Talented Life of Diane Arbus Reconsidered

Photographer Who Committed Suicide Is Examined in Book

By David Kaufmann

Published December 09, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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On the other hand, her urge to break expectations and shatter appearances also speaks to her suspicion that the goyish world she was meant to emulate wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. This double sense of pride and humiliation, self-assertion and disillusion, might go some way toward accounting for the moral queasiness that so many people have felt in viewing Arbus’s pictures. They don’t know how to read the individuals on display. Sometimes Arbus seems cruel, other times empathic. Sometimes — and this is the kicker — she is both.

William Todd Schultz
William Todd Schultz

Even so, her subjects, for all their idiosyncratic flaws, aren’t merely individuals. On more than one occasion, Arbus has described herself as a contemporary anthropologist. She was interested in communities of all sorts.

She shot circus people, circles of strippers and groups of transvestites, pairs of ballroom dancers and a colony of nudists. She was fascinated by the ways that subcultures maintained themselves and how their members survived despite it all. This interest, too, should be chalked up to her background. While a preoccupation with ragged communal persistence is hardly exclusive to Jews, it does reflect a deeply Jewish concern. It was one that went to Arbus’s heart.

Schultz is somewhat tone deaf. He doesn’t hear the specifically New York Jewish inflections in Arbus’s life. He is also somewhat blind in that he doesn’t really care about photography — indeed, he seems much more comfortable talking about the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Like many critics, Schultz is so transfixed by the apparent audacity of Arbus’s subject matter that he doesn’t notice the work itself.

This is partially Arbus’s fault. She worked hard to make shots taken with a Pentax look like they were snapped with a Brownie — and she frequently succeeded. The pictures in the recently released 40th-anniversary edition of her iconic first book of photographs, “Diane Arbus,” display the technical imperfections she courted. These “mistakes” were intended to lend a veneer of authenticity to her pictures, just as they added a touch of the archaic to the proceedings.

There is something both mythic and dingy about Arbus’s photographs. This quality provides the weird psychic intensity of some of her best work. In her 1970 image “A Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx, New York,” it is hard not to notice the sheer brutality of the flash. It is so insistent that you might miss its correlate, the circular darkening of the edges of the shot. The effect of this vignetting, though, is stunning. It brings pressure to bear on the claustrophobic center of the photo, on the shadow that the slovenly 8-foot-tall man casts as he looks down on his dapper, apparently uncomfortable parents. Not only does the room close in on its occupants, its light does so, too. There is no escape.

In the end, Arbus was a photographer, not a martyr to the truth and not merely a jazzy mental case. Unfortunately, her suicide makes her work hard to see. Schultz falls into this trap. He is a sucker for her allure even as he scants her images. Perhaps he just needs a different frame or a broader context. Arbus, for all her mystery, makes sense, but in ways that Schultz doesn’t begin to imagine. Arbus’s family might have been particularly unhappy, but they ran to type. Arbus, the crummy princess, saw that. She knew where she came from, what it meant, and — judging from her work — she knew exactly what it cost.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University. His most recent book, “Telling Stories: Philip Guston’s Later Works,” came out last year from University of California Press.


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