Friday, August 23, 2013

'Diane Arbus' by Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus is one of the most influential monographs in the history of photography. Since it was first published in 1972, a year after Arbus’ untimely death, it has continued to provoke strong reactions in viewers, who see contradictory meanings in Arbus’ confrontational pictures of teenagers, outsiders, freaks, nudists and psychiatric inmates. Compassion, curiosity, openness to other ways of being; cruelty, prurience, voyeurism: even Arbus herself was not entirely certain which category her work falls into.

Arbus never published a book in her lifetime – her biggest exposure was in 1967 as one of the three featured photographers in the New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander). Diane Arbus is not, then, strictly speaking a 'self-titled' book, because it was edited after her death by her friend, the painter Marvin Israel, and her daughter, Doon Arbus. It features eighty photographs – a small selection of those available in Arbus’ archive. They date from 1962-71, the last decade of Arbus’ life - her forties, more or less. It’s a masterpiece of editing, cut to the bone. Every image is remarkable, though some are more remarkable than others. The sequence jumps around chronologically, except at the very end where there is a small group of consecutive images all dating from 1971, depicting residents at a psychiatric institution.

Arbus' estate holders have been criticised for not allowing wider access to her work or archives, but in a sense the posthumous success of Diane Arbus reveals the effectiveness of their strategy. And, since Arbus herself has no need to keep churning out material to service an ongoing career, why not leave a single, impactful monograph as a definitive statement? (In fact, there have been several other volumes printed recently – a set of the 1971 photographs, a compilation of magazine work from the early 60s, and the catalogue for a recent retrospective; but the first cut is still the deepest.) Thinking of the posthumous creation of this unique monograph reminds me of the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish - perhaps Arbus might not recognise herself in the book that bears her name.

Except that the voice of the photographs is there in the written preface too. Informal, ironic, intellectually inquisitive, but impatient of theory and abstractions. The preface is full of quotable aphorisms, which speak powerfully of Arbus' aesthetic:

Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.

It’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s.

A whore I knew once showed me a photo album of Instamatic colour pictures she’d taken of guys she’d picked up. I don’t mean kissing ones. Just guys sitting on beds in hotel rooms. I remember one of a man in a bra. He was just an ordinary, milktoast sort of man, and he had just tried on a bra. Like anybody would try on a bra, like anybody would try on what the other person had that he didn’t have. It was heartbreaking. It was really a beautiful photograph.

These are all Arbus’ words, but none of them were written by her. Instead, it's a collage transcribed from excerpts of taped interviews. So, in fact, the preface is a masterpiece of editing too.

Reviewing Diane Arbus, I now see that the voice I’ve been trying to capture in the photography chapters of Reciprocity Failure is Arbus' voice from the preface.