnant comment, any criticism of the world's arrangement" as merely "eccentric." A "dumb but pregnant comment" could almost define photography.

The retrospective ends with perhaps her most portentous-sounding quote: "Photography is a secret about a secret." Then again, once one tells a secret, it is no longer secret. And those who listen to a secret may find themselves burdened with it for good.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Diane Arbus: Revelations" ran through May 30, 2005, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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