Diane Arbus Reevaluated
It must have been around 1975 that I first became aware of Diane Arbus. During my junior or senior year in high school the famous Aperture monograph of her work (the one with the twins on the cover, originally published in 1972, one year after her death) was circulating. I don't remember if it was a student or a teacher who brought it in, but we were all fascinated by her odd pictures of Transvestites, Twins, nudists and Jewish Giants. To my teenage eyes it held the fascination of a freakshow, but even then I understood that Arbus was not being voyeuristic, but that the images I was looking at were oddly loving and intimate.
In some ways, Arbus was my first introduction to fine art photography. Before that, photography to me was to be found in the pages of Life or National Geographic. Now my tastes lean more towards artists like Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, and Man Ray. Sometimes Arbus seems like the stuff of college girls. Kind of the Sylvia Plath of photography, the progenitor of Cindy Sherman. But still she carries a fascination. Her subjects are so obviously at ease with her. She has intimated herself into their lives and they have opened their doors to her and bared something very personal to her camera.
As a photographer myself, I'm more of a landscape and architecture type. Occasional candid street photography, but never what Arbus did. She so obviously befriended these people, lived with them, spoke to them without judgment, and in the end recorded them at their most vulnerable. That in itself is a talent that I am in awe of. She is an observer of humanity in all its frailties, and as much as her work is flawed in terms of often static compositions and the use of full frame 6x6 images can be disconcerting, it continues to engage the viewer and to invite the observer into the lives of people that we would ordinarily turn away from. Her fascination with the beauty in what others might see as ugly reminds me in some ways of the stories of Flannery O'Connor.
There is a beauty and an innocence to her images that even today is very powerful. It is often necessary with an artist like Arbus, who has committed suicide and become an icon of sophomoric angst, to forget about how you reacted as a teenager and look at her with fresh eyes.
The current show at SFMoma, which I attended last Friday does just that. It brings together over 300 pieces and presents many works that have never been exhibited before. They are shown in a roughly chronological order and show her development as a photographer, an artist, and a technician. The exhibit has been memorialized in a new book as well, Diane Arbus Revelations. If you get an opportunity to see the show, forget your preconceptions and you will perhaps find weaknesses in her work you never saw before, but you will also find that Arbus has earned her place in the history of art photography.