A New Diane Arbus Show Presents the Vision She Spent Her Life Seeking
“FINALLY what I’ve been searching for!” the photographer wrote in a letter to a friend.
Diane Arbus in 1968. Photograph by Roz Kelly via Getty Images.
Diane Arbus’s first camera was a Graflex, a brand popularly associated with mid-century newspaper men, who would wear them around the neck while they recorded the alleged important events of the century. Like any intelligent person, though, she knew that the news largely had nothing to do with her, and apart from a decade she spent in commercial fashion photography, her photographs were meant for herself.
Born into a wealthy New York family, Arbus’s privilege troubled her from an early age. She recounted later in her life that she suffered from never having experienced adversity as a child: “I felt confirmed in a sense of unreality which I could feel as unreality, and the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one.” Her environment left her feeling distant from the actuality of the world. “I could learn things but they never seemed to be my own experience,” she said. She famously sought out the most unconventional of photographic subjects — prostitutes, circus performers, crossdressers, giants, dwarfs. No quarter of the city intimidated her, and she would wander the streets as far as Coney Island, often late at night, into tenement buildings, brothels, and neglected public parks, where she captured the photographs that would bring her to fame in the art world. “I own New York!” she once told her sister.
At the peak of her career in the early ’60s, Arbus became notorious for the public shock her exhibitions provoked. According to one anecdote, an employee of the Museum of Modern Art, where Arbus had three photographs on display, would start work early every day to clean the works, on which human spit had accumulated. Once, in a moment of delirious exhaustion and unable to press the shutter release, she told a photography teacher, “I can’t photograph because what I want to photograph is evil.” With her camera she sought to capture what couldn’t be seen by the eye alone, the currents motivating human behavior running under the surface in the close quarters of the city.
The introduction of portable electronic flash devices in the late ’50s was a significant influence on Arbus’s aesthetic. The chemical flashbulbs which preceded them were dangerous to handle and could only be used once, limiting their spontaneous usefulness. Arbus would soon replace her 35mm camera with dual-lens Miyama and Rolleiflex models which took square photos on medium-format film, and which she supplemented with a portable, battery-powered flash unit. The larger negatives produced images that were less grainy, and certain textures stood out, particularly the texture of flesh. The stroboscopic flash was harsh, shadows would disappear, and the image would seem unnaturally frozen. At the moment it fired, the subject was absolutely exposed and vulnerable. For an instant, the will of the photographer usurped the normal authorities of physics and psychology. The camera announced her to the world.
Between 1969 and 1971, Arbus made frequent visits to residences for people with developmental disabilities. Diane Arbus Untitled, on view at David Zwirner in Chelsea through December 15, exhibits 66 photos from these trips, many taken outdoors with sunlight. Away from the city center, the open surroundings allowed natural light to envelope the subjects, the flash no longer overwhelming the background. The results were profound. She wrote in a letter, “FINALLY what I’ve been searching for!” Natural and artificial lighting now complemented but also interfered with each other, the beauty of the landscape disturbed by the unexpected radiance of the photographic subjects. Despite many of them appearing in halloween costumes or poses suggestive of children playing, their incandescent presence as captured in the photos impresses upon viewers a sense of psychological profundity which arrests the eye and invites contemplation.
Untitled (6) appears somewhat lopsided at first, but the contorted woman’s strong contrast against the flat landscape fades once we observe her hands pressing forcefully on the ground. The field is most detailed here in the foreground, close to the camera, inviting the viewer to imagine feeling the grass, its texture and its embedment in the dense and immovable earth. It becomes a puzzle in which the temporality of the woman’s balancing act and her friends’ poses in mid-motion perpetually negotiate with the landscape’s stability.
Similarly, Untitled (4) articulates the ephemerality of the halloween spectacle, the two figures on the left dressed in improvised costumes, the leaves scattered on the ground highlighting the ineluctable passage of seasons. One might wonder ad nauseam what costumes to expect the next year and each year after. In contrast, the waves on the surface of the fabrics supplement the non-representational forms discernible within the large sky, these forms evoking a sense of pure, non-temporal existence and a complementary loss of signification.
In these photographs, taken in the last years of her life before her death by suicide, Arbus expresses her vision in its most refined variation. Seeing them arranged along the wall with the same geometric regularity of the sprocket holes on a strip of film, I lamented that each performance lasted only a brief fraction of a second.