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Diane Arbus in New York's Central Park. (copyright: Tod Papageorge)

In retrospect

Diane Arbus: Photographer, mother, lover, feminist

September 26, 2016

A Diane Arbus photograph is almost instantly recognizable today. The subjects may be old or young, eccentrics, “freaks,” or ordinary people on the street, but they all look directly into the camera with a piercing gaze that pulls the viewer into their world.

Decades before street photographers the world over would adopt this style, Arbus was pioneering the format, experimenting with the camera as a burgeoning tool to explore the lives of the people who caught her eye. As Arbus famously said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.” But while the tantalizing secrets and truths revealed in Arbus’s photographs pull viewers in, it is what this reciprocal gaze — the subjects studying her just as much as she and her lens are studying them — says about the photographer that has continued to intrigue art aficionados in the 45 years since her untimely death.

Two new projects focusing on the photographer’s life and work are re-examining Arbus’s distinctive style and career. In the recently published Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, writer Arthur Lubow relies on interviews with a who’s who cast of Arbus’s friends, mentors, colleagues, and students (although not the Arbus Estate, which declined to participate) to give a comprehensive look at the making and motivations of one of the greatest American photographers. The book release was coincidentally followed by the mid-July opening of diane arbus: in the beginning, a major retrospective at the Met Breuer, the new contemporary art outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibiting more than 100 photographs from the artist’s early career.

Diane Arbus cover

“I do think that the interest in Arbus is, if anything, greater than ever, and it’s probably that she was prescient in addressing a lot of the things that people are talking about today, such as creation of identity, gender, and the fluidity of gender,” Lubow told Women in the World.

Arbus was ahead of her time in her approach to both how she lived her own life and the subjects she sought to photograph and show to the world. When most people think of Arbus’s work, they think of her fascination with people on the fringe of society. She spent years befriending and photographing sideshow performers, giants, transvestites, and other assorted characters trying to navigate their way through the world. She became a regular at Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in Times Square, where she was a constant presence backstage, camera in hand, until it closed in 1965.

Well before it became a popular cause, she was a chronicler of those marginalized by the wider society. But, often overshadowed by these more extreme — and arguably well known — of her portraits is her work photographing women and children. Reams of film were spent shooting ordinary people she stopped on the street — young mothers who often look over-burdened; stately older women dressed in finery that borders on garish, and children who look into the camera with a knowing gaze that seems older than their years.

Take, for instance, her renowned portrait “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park.” The young boy stares straight at the camera with a twisted grimace on his face — his pent up rage can be seen and felt from his head down to his toes. One suspender has slipped haphazardly off his shoulder, while his hands are tensed down by his side, one curled in an anguished claw, the other grasping a toy grenade.

Lubow tracked down this boy, Colin Wood, who remembers that, at the time, he was racked by fear brought on by the breakdown of his childhood. He had grown up affluent and sheltered (much like Arbus herself), but his parents were going through a divorce when the photograph was taken. His world of privilege had cracked and was now characterized by preoccupied parents, somewhat reduced circumstances, apathetic caretakers, and a rage that he didn’t know how to handle.

Arbus saw all of this in the boy she spotted walking in Central Park with his nanny. In her photograph, she captured his pain and anguish, his pent up energy, and his feeling of being trapped in his circumstances and in a childhood that had become confusing and frustrating. As Lubow notes, “Arbus’s empathy distinguishes her portrait from other photographs of boys playing at violence.”

This empathy extends to her examination of the role of women in society. Arbus had a complicated relationship to feminism. On the one hand, she did not consider herself a feminist. Activist Ti-Grace Atkinson, the founder of the radical collective The Feminists, posed for Arbus for a Newsweek shoot in 1971, and her observation was that “Diane found feminism puzzling.” But, despite her indifference to the label, Arbus lived a life that sought to push boundaries, defy convention, and realize her professional dreams, while also being a devoted mother and attentive wife (at least for the early years of her marriage). Before endless amounts of ink would be spilled debating whether women can have it all, Arbus was carving out her own space in which she juggled her artistic explorations and aspirations with being a present and loving parent to her two daughters, Doon and Amy. In the brilliant mixing of her sometimes strange work and motherhood, Lubow notes that “a typical day’s appointment book would read ‘Buy Amy’s birthday present, to to the morgue.’”

“Whether she fessed up to it or not, she was a feminist in that she lived a life that I think people, women, can relate to now,” Lubow says.

In her photographs of New York women, Arbus can be seen investigating what it meant to be a woman in her day, exploring her own struggles, concerns, and desires in her portrayal of these other women. Lubow says Arbus was often looking for “women who reminded her either of herself, her mother, or her grandmother.”

In her 1956 photo, “Woman carrying a child in Central Park,” which can currently be seen in the Met Breuer exhibit, a young, well-coiffed woman carries a very large sleeping child in her arms. The background recedes into a blur as her hands grip her child’s back and support his legs; she gazes down, lips slightly parted, in a look that conveys the strain and worry that goes beyond just the effort of carrying a large child out of the park and into motherhood itself.

Another image, “Lady on a Bus” from 1957, shows an older woman riding a city bus. She has clearly taken a lot of care with her appearance, but looks out of place as she sits in her seat, ensconced in a big fur with a black cap perched on her head, and gloved hands clasped her handbag in her lap. The wrinkles of her down-turned face stand out in the play of shadows as she looks straight at the viewer. There’s a dignity but also a touch of absurdity in her decked-out wardrobe against the backdrop of the bus.

It’s no surprise that women and children were popular subjects for Arbus. Lubow argues in Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer that Arbus needed to be seen by her subjects just as much as she saw them in the act of clicking the camera’s shutter. Rather than a fly-on-the-wall photographer, Arbus found emotional fulfillment in the reciprocal exchange. “Diane defined herself by the way she was seen and, conversely, by what she saw,” Lubow writes. It was her inability to do this any longer that may have contributed to her downfall. “In fact, when she became very depressed and could no longer engage in that, that was a terrible downward vortex that was in the end fatal,” Lubow says.

The power of the reciprocal gaze can be felt in the Met Breuer exhibit. Each framed photograph hangs at eye-level on simple grey pillars arranged in rows throughout the room. As visitors stand in front of each image in turn, they look directly into the eyes of Arbus’s subject just as Arbus did when she took the photos decades ago. In this position, you get the sense that not only are you scrutinizing these subjects, trying to divine their secrets, but they are looking back at you, gazing into your own eyes and soul.

While the study of women and children was foundational to Arbus’s work, it’s important to note that she was no saintly activist. Arbus defied social convention in ways that often muddled her life and her art. She visited nudist colonies and orgies to photograph the action…and often joined in herself; much of her work is tinged with sexual overtones leaving viewers wondering if something happened between her and the subject after the shutter clicked; she loved fiercely, including the men and women with whom she had affairs (a list that allegedly included a life-long relationship with her own brother); and some of her photographs and the means in which she took them nudged at the boundary of exploitation.

But these complexities only serve to make her life that much more interesting. Arbus was a woman passionate about capturing and understanding those pushed to the fringes of society just as much as those struggling with — and against — the more traditional roles and expectations. Decades before the U.S. would legalize gay marriage, make progress towards transgender rights, start confronting the issues of growing economic inequality, or nominate the first woman for president, Arbus was exploring the artificial boundaries of societal convention versus the truth of living. In the iconic, piercing gazes that categorizes the majority of her photographs, her subjects are linked together in a shared exploration of truth and humanity.

“Understanding can be cruel,” Lubow says. “She said about the camera that it scrutinizes you in a way that people don’t normally in everyday encounters. They avert their eyes from things that the camera locates and reveals. I don’t see it exactly as a contradiction…I think understanding is the right word, and it does involve both empathy and what, for lack of a better word, you can say is cruelty because it is exposure. That’s certainly what she was after.”

On July 26, 1971, Arbus committed suicide at the age of 48. Depression combined with concerns about money and love were her undoing. In death, her work took on a new life and finally achieved the fame she had secretly craved. But so, too, did her personal story.

Arbus may have spent her life exploring the secrets of others, but, years after her death, experts are still examining her own secrets and what they reveal about her life and work. And just as in her photographs, the more we find out, the more there is left to uncover and understand.


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