Humanism as An Extreme Sport

By Leslie Camhi

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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‘I think all families are creepy in a way,” photographer Diane Arbus wrote to Peter Crookston, then an editor at the London Sunday Times magazine in June of 1968. The tone of breezy aphorism was typical for Arbus, but the subject clearly enthralled her. Many of her most iconic images — the Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, or the identical twin girls with eerily dissimilar eyes — meditate on the uncanny mystery of a shared genetic inheritance.

Arbus has been stigmatized as a photographer of “freaks” (a category she herself embraced); her suicide in 1971 has obscured her work with the shadow of morbid pathology. It’s more accurate to say she practiced humanism as an extreme sport. Her pictures of “ordinary” people — like two ladies with penciled-in eyebrows and fur hats at a New York automat in 1966 — often seem startlingly artificial, highlighting the intense labor that produces the façade we offer to the world. And her photographs of those on society’s margins tend to stress the things they share with the rest of us — like the slippers worn by two middle-aged nudists sitting in their living room. The mother of Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant, regards her son with the same mixture of awe, fear and resignation with which a generation of immigrant parents greeted their towering American offspring. And like them (as Arbus told Crookston in another letter) she disapproved of his career –– as a carnival attraction.

I remember emerging from an Arbus retrospective in Rome two decades ago. The world suddenly looked different — the women’s hairdos, the babies in tears, the teenage couples on the Via Veneto — all had been Arbus-ized, tinged with that semi-insidious X-ray vision that saw through appearances to the inner strangeness of everyone. It seemed the mark of a great artist to so infect one’s vision.

In this country, it’s been some 30 years since the last major Arbus exhibition, the posthumous retrospective accorded her by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1972. Now we have two of them. “Diane Arbus: Revelations,” a comprehensive survey organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, remains on view there until February 8, and travels to New York’s Metropolitan Museum (where I’ll see it) next February. Meanwhile, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery is showing the more tightly focused “Diane Arbus: Family Albums,” through March 27.

The gargantuan catalogue for the San Francisco show offers a chronology. Born to an affluent Jewish family in New York in 1923 — her parents owned Russek’s department store on Fifth Avenue — Diane Nemerov married Allan Arbus at 18, after graduating from the Fieldston School. Until they divorced in the late 1960s, the couple scrambled to support themselves and their two daughters as advertising and fashion photographers. Diane also began taking pictures on the side, eventually getting editorial assignments from magazines like Esquire.

“I never knew I was Jewish when I was growing up,” she once commented dryly. “I didn’t know it was an unfortunate thing to be.” In 1960, writing to her lover and colleague, the painter Marvin Israel, she exulted, “Our bourgeois heritage seems to me glorious as any stigma …. To be so Jewish and rich and middle class and from good families and to run so variously away from it that we come full circle and bump into each other ….” Yet her many photographs of Jewish subjects — from Andrew Ratoucheff, a Russian midget who impersonated Maurice Chevalier, to the anonymous, broad-faced, middle-aged “Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C., 1963” — suggest that Jewishness was not merely something she fled from, but a mark of difference that informed her entire oeuvre.

For Anthony Lee, who curated “Diane Arbus: Family Albums” with John Pultz and co-authored the show’s perceptive catalogue, Arbus’s Jewish identity found expression in her preoccupation with family, amid the vast social changes of the 1960s. Their exhibition is organized around a recently discovered cache of photographs and contact sheets dating from December 1969, when Arbus accepted a commission from Konrad Matthaei, a noted actor and theater producer, to photograph his family’s Christmas celebrations in their Upper East Side townhouse. (The show also includes numerous photographs she took for magazines on the theme of family, like the haunting portrait of the actress Jayne Mansfield, dolled up to look like a child, as her 13-year-old daughter nestles against her capacious bosom.)

The Matthei commission was work-for-pay, but the sheer volume of pictures snapped (about one every two minutes, for two days) suggests that for Arbus something more was at stake. Many are generic groupings, dull as photographs taken by some unwitting cousin: generations of Matthaei plopped on the sofa beneath a Monet painting, or Konrad Sr. embracing little Konrad Jr., who looks eminently huggable in his velveteen pantsuit. Then there are photographs where Arbus is reaching for something like her vision — the matriarch in a huge white blouse with a sailor bow, smiling a bit too broadly, or the awkward shots of Konrad and his wife Gay seated on their conjugal bed.

But Arbus struck gold with the Matthaei daughters, Marcella and Leslie, ages 11 and 9. She took them off to more remote sofas, posing them in pairs and singly. As the exhibition catalogue was going to print, Leslie decided she didn’t want any photograph with her in it published, and at the gallery, it’s easy to see why — alone or in groups, the beautiful young girl sulks and mopes, comvulsively clutching a stuffed koala bear. Her misery and alienation are palpable. Meanwhile her sister, in a white crocheted party dress, stands mysteriously deadpan and immobile — a mythic nymph, projected from her family’s Christmas into photographic history.

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