Until recently it seemed that photography as a serious art (not as an adjunct to fashion and advertising) would be confined to two major traditions. On the one hand there was the salon tradition, that of the print composed as carefully as a painting and dealing in the same conventionalized subject matter—nudes, still lifes, landscapes, etc. On the other, there was photo-journalism, the art of what Cartier-Bresson, one of its great practitioners, called “the decisive moment.” In this tradition, the photographer armed with lightweight equipment and fast film intruded (generally as unobtrusively as possible) on our public—and even our private—lives, hoping to catch us unaware at some moment of high drama and, by recording the physical manifestations of our emotional responses, both to particularize and (if he was very lucky) to summarize in human terms the meaning of large events and universal experiences.
About the former tradition, the less said the better, in my opinion. Salon work, in the early decades of this century, did help make photography respectable in some degree, but since its standards and its real subject—light—were borrowed from painting it had little claim to separate existence as a medium. Photo-journalism was a much more vigorous field. The work done in it was true to itself, what it accomplished was something that could only have been done by a camera. Its greatest figures (Eisenstaedt, W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Margaret Bourke-White) may well come to rank among the significant minor artists of their time—if the present trend toward recognition of photography as a full-fledged artistic medium continues. Still, in the last decade or so, even photo-journalism was beginning to seem rather played out—perhaps because most of the best young photographers were going into motion pictures, or because there was a steady decline in the markets—mostly magazines—that used it. In any case, the glamor was gone.
Given the limits (and the recent decline) of these two traditions, the importance of the work of the late Diane Arbus cannot be overestimated, though it may seem to some that it has been, the recent exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the publication of a book based on that show1 having resulted in the most extraordinary outburst of publicity and criticism I can ever remember being accorded to a single photographer's work. As Hilton Kramer quite boldly but accurately stated, Mrs. Arbus “was one of those figures—as rare in the annals of photography as in any other medium—who suddenly, by a daring leap into a territory formerly regarded as forbidden, altered the terms of the art she practiced.”
Still, it seems to me that most of the talk about her has centered around her gothic subject matter and around the mysteries of her personality, while ignoring the question of technique, which is to me the realm where she made her most exciting (and, I would guess, her most lasting) contribution. To begin with, it only seems that her principal subjects were the physical and psychological misfits of the world—midgets, transvestites, the mentally ill—probably because these photographs, amounting to fewer than half of those published in the book, have the greatest immediate impact. (One cannot say they are the most arresting, since a first glance at many of them has the opposite effect—one's hand fairly flies to turn the page.) For the most part, though, her photographs are of quite ordinary people whom she encountered at the beach, in the park, at parades, dances, weddings. They often look crazy or vacuous or just plain worn down, but one gets no sense that the photographer was doing them dirt—catching them unawares or, conversely, manipulating them into self-divestation. On the contrary, the evidence is that upon seeing subjects who interested her she carefully went about gaining their confidence, enlisting their cooperation, getting them to pose in their homes or against other backgrounds that felt natural to them. The results, viewed as a group, are moving precisely because she appears to have treated everyone so even-handedly. “I work from awkwardness,” she once said. “By that I mean I don't like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.” In short, she opened herself up as well as her lens and therefore her photographs of persons we are ordinarily pleased to think of as exotic have a kind of sweetness, an innocence, that is unavailable in any other graphic representations of them that I know.
In a similar fashion Mrs. Arbus's “normal” subjects have a singularity that is simply not revealed in the work of photographers consciously committed to the liberal, humanist line most often used to justify their work and most forcefully enunciated in the famous Family of Man exhibit over fifteen years ago. Indeed, Mrs. Arbus had something very good to say on this matter: “. . . when I first began to photograph I thought, there are an awful lot of people in the world and it's going to be terribly hard to photograph all of them, so if I photograph some kind of generalized human being, everybody'll recognize it. It'll be like what they used to call the common man or something. 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.”
To her great credit, Mrs. Arbus did not replace that familiar rationale for the photographer's work with something more up to date. She was not, for instance, an R.D. Laing with a camera, romanticizing the insane at the expense of the ordinary. Nor did she imply that her subjects, sane or insane, were the victims of an unjust social or political order. Her works make no special plea of any kind. She knew, and cheerfully admitted, what every photographer should know, that photography is the most accidental of arts, just because of the' subtle, indiscernible time lapse between the decision to snap the shutter and the instant of its accomplishment—just time enough, as inevitably happens, for the subject to alter his expression in some way he doesn't know and the photographer cannot observe. That is why we are always so anxious to know how our pictures “came out.” And why Mrs. Arbus could say, “I never have taken a picture I intended. They're always better or worse.” And, “I would never choose a subject for what it means to me or what I think about it. You've just got to choose a subject, and what you feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold if you just . . . do it enough.”
Her subjects—that is, the human beings who posed for her—were more varied, as I've said, than most critics have noted. But her subject—her central concern—was unvarying. It was not so much loneliness or alienation, but the range of our attempted defenses against them: the widow in her bedroom, for instance, subtly distanced from the amazingly ornate desk crammed with her obviously treasured collection of objets d'art, which look to the camera like junk, completely incapable of assuaging the unnamable pain we sense in their owner's pose and gaze. All her portraits of individuals suggest an alienation from their possessions, from the very furnishings of their homes, from the things they hoped would console them.
But it is in her pictures of group efforts at community that Mrs. Arbus's work is most poignant and troubling. The king and queen of a senior citizens' dance, bedecked in the costumer's paste-jewel crowns and phony ermine robes, sit on widely separated thrones and gaze solemnly into and through the camera as if hoping it might teach them the meaning of their coronation. Nudists stare unblinking into the camera, and we wonder if the fellowship that is supposed to be the reward for their nakedness is sufficient recompense for their absurd exposure. The inmates of an insane asylum caper on its lawns in masks and costumes fulfilling, one imagines, some social worker's idea of a “good time,” which incidentally parodies and illuminates all the other “good times” Mrs. Arbus recorded in the outside world, our world.
Yet one does not want to make too much of this, if only because Diane Arbus appears not to have. Because she chose to look upon things others had not, because she was a well-bred middle-class woman who turned away from a flourishing career in fashion photography, and because, finally, she died a suicide, there is a tendency to want to make her into a cult figure on the order of Sylvia Plath. But it is not a role she would have wanted. Surely she understood that her sensibility was a unique one and equally surely this sense of her own uniqueness drew her toward people who were singular in other ways. (“Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life.”) But the introduction to the book, from which I've been quoting, is drawn from remarks she made to students and interviewers and they reveal her as a mostly cheerful, even chipper, ironist who appeared to have passed her own self-imposed test and to be justly, but not overbearingly, proud of so doing (“. . . I really believe there are things nobody would see unless I photographed them”). It was, indeed, her lack of pretentiousness that prevented her pictures from becoming exercises in the fashionable grotesque, prevented the imposition of alien ideological interpretations on them, and was, I'm certain, the basis on which she established her inimitable technique.
What she did in this area amounted to a radical purification of the photographic image. On the one hand she stripped away all reference to the “painterly” in her prints, on the other she abandoned any effort at capturing the height of an action or an emotion, “the decisive moment.” Nearly all of her subjects are in repose, and nearly all actively, consciously collaborate with her in the creation of the photograph. In effect, she turned her back on professionalism, on all the established notions of what constituted a proper aesthetic for a serious photographer. And thereupon she recreated herself in the oldest, humblest tradition available, that of the documentarian. Actually, what her photographs most remind us of compositionally are snapshots—the subjects carefully centered, looking straight into the camera, the photographer careful to include as much of the background as possible.
Mrs. Arbus consciously acknowledged what Aunt Emma and Uncle Stu instinctively understand when they group the family for a birthday or anniversary pose—that the places we choose (or make) say something significant about us, are a legitimate part of the record. Similarly, the act of involving the subject with the camera, of making him conscious of the need to present an image to the lens, to those perfect strangers who may see the shot later, leads, paradoxically, to greater revelation than in a picture taken unawares. Even the attempt to hide a flaw or emphasize some good point tells volumes. As Mrs. Arbus once said, “Everybody has that thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that's what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw . . . there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you . . . the gap between intention and effect.”
Her manner is easy enough to emulate—millions of snapshot amateurs, after all, employ it endlessly. The question is whether other photographers, burdened with the necessity of proving to an essentially hostile artistic community that they deserve membership, burdened also with the breed's powerful desire for self-assertion, to “interpret” reality and thus “make a statement,” can achieve the kind of selflessness she achieved. “For me the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture,” she said. “And more complicated. . . . I mean it has to be of something. And what it's of is always more remarkable than what it is.” Which is to say, I suppose, that her style amounts to no style in the conventional sense, her technique no technique at all. But the attainment of this radical simplification, especially for a well-schooled professional photographer, must have required the most determined self-discipline. In a time of undisciplined art, when many, in all media, have lusted after the large, general comment about the wretched of the earth, it is her self-effacing manner—not, as she may have thought, her subjects—that sets her apart. It is the austerity and specificity of her technique that makes her an exemplary figure, her loss a major one.
1 Diane Arbus, edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel, Aperture Monograph, Unpaged, $15.00.