The Uncomfortable World Of Diane Arbus

With her 'forbidden' images, photographer changed the face of portraiture


April 10, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

There are a great many people who absolutely abhor the photographs of Diane Arbus, which they claim are exploitative, heartless and willfully perverse, and for such people Diane Arbus Revelations, the big retrospective now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will be an excruciatingly painful experience.

Arbus certainly aimed to make her viewers uncomfortable. What else to make of her sad and shocking menagerie of perverts, misfits, outcasts and losers -- people whom she herself called "freaks."

They included the Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, staring balefully at the viewer over misshapen limbs and a bottle of cheap whiskey; the Jewish giant in a Bronx apartment, towering over his diminutive parents as if in sullen reproach; and melancholy portraits of twins, diaper derby contestants, beauty queens, circus performers, transvestites, nudists and the developmentally disabled.

"Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience," Arbus once said. "Freaks are born with their trauma. They're aristocrats."

Her pictures touched a raw nerve when they were exhibited shortly after the artist committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. Many assumed the shockingly out-of-kilter world of Arbus' art was what drove her to attempt escape through death.

Yet, from what is known of Arbus' life, her art was a passionate engagement with a world that she knew was all too flawed.

Arbus' closest artistic counterpart may have been poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who likewise took her own life after a truncated career as something akin to society's collective guilty conscience. And like Plath, Arbus' reputation soared after her suicide.

But it would be a misunderstanding of Arbus' achievement to dismiss her as a neurotic, overprivileged thrill-seeker with a morbid attraction to low company despite (or perhaps because of) her comfortably upper-middle-class pedigree as the daughter of a prosperous New York City department store owner. (Arbus would later claim that the biggest disadvantage she endured as a child was the utter lack of adversity in her life.)

Reinventing portraits

What Arbus accomplished during the last decade of her career, when she produced virtually all the pictures on which her reputation rests, was nothing less than to reinvent the terms of photographic portraiture as then practiced. She brought to depictions of her permanently wounded subjects a discomforting, even harrowing, new depth of emotional and psychological scrutiny.

You can see it in iconic images like the child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park: The little blond boy in short pants, his face contorted into an expression of manic anxiety, desperately clutches his make- believe weapon in one hand, while his other grasps at the air like a claw.

The date is 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, when even small children realized the whole world might end badly. So who was crazier, the boy who expresses the awful truth of that moment, or the placid adults wandering nearby, who seem to inhabit a dream world of denial?

Or take the flag-waving young men whom Arbus photographed at a pro-Vietnam-War rally in 1967. One of them has bad skin and jug ears; he is wearing a white straw boater, black bow tie and an ill-fitting suit emblazoned with patriotic insignia.

The other's face seems grotesquely distorted by Arbus' lens. The light in the picture is grimy and obscure, and there is a hysterical gleam in the man's eyes that makes him look blind to anything beyond the threadbare ideology of the political slogans pinned to his chest.

Both pictures are the kind of unsparing portraits that could easily turn into caricatures. But Arbus never lets us condescend to her subjects. Instead, she presents them as simply and irrevocably there, a pair of living social facts demanding to be taken into account.

Arbus was at her best when she created images of people from whom society averted its gaze because the truths they embodied seemed too crushing to endure. Her genius was a stubborn determination to keep looking, and to make the viewer complicit in her encounters.

"Everybody has this thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that's what people observe," she once said.

"You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw," she continued. "There's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect."

Edgy transgression

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