Lunchtime Art Talk Recap: David Rodes on Diane Arbus

September 24, 2014
– By David Rodes, Director Emeritus, Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts

Of all the arts, photography seems both the most intrusive and the most nearly documentary. Its seeming “realness” makes photography feel more aggressive in breaking through barriers of politeness, propriety, and privacy. Perhaps it just shares such intrusiveness--and its accompanying sense of disjunctive irony—with the modern and contemporary society that it reflects. 

At first glance and by lingering reputation, the mid-20th-century photographer Diane Arbus might well be considered a charter member of this ironic, intrusive crowd. Her flat, black and white, square, head-on photographs, often of what she and others called “freaks,” were certainly controversial when first shown and published, and they seem to disregard both social and formal proprieties. The influential critic Susan Sontag criticized them for being merely “documentary,” for lacking beauty, and for failing to create sympathy for her unfortunate subjects; i.e., for being ironic or satiric or “cold.”

Even Arbus herself was conflicted about her relationship to her subjects, at once claiming friendship and being condescending towards them. At first, Arbus thought these photographs “lyric and tender and pretty,” but she later told her mentor, photographer Lisette Model, that she hated them. And while she said she “adored freaks,” she qualified it: “I don’t mean like they’re my best friends”; and “for me there’s often a big distance between who I want to be with and who I want to take pictures of.”

On the other hand, she said something deeply thoughtful about her “freaks”: “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. They’re aristocrats.

A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents, in the Bronx, N.Y.

Diane Arbus

She was born Diane Nemerov, the daughter of wealthy Manhattanites. Her father owned the well-known department store Russek’s. Her older brother was the distinguished poet (and Poet Laureate) Howard Nemerov. At 18, she married her childhood sweetheart, Allan Arbus, and they started a successful fashion photography business—though they both hated the shallowness of fashion. In 1956 she quit their business to devote herself to her own work, and in 1969, she divorced her husband. Often depressive, often conflicted about her work, in 1971, at the age of 48 she committed suicide.

Her work—of sharecroppers and circus performers, of the mentally and physically challenged (giants and dwarves), of nudists, and the transgendered—was influenced by Matthew Brady, Bill Brandt, and Eugene Atget. She studied with Bernice Abbott and Lisette Model and formed part of the so-called New York School with Robert Frank.  Arbus was a particularly close friend of Richard Avedon.

Around 1962 she switched from a 35 mm Nikon to a twin-lens reflex Rolleflex and then a Marniya camera with flash. Always b & w, nearly always square format.

Eddie Carmel

Arbus first photographed Eddie Carmel in 1960, when this gentle giant, billed as 8’ 9” tall, was performing at Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus. He had been born in what would become Israel to Orthodox Jews, and moved with them to the Bronx when he was still young. His deeply religious father, Yitzhak, was an insurance salesman eager to return to Israel, but resentfully trapped in America by his son’s pituitary problems. Eddie was not religious, and he and his father could not “endure each other,” even though Eddie, with carny exuberance, claimed lineage from Goliath, the Philistine giant.

His mother, Miriam, was, Arbus thought, “very sweet, and she’s right in between them, because she makes peace with both of them.” Arbus suspected that the repressed Miriam harbored “a kind of sneaking admiration” for her giant, awkward goof ball of a son.

Eddie was “a kind of class clown,” “sophomoric,” who loved to make up ditties and verses. In a program soon after Arbus’s death, he was asked to improvise a “poem” about her: 

A long time ago I had a real strange pal,
A truly strange and wonderful gal.
In a world that's growing quickly and seems to be in some kind of weird stir,
Here was a marvelous gal, a photographer.
Who would suddenly open up her little eyes and mutter,
And quickly snap her camera shutter.
Diane Arbus is now not with us anymore,
And it's a tragedy that suddenly we have faced a closing door.
Of a wonderful gal, a talented one,
Affectionately known as a lovely dear old son of a gun. Diane Arbus.

Eddie died, at 36, almost a year to the day after Arbus’s suicide.

The Photograph

The photograph itself, blunt and seemingly casual and documentary, tells us a great deal about all 3 of its subjects and about the nature of “freakdom,” family, and conventionality.

Under its tough “this is just a snapshot” veneer, this haunting work offers a sly allegory about social propriety versus unruly nature and a gentle commentary about the utter mysteries of biology and of families.

Here is the disapproving, stuffy father, dressed in sober suit and tie even in his own living room. In the mediating middle, the mother, in stained housedress, looks up in surprise at the creature she created.

Eddie, slovenly, unshaven, stooped from his vast height, with a cane, no doubt in pain, but never complaining, makes the inherent claustrophobia of this very lower-middle-class Bronx home even more apparent. His shadow intensifies the dreariness.

The thick, cheap curtains are drawn against the world, the lampshades covered in plastic, and the chairs and sofa draped in dark, heavy protective shrouds. A picture of Jerusalem (Yitzhak’s promised land) is on the wall. 

And in the midst of all this conventionality and depressing propriety appears a giant, a magic Jack in the Beanstalk, interrupting and astonishing “normalcy.” Indeed, the luridly shiny lamp on the left could well be the genie’s bottle from the Five and Dime from which he sprang!

In this little, dreary, airless, utterly conventional room, there is tragedy, comedy, disdain, love, and wonder. And the photographer looks on clearly and without irony or condescension.

Let me conclude, by quoting again from Arbus about her own tiny slice of photographic art. But what she says applies to all serious artists in whatever culture and in whatever medium.

“I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things. I mean it’s very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them. ”

Artists help us to “see,” both visually and philosophically.