Diane Arbus

- Selected Press

Beginning in 1969 and continuing through the last two years of her life, Diane Arbus traveled regularly by bus to New Jersey to photograph people at residences for the developmentally and intellectually disabled. Her first destination, the coeducational Woodbridge State School, was just across the Hudson from her Manhattan apartment. Quite soon, though, she determined that an all-female institution in Vineland, in the southern part of the state, provided richer opportunities.

The photographs in the “Untitled” series, at the David Zwirner gallery through Dec. 15, are mostly taken in Vineland. Departing significantly from the work that built Arbus's reputation, they include some of the most mysterious and haunting pictures of her 15-year artistic career.

The “Untitled” exhibition is the first in Zwirner’s new partnership with the Fraenkel Gallery of San Francisco to co-represent the Arbus estate. Rather than start with her iconic portraits of sideshow freaks, cross-dressers, pro-Vietnam war demonstrators and nudists, the New York gallery opted to show this less familiar, late work, which until now has never been seen in its entirety.

“Entirety” should be marked with an asterisk. Arbus exposed roughly 1,900 frames of film in these institutions; she committed suicide in July 1971 without having fully edited or titled the pictures. It fell to her older daughter, Doon, to decide what constituted the series, relying (but perhaps not exclusively) on images Arbus chose to print. A book published under Doon’s auspices in 1995 included 51 pictures; additional ones have been released since. Of the 66 photographs at Zwirner, six are prints made by Arbus. (Five have never been publicly shown before.) One was shot with a Pentax 6x7, the cumbersome camera Arbus was trying out at the very end of her life.

While the portrayal of madmen and fools has a venerable artistic tradition, Arbus’s subjects are intellectually disabled, not insane, and they are physically unrestrained. No one had ever made pictures quite like these. Arbus arrived at two great insights. The first was that it would be more poignant to show her subjects happy. Her friend Richard Avedon had photographed at the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital in 1963, recording scenes of pain and degradation. Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 film, “Titicut Follies,” set at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts, was similarly bleak and despairing. Crucially, Arbus searched for moments of celebration, not suffering, during games and holidays.

Her second brilliant stroke was to photograph outdoors, amid trees and fields, scrubbing off journalistic or sociological details of the institutional settings and entering the universal realm of dream and myth. In the exhibition, you can see the evolution of her thinking.

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Early in her photography career, Diane Arbus was perplexed about how to possibly capture the grand mélange of humanity in her work. According to Arbus’s writings (published posthumously by Aperture), her mentor, street photographer Lisette Model, taught her that “the more specific you are” in a photograph, “the more general it’ll be.” Arbus questioned whether she should strive to capture a “generalized human being” in order for her work to be relatable, but Model taught her otherwise—that photographs will resonate with more people if you shed generalities; if you dig deep into the heart of who is in front of your camera. “In a way, this scrutiny has to do with not evading facts, not evading what it really looks like,” Arbus wrote.

The photographer’s unflinching gaze has been both celebrated and criticized since she rose to prominence in the 1960s, and after her death in 1971. Much of that attention is due to the subjects she was most drawn to: sideshow performers, nudists, dwarfs, transgender sex workers—people living on the fringes of society, but who also possessed a strong sense of identity. It’s well-known that Arbus would visit the homes of many of her subjects, who would invite her into their lives; she was able to connect with the people she met in a truly unique way.

Her gaze is most potent in her last body of work, “Untitled” (1969–71), both her most comprehensive and most incomplete series, made at residences for people with developmental disabilities. Much of the work was kept private until it was published in a 1995 monograph put together by her daughter, Doon; 66 images from the series—some never exhibited before—are on view now at David Zwirner in New York.

Arbus was invigorated by the residents, writing to her husband, Allan, in 1969: “It’s the first time I’ve encountered a subject where the multiplicity is the thing.…I am not just looking for the best picture of them. I want to do lots.” She would return to the residences for picnics, dances, and Halloween; in many of the images, her subjects are masked. But the way that people with developmental disabilities were seen by society in the 1960s differs markedly from today. Genetic disorders such as Down syndrome were treated as if they were mental illnesses, and, during the post-war economic boom, there was a sharp increase in the number of mentally ill and disabled children who were institutionalized because they were seen as a burden.

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It is reductive and tiresome to write about Diane Arbus and immediately bring up her death. It also seems almost impossible not to, for a couple of reasons. First off, she ended her life at 48, as her creative powers, still developing, reached a new level of intensity. (Who can avoid imagining what greatness lay ahead?) And second, that new creative development had led her into more and more transgressive, difficult terrain with each passing year. She was continually upping the daily dosage of emotional charge, chasing an ever-more-dramatic synaptic response, and eventually, the pop-psychologist in us suggests, her system just couldn’t handle it.

In her final two years, starting in 1969, Arbus found a subject to which she kept returning: institutionalized developmentally disabled people, most of them with the distinctive facial features of Down syndrome. Some are kids, others older. Quite a few of the photographs were made during Halloween celebrations, and the subjects have dressed up, often with masks. Most are framed like family snapshots: people standing outside, solo or in little groups, facing the camera. They seem to be on outings, usually in a field or in front of some trees. Fifty-one of these pictures were collected in a monograph called "Untitled," published in 1995, and those photographs, plus another handful never before exhibited, have just gone up at David Zwirner’s gallery on 20th Street.

Early in her career, Arbus quit the studio fashion photography she’d been making with her husband, Allan, with the words “I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to do it anymore.” (That moment opens Arthur Lubow’s superb biography of Arbus, published in 2016.) She spent the next two decades on the creative trail, and as she got into the “Untitled” series, she thought she’d had it. “FINALLY,” she wrote, “what I’ve been searching for.” Jeffrey Fraenkel, the dealer who has handled her estate for many years, has remarked that a pair of recent exhibits — her formative early solo work last year at the Met, and now this one at Zwirner — bracket her career much as these two remarks do.

What she found near the end of her journey was, even now, intimidatingly complex. The people in these photographs are hard for some observers to look at, whether out of fear or mere discomfort. (As if Down syndrome were infectious, that we might catch something.) Yet the subjects themselves seem pretty happy. They’re dressed up, either for Halloween or just for a day out. Most are smiling for the camera. The ones who are in conventional clothes rather than costumes have, most of the time, taken care with their appearance. They’ve chosen their outfits to present a look to the world, same as you or I do. And Arbus has lit them in a way that’s extremely hard to describe, one that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else: outdoors, usually under a leaden sky, with a little bit of fill-in flash but not a full-on blast of light. Neil Selkirk, who has done all of the posthumous printing from Arbus’s negatives and made most of the prints in this show, says she had been wrestling with an overpowered electronic flash under control throughout much of the ’60s, and finally had it under control. It probably wasn’t always dusk when she took these photos, or about to rain, but it seems that way.

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Five images by Diane Arbus that have never been seen before by the public will be exhibited at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York in November, inaugurating the gallery’s new collaboration with the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco in representing the Arbus estate.

The photographs will appear as a part of the first complete presentation of Arbus’s “Untitled” series, the last body of work she created before her death in 1971. “Untitled” is composed of 65 images made at residences for the developmentally disabled from 1969 to 1971. The exhibition will open on Nov. 2.

“I feel this body of work is as radical now as it must have been in the early ’70s,” David Zwirner said in an interview on Wednesday. “They’re so personal. They’re so difficult to look at to this day.”

“They’re so warm, on the one hand, and so devastating, on the other,” he added. “The emotional range she expresses is extraordinary.”

Thirteen images from the “Untitled” series appeared in a 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. An exhibition in 2003 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called “Diane Arbus: Revelations” also included selections from the series, and a book of photographs from “Untitled” was released in 1995 by Aperture, but does not contain the full series.

Jeffrey Fraenkel, the owner of the Fraenkel Gallery, explained that the collaboration with the David Zwirner Gallery was born out of a desire to make sure that Arbus is appreciated outside of photography circles. “Her work, from the beginning, has certainly reached outside of the realm of capital-P photography, but there’s still work to do,” he said by phone.

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John P. Jacob first saw Diane Arbus’s work in 1980 while taking a college photo class to help him in his chosen career of architectural preservation. The effect of her images was so powerful that he dreamed about them every night for the next week. He then decided to dedicate his life to photography, eventually becoming the curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Neil Selkirk was a young photographer assisting Richard Avedon on a portrait shoot of Anjelica Huston at her father’s London apartment when he first encountered one of Ms. Arbus’s images on the wall. He was unaware of her at the time — 1969 — but he was “completely devastated” by the image of three overweight nude people in a field. It transformed how he looked at the world.

Her images brought Mr. Jacob and Mr. Selkirk together in the making of “Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs,” published recently by Aperture and the Smithsonian American Art Museum to accompany an exhibition at the museum. Mr. Jacob wrote the essay for the book and curated the exhibition, which runs through January. Mr. Selkirk, who is the only person to have printed Ms. Arbus’s negatives since her death in 1971, was a source for Mr. Jacob.

The book recreates the experience of Ms. Arbus’s limited edition portfolio, “A Box of Ten Photographs,” which she began in 1969. Housed in a clear Plexiglass container, the original portfolios included 16 x 20 inch black-and-white prints, separated by Vellum sheets with Ms. Arbus’s handwritten descriptions of her subjects. The photos included some of her best-known images, like the identical twin girls, the Jewish giant and a young man in curlers. The portfolio was a limited edition of 50, but she had printed only eight and sold four before her death. Mr. Selkirk printed the remaining editions for her estate.

Although Ms. Arbus is among the most famous photographers of the 20th century and many of her images are familiar, Mr. Jacob said her work was still difficult to encounter. It’s not because her subjects included people on society’s margins, but because we approach them burdened by the details of her troubled life and suicide at the age of 48.

“It’s hard to really see Diane Arbus’s work because of all of the baggage we carry with it,” Mr. Jacob said. “The book and show are about really looking and reexperiencing the pictures that we know really, really well but remain unfamiliar with in some way.”

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A photographer whose portraits have compelled or repelled generations of viewers. Diane Arbus was a daughter of privilege who spent much of her adult life documenting those on the periphery of society. Since she killed herself in 1971, her unblinking portraits have made her a seminal figure in modern-day photography and an influence on three generations of photographers, though she is perhaps just as famous for her unconventional lifestyle and her suicide.

Her work continues to spark fierce debate among photographers and intellectuals. Are her portraits — of circus performers, transvestites, mentally disabled people and others — empathetic acknowledgments of a shared humanity, or are they exploitative depictions that seize upon their subjects’ oddities to shock her audience? After her death, many critics who fancy themselves armchair psychiatrists have tried to analyze her impulses, searching for the role these encounters played in Arbus’s psyche.

She was born Diane Nemerov on March 14, 1923, to David and Gertrude Nemerov, and had two siblings. Her family owned Russeks, an upscale Fifth Avenue department store founded by her maternal grandparents. Raised in spacious apartments on Park Avenue and Central Park West in Manhattan, she was attended by nannies, maids, a cook and a chauffeur. At 18, she married Allan Arbus, an aspiring fashion photographer, and together they started a fashion photography company with the family store as their first client.

After having two daughters, Doon and Amy, she quit the business to go off on her own as an editorial photographer and artist. Though the couple separated and eventually divorced, they remained close. Allan Arbus later became an actor and played the psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman on the television series “M*A*S*H.” He died in 2013.

Arbus worked for publications such as New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times Magazine, shooting portraits and occasionally fashion, all the while barely cobbling together a living even as her artistic success and reputation in the photography world grew. During her lifetime, there was no market for collecting photographs as works of art, and her prints usually sold for $100 or less. Today, the same prints garner hundreds of thousands of dollars. After suffering prolonged bouts of deep depression, Arbus killed herself on July 26, 1971, by consuming barbiturates and slashing her wrists. She was 48.

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A new exhibition of the photographer’s early work provides clues to where she found her subject matter and how she honed her confrontational style

It is impossible to know whether Diane Arbus’s early pictures would carry quite the same sense of foreboding if we knew nothing about her suicide, aged 48, in 1971, or her fascination with people she frequently referred to fondly as “freaks”, the eccentrics, dwarves, transvestites, impersonators, the mentally challenged, who she believed could be metaphors for the human condition, appearing, as she wrote, “somewhere further out than we do”. The idea that her portraits revealed a person’s inner psychology rather than just their outward appearance was widely taken up after her death, when she became the leading representative of a new form of subjective documentary photography, conferring importance on people who had previously been hidden from or rejected by society, legitimising them with her camera.

She was fascinated by difference: the difference between how people looked and how they thought they looked; between the character they had created and the person beneath the disguise. Most of all she admired those who had accepted, even celebrated, their difference and stood before her camera on their own terms. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience,” she once said. “Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed the test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

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Like many driven artists, Diane Arbus was a pitiless self-editor and a liberal self-documenter. The editor produced exactingly hard-won images, now classics of American 20th-century photography. The documenter saved every shred of preparatory matter that went into making those images: research files, handwritten notes, rejected alternatives and old experiments on which new work was built.

After her suicide at 48 in 1971, Arbus’s family found boxes filled with such material in her Manhattan apartment, including a cache of unpublished photographs from the late 1950s, when she officially began her career as an independent artist. In 2007, her daughters, Doon Arbus and Amy Arbus gave all of this to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is showing a selection of about 100 early pictures, most for the first time, in “Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” at the Met Breuer.

The presentation, conceived by Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Met’s department of photographs, is terrific: taut and moody, with a kind of offbeat format the museum rarely attempts in its Fifth Avenue headquarters. You walk off the Met Breuer’s second-floor elevators and in place of the usual introductory advertising, you face a wall of floor-to-ceiling partition-style columns stretching across the gallery, with further rows, layer on layer, behind it receding into darkness. Each column is hung, front and back, with a single photograph.

The effect is architectural, like a structure composed entirely of doors, and nondirective. The pictures, all made between 1956 and 1962, are arranged neither by date nor by theme. So you start where you want, and any choice is the right one. The first row of panels includes, in nonchronological order, a blurry 1956 image of a newspaper lying on a sidewalk; a 1957 shot of an imperious matron, encased in fur, sitting on a city bus and staring icily at the camera; and a 1959 backstage portrait of a bare-chested drag queen prepping for a show.

And from 1960 come three pictures. One is of an encounter, playful but aggressive, between two city kids who look weirdly adult. In another, a glum bear of a guy wearing undershorts, black socks and a rakish hat stands, as if stripped down for a fight, on a Coney Island beach. In a third, a homeless man in a municipal shelter holds up a dollar bill as if he were trying to shield his face with it.

Anyone familiar with Arbus’s career will note that she has already landed on some of her favored themes: childhood, negotiable gender, fringe culture and class. She came from privilege. She was born in Manhattan in 1923 into the city’s Jewish haute bourgeoisie — her father, David Nemerov, ran a family-owned fur emporium — with which she had a highly conflicted relationship.

At 18, she married the photographer and actor Allan Arbus. Together they set up a commercial photography studio specializing in fashion and advertising. After more than a decade of functioning as stylist to her cameraman husband, in 1956 she began pursuing photography full-time on her own, soliciting story assignments from magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar. She made her mark fairly quickly, partly because her work was, or could be, psychologically edgy, and partly because she went places other photographers didn’t go.

Street photography was the advanced mode of the day, and practitioners like Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand all claimed New York City as their turf. So did Lisette Model, a Viennese émigré with whom Arbus studied briefly. Ms. Model didn’t give her student much formal advice. Instead, she urged her to ease away from the stance of objectivity then considered requisite for serious photography and instead establish emotional relationships with her subjects, and see where that would take her. For Arbus, the advice was heaven-sent. It gave her permission to be the artist she was ready to be.

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Forty years after her death, the great photographer remains an enigma. But a new collection of her private thoughts brings her sharply into focus

Arbus On work

I hated painting and I quit right after high school because I was continually told how terrific I was… it made me feel shaky. I remember I hated the smell of the paint and the noise it would make when I put my brush to the paper. Sometimes I wouldn’t really look but just listen to this horrible squish, squish, squish. I didn’t want to be told I was terrific. I had the sense that if I was so terrific at it, it wasn’t worth doing.

Radio interview with Studs Terkel, 1968

In the beginning of photographing I used to make very grainy things. I’d be fascinated by what the grain did because it would make a kind of tapestry of all these little dots and everything would be translated into this medium of dots. Skin would be the same as water would be the same as sky and you were dealing mostly in dark and light, not so much in flesh and blood… It was my teacher, Lisette Model, who finally made it clear to me that the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be…

From ‘Diane Arbus, Aperture, 1972’

They are the proof that something was there and no longer is.Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.

From a letter to Davis Pratt, Fogg Museum, Cambridge, 1971, in response to a request for a brief statement about photographs

On her subjects

I am working on something now, the eccentrics I have so long thought of, or rather people who visibly believe in something everyone doubts, and remembering A Commodity of Dreams [the title of Howard Nemerov’s collected short stories, published by Secker & Warburg, London, 1960] I wondered if there were any such anywhere round your vicinity which would provide me the excuse and oppty for a visit… Any impostors, or people with incredibly long beards, or ones who believe in the imminent end of the world, or are reincarnations or keep lions in their living room or embalmed bodies or even skeletons, or have developed some especial skill like a lady in Florida who is meant to eat and sleep underwater, or affect some remarkable costume or other, or collect things to the point of miserliness? Don’t trouble about it, or bother to answer, unless when you look up from the page the Messiah comes wandering out of the woods…

Letter to Howard Nemerov, her brother,1960

One summer I worked a lot in Washington Square Park... The park was divided. It has these walks, sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territories staked out. There were young hippie junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough amazingly hard-core lesbians. And in the middle were winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie hippies... I got to know a few of them. I hung around a lot. They were a lot like sculptures in a funny way. I was very keen to get close to them, so I had to ask to photograph them. You can’t get that close to somebody and not say a word, although I have done that.

Extracted from 'Diane Arbus: A Chronology', Aperture

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Two years ago gallerygoers had a chance to discover the personal side of Diane Arbus in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to the portraits that made her famous — powerfully unsettling photographs of dwarfs, transvestites and everyday people — the Met filled librarylike rooms with her photographic equipment, pages from her diaries, books from her home and studio and family pictures.

Now the photographer’s estate has presented this intimate chronicle of Arbus’s life — her complete archives — to the Met as a gift, along with hundreds of early and unique photographs; negatives and contact prints of 7,500 rolls of film; and hundreds of glassine print sleeves that she personally annotated before her death by suicide in 1971.

At the same time, the museum has bought 20 of Arbus’s most important photographs, including “Russian Midget Friends in a Living Room on 100th Street, N.Y.C.” from 1963 and “Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, N.Y.C.” from 1968, from the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, which represents her estate. While the Met declined to say what it paid for the photographs, experts say they are worth at least $5 million. The gift of the archive is impossible to value, experts said.

Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in the Met’s department of photographs, predicted that the archive would be an enormous boon to scholars. “Generally this kind of material doesn’t survive the artist,” he said.

Unlike the belongings of artists who fade gradually from view, which are sometimes scattered, pilfered or lost, Arbus’s effects were in some ways frozen in time when she committed suicide at 48. Quickly her life began to acquire a cult status paralleling that of her photography. (After her death her daughters, Amy and Doon, looked after their mother’s estate.

Born into a wealthy family in New York, she married Allan Arbus when she was 18. The two ran a fashion photography business until 1959, when they began working on independent projects, many of which eventually found their way into magazines like Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

What makes her portraits so unusual and so popular, as she once said, is that “nothing is ever what it seems.” She photographed subjects from nudists and freaks and carnival performers to just plain faces on the street that compelled or intrigued her.

“These pictures ask more questions than they answer,” Mr. Rosenheim said. “When you look at them, you almost feel as though you are having an interaction with the subject and the picture maker simultaneously. You are in a place where there is a lot of intimacy being shared.”

Unlike many photographers with whom she overlapped, like Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank, Arbus would often meet a subject and form a long relationship, the diaries and date books show. It could take 10 years for her to produce her best photographs of that subject.

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A teenager in a straw boater, with big apricot-shaped ears, thin lips and matching bow tie, gazes out from the photograph, whose date is 1967. He is standing beside, and perhaps he's holding (his hands are out of the frame, so it's hard to tell) an American flag. He wears a bowtie-shaped flag pin, too, with buttons affixed on each lapel. "Bomb Hanoi," one says.

Presumably the audience Diane Arbus imagined for this picture would have regarded the boy, if not as another of her "freaks," then as somebody different from them. Arbus once said that she wanted to photograph "evil," about which her daughter, Doon, ventured that what Arbus really meant was that she wanted to photograph what was "forbidden." "She was determined," Doon Arbus explained, "to reveal what others had been taught to turn their backs on." Or you might say she wanted to find the humanity in people that others shunned.

A contrarian, Arbus could do the opposite -- she could revel in flaws in the admired and celebrated. But this boy's gentle, open face, his obvious vulnerability, convey the tenderness and bittersweet melancholy that are Arbus's finest modes of expression, the emotions that reveal themselves after her best pictures leave their first impression, which is often alarm, distrust or unease.

"Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way, but they come out looking another way, and that's what people observe," she wrote. "You see someone on the street, and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw." While spotting the flaws, much of the time Arbus transformed them into gifts.

Her powerful and moving retrospective, the first full-dress overview in more than three decades and, with the cooperation of the Arbus estate, the most extensive ever organized, has finally arrived at the Metropolitan Museum. It opened more than a year ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, trailing in its wake the expected arguments about her work. Last year a separate exhibition at the Grey Art Gallery proffered some of Arbus's commercial work, for Esquire magazine; it included a cache of previously unseen pictures she shot for an affluent Upper East Side family on commission. Tendentious but instructive, that comparatively smallish event revealed what Arbus did when she didn't have her heart in her work. Arbus without heart was heartless.

By contrast, this retrospective proves that her memorable work, which she did, on the whole, not for hire but for herself, was all about heart -- a ferocious, audacious heart. It transformed the art of photography (Arbus is everywhere, for better and worse, in the work of artists today who make photographs), and it lent a fresh dignity to the forgotten and neglected people in whom she invested so much of herself. In the process, she captured a moment, the anxious 1950's and 60's, and -- this probably applies as much to Arbus as to any other photographer of the second half of the last century -- she captured New York.

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The revolutionary photographer Diane Arbus, who died in 1971, at the age of forty-eight, said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” That’s not quite right, on the evidence of “Diane Arbus: Revelations,” an indeed revealing, though gratingly worshipful, retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum. Confronting a major photograph by Arbus, you lose your ability to know—or distinctly to think or feel, and certainly to judge—anything. She turned picture-making inside out. She didn’t gaze at her subjects; she induced them to gaze at her. Selected for their powers of strangeness and confidence, they burst through the camera lens with a presence so intense that whatever attitude she or you or anyone might take toward them disintegrates. Arbus’s fine-grained black-and-white film and minimalist form—usually a subject centered in a square format—act with the virtual instantaneity of punchy graphic design. The image starts to affect you before you are fully aware of looking at it. Its significance dawns on you with the leisureliness of shock, in the state of mind that occupies, for example, the moment—a foretaste of eternity—after you have slipped on an icy sidewalk and before you hit the ground. You may feel, crazily, that you have never really seen a photograph before. Nor is this impression of novelty evanescent. Over the years, Arbuses that I once found devastating have seemed to wait for me to change just a little, then to devastate me all over again. No other photographer has been more controversial. Her greatness, a fact of experience, remains imperfectly understood.

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For almost four decades the complex, profound vision of Diane Arbus (1923-1971) has had an enormous influence on photography and a broad one beyond it, and the general fascination with her work has been accompanied by an uncommon interest in her self. Her suicide has been one, but just one, reason for the latter, yet for the most part, the events of her life were not extraordinary.

Arbus’s wealthy grandparents were the founders of Russek’s, a Fifth Avenue department store. Growing up well-protected in the 1930s, Arbus had only a vague sense of the effects of the Depression, and in her generation, her family became greatly cultivated (her brother was the poet Howard Nemerov). She married Allan Arbus at 18 and learned her craft with him as they prospered as commercial photographers and raised two daughters, but by the mid-1950s she felt trapped in fashion and advertising. Leaving their business, she dedicated herself to her personal work, and by the decade’s end .site and her husband separated, though they remained married until 1969, and were close until the end of her life. Her essential interests were clear after 1956, and for the next six years she photographed assiduously with a 35mm camera, in locations that included Coney Island, carnivals, Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus of 42nd Street, the dressing rooms of female impersonators, and the streets, cinemas, parks and buses of Manhattan.

Around 1962, after Arbus studied with Lisette Model, her work changed dramatically. Adopting a 2 1/4-inch camera, she began to make the square portraits, that would occupy her almost exclusively in her prime decade. Her subjects would come to include the members, of many kinds of subculture–among them nudists and transvestites-and also the deformed and the brain damaged. She described her investigations as adventures that tested her courage, and as an emancipation from her childhood’s constraining comfort. At the same time, she worked as she wandered freely in New York City, where ordinary people gave her some of her greatest pictures. Proposing projects to the editors of magazines that included Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and London’s Sunday Times Magazine, she was able to publish many of the photographs (sometimes accompanied by her own writing) that eventually appeared in museums. In her late years she suffered from intermittent illness and harsh depression, but her work was prominent in John Szarkowski’s celebrated “New Documents” at the Museum of Modest Art (1967)- Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander were her co-exhibitors. Her renown grew steadily after that, a large, posthumous retrospective of her work appearing at the Modern in 1972.

Many aspects of Arbus’s life and art have helped myth to form around her. These include not only her death by her own hand, the immediate cause of which has never been clear, but also her descent into the worlds of the stigmatized and into financial duress, which grew severe after she was without her husband, and as Russek’s expired. There are also the exoticism of certain of her subjects and her erotic adventurousness, which, though the license of the 1960s must have encouraged it, seems to have been exceptional. Beyond all this there is the paradoxical character of her work itself–which is visually clear yet always mysterious–and also her reflections on photography and life, which were aphoristic, evocative and often rather oracular. “A photograph is a secret about a secret, “she wrote; “the more it tells you the less you know.”

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A new retrospective featuring an unprecedented number of the troubled photographer’s images makes the case for her innovative artistry

Diane Arbus’ work was included in only a handful of museum exhibitions before she died, by her own hand, at the age of 48 in 1971. Nevertheless, she had already gained renown with a series of unforgettable images—a “Jewish giant” looming over his bespectacled parents, an elderly couple sitting naked in a nudist-camp cabin, a grimacing boy clutching a toy hand grenade—that seem to reflect our deepest fears and most private wishes.

The first major retrospective of Arbus’ work was held in 1972, a year after her death, at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City, where she lived for most of her life. The show drew huge crowds and praise for the humanity and formal beauty of her work. But some found her images disturbing, even repellent: critic Susan Sontag, for example, called her portraits of “assorted monsters and border-line cases. . . . anti-humanist.” Arbus’ work, Sontag wrote, “shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.”

Today Arbus, who once said her pictures sought to capture “the space between who someone is and who they think they are,” has become one of America’s best-known photographers and one of its most controversial. But her achievements as an artist have been somewhat overshadowed by her suicide and by the disturbing strangeness that wells up out of her pictures. Famous as a “photographer of freaks,” she has been regarded as something of a freak herself.

Now a new generation of viewers and critics is debating the meaning and significance of Arbus’ compelling, unsettling images, thanks to “Diane Arbus Revelations,” an exhibition of nearly 200 of her pictures on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through May 31. The first Arbus retrospective since the 1972 MOMA show, “Revelations” places her at the center of 20th-century American photography.

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Just around the time that I received a copy of “Untitled” (Aperture; $50), a collection of portraits of the mentally retarded which the photographer Diane Arbus took during the last few years of her life, my nephew was committed to the psychiatric ward of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where his condition was diagnosed as schizophrenia. Two policemen had “apprehended” him—a six-foot-four, thin twenty-seven-year-old with tawny-yellow skin and braces—on Central Park West at Eighty-third Street, where he stood, shirtless, throwing stones at passing early-morning traffic.

In the gray-green gloom of his hospital room, I watched my nephew’s eyes alight on my face; he showed the same degree of interest in my presence that he did in the patterns the sun made on the floor and in the plaster crumbling from the ceiling. He did not speak. In that silence, I instinctively put physical distance between us, and I realized that I viewed his illness as a form of vampirism, ready to overtake and drain my rational self. At the same time, I was repelled by my predatory fascination with his condition, my desire to rub away at the pain blanketing his face so that I could uncover his illness and see what it was like. I found it difficult to distinguish between who he was and what I was supposed to be in his presence. Back at home, I found myself looking at Diane Arbus’s “Untitled” as a kind of road map—a road map into the land my nephew now inhabited, where his eyes rolled upward as he contemplated things I couldn’t see at all.

It took Diane Arbus approximately a decade to become Diane Arbus, the photographer whose signature subject matter was the freaks, lowlifes, and other fringe groups against which most people define themselves as “normal.” Prior to her emergence as one of the century’s preëminent photographers, Arbus had been, besides a wife and mother, a child of privilege; she had grown up in a status-conscious environment that contained nothing representative of her internal world. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was I never felt adversity,” Arbus once remarked. “I was confirmed in a sense of unreality which I could only feel as unreality. And the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” It was her sense of a visually ordered universe—where everyone had ten fingers and toes, where bodies and faces were capable of expressing hope and love and failure in all the habitual ways—that Diane Arbus turned from in horror. She preferred the darkness that flooded the travelling carnivals, crumbling hallways, and hotel rooms where leftover lives creep along the edges of our consciousness. In Arbus’s visual narrative of disenfranchisement, one can see her saying, “That’s the way it is.” And what’s more—a startling declaration coming from a woman artist finding her way in the nineteen-fifties and sixties—“That’s the way it is, and I like it.”

The harsh light Arbus levelled at her subjects—“A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970,” “Loser at a Diaper Derby, N.J. 1967”—was an indication not of a merciless vision but of her desire to enhance her subjects’ presence, which she considered “terrific.” Like Warhol, Arbus used the dumbest language possible to describe her work. As though she were a child always on the verge of rebuilding the universe through found objects—or found images—no language but the most rudimentarily joyful could describe the moment when she happened upon the signposts leading toward her self-expression.

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