Diane is like Checkhov. She looks so deeply that each time you see an Arbus image you want to know the story behind the subject and who the photographer is.
– Elisabeth Sussman
Famous for her flagrant fragility and power to horrify, Diane Arbus who according to Judith Thurman “raised the bar of audacity for imagining how far a woman can go by going too far,” is a legend whose celebrity seems constantly on the verge of overshadowing her oeuvre. Now, forty-four years after her death, Arbus’s work remains as compellingly mysterious as it was in the 1960s when her pioneering New York School photography earned her her legacy as an icon of that decade and an iconic artist.
Ahead of diane arbus: in the beginning, a new show of over a hundred eerily beautiful, previously unpublished early images at the Met Breuer (July 12 – November 27, 2016), I spoke with Jeff Rosenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs about shining fresh light on Diane Arbus and the images she created.
Michèle Gerber Klein (Rail): This interview is a celebration of Diane Arbus’s photographs being seen in the Breuer building, where I always felt they belonged. Finally, after so many years, Arbus gets to be in her perfect space. When was the building built?
Jeff Rosenheim: It was completed in ’66, started in ’63.
Rail: It’s right in her period.
Rosenheim: It’s exactly in her wheelhouse: the way in which the building sits on the street is built into the very essence of Arbus’s work.
Rail: Tell me more.
Rosenheim: Buildings exist in a context, they’re part of a society and they are individuals. The old Whitney Breuer building sits on the street, as both part of and totally distinct from everything else there. And that’s how Arbus and her subjects are—they’re part of a society but they’re unique.
Rail: Diane embraced the trend but separated herself from the herd.
Rosenheim: Early on, she distinguished herself from everybody. Diane was really a student of the history of photography: she knew what came before her, she understood what her contemporaries were doing, and she was highly aware of the power of pictures and the picture press. She was also fascinated by daily newspaper photography and magazine photography, and she worked in fashion photography with her husband, (where she was mostly a stylist creating the image). She was a real student of the medium. What she produced, how she explored the world was her own. She felt she had something to add, and she did.
Rail: Many, including Susan Sontag, also viewed her as an ambitious and predatory sensationalist. What is that famous shoot she did, was it Viva? For New York magazine and Barbara Goldsmith wrote the article?
Rosenheim: You’ve read the piece, amazing.
Rail: So let’s talk a little bit about that.
Rosenheim: It was a commissioned piece. My show is almost the antithesis of that.
Rail: It’s a contrapuntal aspect, which is why I bring it up.
Rosenheim: So that piece was about New York magazine wanting to do a story. It was at the time that Warhol’s Blue Movie had come out. In the movie, Viva is nude and there’s nasty sex and it’s all very much of the moment. So New York naturally wanted a story about her, and Barbara wrote the piece and they needed photography of Viva—a superstar created by Warhol, who may or may not have liked her at all but she was willing to do the things he wanted in his movies. And then Viva wanted to tell the world that she didn’t like that picture.
Rail: I looked at the Arbus photograph again and it didn’t look so bad to me.
Rosenheim: It’s on view at the Whitney right now in that portrait show, have you seen it?
Rail: I remember when we bought it. It’s very evocative of its moment in cultural history and it doesn’t look shocking to me.
Rosenheim: I’ve actually spoken to Viva about this. It’s as far away from what I think my show is and what we’re trying to do as anything. But as pure background, I think that the relationship that Viva had with the media world, especially the media world in the ’60s, was one where she was using it for her own purposes. She would say the same. And she liked it when she won the battle more than when the photographer or the filmmaker won the battle. She didn’t like the fact that Arbus was stronger than she was.
Rail: So Viva accused Arbus’s portrait of being staged, fake, and exploitative because it was more an Arbus photograph than a photograph of Viva as she wanted to present herself after the fact. That’s fascinating. Let’s use it as a segue into the early photographs you’re showing, which don’t appear to be staged at all. They look like found moments.
Rosenheim: When Diane starts in 1956 she heads to the street. Let’s just look at this woman on a bus: Diane didn’t know she would see this woman, but it’s like everything else in Arbus-land. You feel the impact of Diane’s reactivity. Yet she is also changing the dynamic of what that relationship—that quick immediate relationship between one person and another person—is. Although the image isn’t staged, she demands that the subject address her in a way that interested none of the other photographers of her generation.
Helen Levitt didn’t want the kids to stop playing. Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, all of those people were engaging with the world in only one direction, which is their direction. They didn’t want to change the world. So, you ask if these were staged, it’s true that she wasn’t making posed pictures. And yet she wanted, in a kind of quite provocative and beautiful way, the subjects of her pictures to be part of the relationship to the viewer that we have because of the camera.
Rail: We know the bus passenger is having her picture taken, and she’s not quite looking into the camera but she’s suddenly keenly aware of what’s happening. She looks a little startled, maybe.
Rosenheim: So the difference is: here’s the backwards man, we’re in his hotel room. He has participated in the construction of his own image in the same way as the bus passenger, even though this isn’t on the street or on the bus. The two pictures have similar structural qualities. Even in the picture of the cab driver, the subject participates. Diane turned the street into a studio, a place where there is a direct magnetic interaction. It was a completely new way of doing documentary style photography. The man at Coney Island seems to have shed all of the other revelers and he is separate. He’s there alone, yet at home. Inside and outside have become the same. Here’s the female impersonator getting dressed for the show, putting on his garments, and is it any different from this?
Rail: The lighting is different. The dressing room light is coming in from the side and it’s very dramatic, which gives it a sense of stage presence. It could be a film still.
Rosenheim: Think about Robert Frank or early Winogrand, early Friedlander, Leon Levinstein, Helen Levitt, or for that matter Lisette Model—Model being an exception. Diane’s more like Lisette and she’s more like August Sander than she is any of the guy street photographers of the day in the city. She wants more out of the picture than just the picture, she wants this interaction the other photographers fear. They use right-angle-finders, Helen Levitt uses a right-angle-finder, Robert Frank is working quickly. The other artists are using all sorts of methods to hide, to work from a blind, literally.
Rail: They make themselves disappear. Arbus puts herself in the picture.
Rosenheim: And we get a special something that’s both hidden and present in all of the pictures—which is her.
Rail: Right, her subtext. These are not all early pictures, are they?
Rosenheim: These are all early. She made them between 1956 and 1962. And they have never been published or exhibited. We’re releasing them for the first time. At the time of her death, Diane was living in Westbeth and she kept a darkroom on Charles Street a couple blocks away. The exhibition at the Modern in 1972, which was the show that John Szarkowski organized, included many of the early photographs, but the resulting Aperture monograph did not.
Rail: Why? No reason?
Rosenheim: I think it was all too quick for MoMA to get a book out. So Marvin Israel and Doon looked for a publisher, they found Aperture and they published a book, but it was only the square pictures.
That omission was an opportunity for me to do something new because although some of these pictures were shown in 1972 and then they were shown in the Revelations show that we did with Elisabeth Sussman and Sandy Phillips at SFMOMA, which came to the Met, they were never shown as critical to her oeuvre.
When the curators prepared the 1972 exhibition, just a year after her death, they hadn’t actually had time to inventory everything that existed. No one found the boxes of the early pictures, which were stored in an inaccessible corner of her garden room, until years later, and they weren’t inventoried until years after that. So the estate just kept them. And they were never released.
Rail: How do these differ from her later work? She must evolve.
Rosenheim: There are more similarities than differences. Differences are the rectangle format versus the square, which is not superficial, but a real, formal difference.
The rectangle—both horizontally and vertically—has a different type of visual narrative than a square. There are only a couple of great artists who use the square well. It’s kind of rigid. And the rectangle, either vertical or horizontal, has this sort of ebb and flow of visual incident. Your eye moves around it in a different way. Any architect will tell you that square rooms have certain attributes and rectangular rooms have different qualities; so it’s a very interesting difference. Diane used the rectangle with 35 mm up until 1962. In ’62 she got the Rolleiflex and started making square-format pictures as well as keeping with the 35. That’s where I drew the line. We go up until 1962 and end with ’62 because she’s on her way to using the square; by ’63, it’s all square. So the structural differences are rectangle versus square. However, in her practice she’s working with the same subjects and she is meeting them wherever she meets them and getting to know her subjects when she can and she is as dynamic in her interactions with them early as she is later.
An example is the picture of the Jewish giant and his parents. That’s a picture from late in Arbus’s life. She met Eddie Carmel ten years before she made that image. And she photographed Eddie Carmel over a long period of time. Many of the subjects that appear later also appear earlier in her work. The timeline runs from ’56 until 1971 when she dies. And Arbus is a mature artist from the moment she picks up the camera in 1956. She’s thirty-three years old, she had been working in fashion, she knows the history of photography; she is sophisticated. I think she was someone who matured in her life as a teenager.
Rail: She got married very young, she was precocious.
Rosenheim: Yes, and she read a lot, and spent a lot of time thinking about what she was doing long before she headed out on her own in 1956 to make that first roll of film. It’s pretty great. The difference between the early work and the later work is a straw thesis. I actually think that if you see the Aperture book as an expression of an artist’s ideology, that’s really chapter two. We thought it was the whole and it turns out it’s not. We have discovered chapter one. That’s what’s exciting.
When Diane headed out on the street in 1956 she was helped along the way by all the different connections we’ve talked about: knowledge of the history of the medium, classes with Lisette Model, believing in herself, beginning to see the change in the American magazine world. She got published in Esquire and Harper’s, she met Marvin Israel. She met Robert Benton. And all this happens at a really exciting moment in the late 1950s when street photography, loosely, is lauded by the cultural community. The Modern is showing it, the Met is beginning to collect it. The magazines are featuring serious photography. This is the beginning of the great moment in New York.
Rail: The New York School of Photography.
Rosenheim: The New York School! Jane Livingston did that wonderful book on all of it. It’s not just Arbus. But we know much more about those other photographers than we do about Arbus. This show will balance that.
Rail: We see the similarities; the themes that weave through her work. You’ve named many of them. We have the physical form of the photograph as a difference. But there must be a poetic difference. All artists begin making something, then they change it, then they go back again and revisit. It’s morphology. What is particular to Diane’s morphology?
Rosenheim: On a physical basis, the early prints (all of which she printed herself) have a physical quality, a quite radiant physical quality, which is different from the later prints. In the later work she is often using flash—either in daylight with a full flash or at night with a flash. The flash sharpens and hardens the images. The early images are grainier. The available light is very much a part of their, you said the word, poetics, and so they have a kind of street photography poetic rather than a kind of studio photography poetic. Since they’re mostly just using available light, even when we’re inside, they are also less sharp because the flash in the later work whets the images.
Rail: The early photographs are gentler; more loving, with natural lighting—backlighting? What about the two little kids?
Rosenheim: The Diane who makes these photographs is herself but also different. She’s younger. And this is before she meets John Szarkowski and before she gets her Guggenheim Fellowship. This Diane is that excitement of going out everyday and not being already a chosen photographer. She is free.
Rail: She doesn’t have to live up to her own image.
Rosenheim: That’s right, there’s a beauty in that. Also, Diane is a mother and you mention the two kids on the street. I think that [for her] there’s a delight in seeing kids (even if they are older than her kids) and they responded to her especially. I think this was a moment when Diane was open, in a wonderful way, and it comes through almost secretly in quiet, exciting, lovely nuances. It even comes through in the softness of the pictures. They’re filled with discoveries.
Arbus was searching and finding and the finding lead to the next revelation. She explores New York City, her home city as though it were a foreign land. She makes lists of places she wants to visit. For seven years these pathways are beautifully expressed in her work. I don’t know if that’s about difference, but you can never step into the same river twice.
Rail: Perhaps it’s different in terms of discovery. What you’re saying to me is that the early work represents a voyage. Later it’s more about conscious creation. Also in the beginning she’s making a marriage with her subjects, further down the road she’s battling them. I think of Viva.
Rosenheim: That’s much later, years and years later. So I don’t know if that’s part of the continuum. I like what you said about voyage. Even artists who superficially all work in a single medium constantly change the way they can solve an identical problem. For example: Robert Adams’s pictures of those same trees and those same roads that he has photographed over forty years—they’re all different to him. He feels everyday he is expressing a new discovery. Artists make pictures for themselves as much as they make pictures for the rest of us.
The square-format camera got Arbus closer to one of the things she wanted. I think she wanted to make bigger prints. That’s another superficial difference: in the beginning, the prints are relatively small. The largest of the early pictures are printed on 11-x-14 paper and the images are only about 6 × 9 inches, they’re even smaller than the reproductions we’re looking at. They pack a punch, but they’re small. Then she wanted to make bigger pictures and with the larger format negative, the two-and-a-quarter negative, she could make larger pictures. They’re bigger, dramatically, than Garry Winogrand’s pictures.
But with size you give up something. It’s hard to define exactly what I feel about the early pictures. But when we look at the early prints together, you will see they really repay the attention one gives them. You won’t be able to wait to look at them more carefully. They draw you in because of their intimacies: the intimacy of how the picture is made and the image’s physical intimacy with its object. Their intimacy makes them extraordinary.
Rail: And unique in her work. Her later work is more deliberately shocking—revelatory. It’s not all a whisper with subtleties. Even in the image of the woman on the bus, she could be—
Rosenheim: Diane’s not conversing with this person—and she is. She is certainly conversing with this subject.
Rail: The bus woman knows she’s being photographed—she’s reacting—so that’s part of what we get from the photograph.
Rosenheim: That’s part of the meaning of the picture, absolutely. I’ve tried to express this in all of my lectures on Arbus, I just came back from the Art Gallery of Ontario, which has a very nice show called Outsiders, and the other artists in the show are people like Danny Lyon and Nan Goldin, and others. And when I spoke, I talked about how no other artists in that show or in her milieu played the role of medium to their subjects the way she did.
Rail: That’s a good way of saying it. That’s a beautiful phrase.
Rosenheim: She was offering them something. And that’s a gift to us. Diane and her subjects shared secrets that they would not share with others. Diane was magnetic. So much so that some people, like Viva, felt they shared too much.
Rail: Yeah she wasn’t forcing Viva to roll her eyes up. Viva rolled her eyes up all by herself, so there’s some complicity going on there whether or not Viva said she was being manipulated. But the darkness is that Viva complained to Avedon and he said, “You know you shouldn’t have let her photograph you, she makes everybody look like a freak.”
Let’s go to this theme of freaks and back to the bus passenger. She is clearly not a freak, she’s just a woman. She looks like she could be in a film noir but she is no freak.
Rosenheim: Well the picture is film noir.
Rail: Then, with tattooed Jack Dracula, Diane has infused something that I always notice in her later photographs, which is a contrast between the emotion and the physicality.
Rosenheim: Beautifully said.
Rail: Can you talk about when Arbus says, “I want to photograph what’s evil”? What is that about?
Rosenheim: I’ve been thinking about this question most of my life. It goes beyond Arbus. What is the role of the camera in our society? What is it meant to do? What are its possibilities?
For example, Walker Evans went down to Hale County, Alabama, in the summer of 1936 with James Agee. Fortune magazine sent them down to do a “day in the life” story. They were supposed to look for an “average set of sharecroppers,” tenant farmers, and reveal their story. Fortune magazine was going to do a piece on these tragically dirt-poor people and the efforts of the federal government. And Evans shot his 8-x-10 face of Allie Mae Burroughs and Floyd Burroughs and their kids who are shoeless, starving—looking at them a certain way and turning them into something. So the power dynamic was blatant because this image was made for a male business magazine published on behalf of the leaders of American corporations. The picture was simply too revealing. Fortune wouldn’t run it—couldn’t look at it. Thank goodness. All that body work became a landmark book and a journey to direct observation in the Depression. Why do I bring this up? Because Arbus’s photographs of people on the margins of mainstream culture were also decried by many—Susan Sontag and others—as un-viewable pseudo creations: “freaks.”
Rail: But Arbus calls them freaks too. She says, “There is a quality of legend about freaks [. . .] like the character in the fairy tale that stops you and asks you the questions.”
Rosenheim: I think that’s because that is what we as a culture do: marginalize people as quickly as we enfranchise them.
Rail: The question is, where is the norm?
Rosenheim: So, this is a man who is a contortionist: the most interesting thing about it is that he is known as the backwards man because he can pivot his body from front to back and he is doing his act, if you will, for the camera. But he’s at home; he’s not on stage. He invited her into his private world. He is revealing, literally his life and his humanity, in his home.
Jack Dracula is a tattooist she knew from photographing him and meeting him at Hubert’s free circus on 42nd Street. This is in New London, Connecticut, where he has gone to his trade because New York has banned, or will ban, tattooing. So he has left. And why is he in New London? He’s there because that’s where the U.S. fleet is and where the nuclear subs are. And it was good business because sailors were notoriously advocates of tattoos. He’s a good businessman, okay? [Laughter.] He was a performer but he’s also a businessman and has an operation.
What is this guy on the beach? He’s a beachgoer who went to Coney Island that day and has got his hat and his trunks and his shoes and socks on. I find that it enhances his humanity. It doesn’t peg him as an oddity in any way. So I feel that it’s the opposite of what Sontag criticized the work for.
In the early work there’s a beauty and an elegance of those dynamics and relationships. The gaze is hardened in the later work, and physically formal.
Rail: These are gentler. The others are in your face.
Rosenheim: Which is fascinating.
Rail: Yes, and more modern in a way, more contemporary.
Rosenheim: The early ones are more classical. And I made the decision to do a very avant-garde installation. It’s so avant-garde it’s classical in a building that is very avant-garde, and really just perfect for these pictures. And I’m very excited by how people are going to have to navigate and confront these pictures.
So why did Sontag dislike the work and why did she think the artist had violated the trust of her subjects and that the pictures were—
Rail: Neurotic and brutalizing. Where do you think the link is between Diane’s deteriorating mental and emotional states and her work? In other words, do you see a relationship between her madness and her genius?
Rosenheim: I generally don’t think like that about any artists—or maybe I choose not to. I see in my life relationships that people are empathetic and can be depressed. And I also see depression without empathy—so I see it in both directions.
What is at hand here in the photographs we are looking at? I think Diane had intense curiosity about the world. Powerful curiosity is revealed in her photographs and in the concentrated pursuits of her subjects. And this is consistent through the end of her life and last pictures. The so-called “last pictures” are in what’s called the Untitled and are pictures of individuals who are wards of the state. They’re amazing and deeply affecting to me.
I’m going to tell you one story but then you can read about it because I’ve passed it onto the New Yorker. Many years ago when we did the Revelations show I got a call from the waitress at the nudist colony. Diane photographed her topless wearing a white doily. The waitress and I had a pretty revealing conversation and she told me that when she was growing up, her parents actually lived in the nudist colony. Most all of the other members were weekend visitors. But her family lived there and she was uncomfortable going through puberty, which was when the picture was made. And her parents had made the decision that it was good for them, but they hadn’t considered her feelings and she had never been able to have a conversation with her family about how uncomfortable she was.
Arbus arrived, took the adolescent waitress’s photograph and when she wanted to put it in the show at the Modern she wrote to the family saying, “Would it be okay to use this picture?” This allowed the young girl to have a conversation with her parents in which she was able to tell them, “I want this picture to be used. I am comfortable with the picture but I’m uncomfortable living in the nudist colony.” So the attention that Arbus paid to her and that picture gave this woman the tools to have a life-changing conversation she needed to have with her family.
By the time the waitress called me she was an elderly woman living in Florida who just wanted to let me know that Arbus’s picture changed her life in a wonderful way. So is that a picture of a freak? I don’t think so. Diane is smart enough to realize there are two sides to everything. She photographed the loser in the derby. [Laughter.] Everyone else was photographing the winner. It’s not clear to me why there is so much anxiety about her legacy or achievement. Do we ask Gerhard Richter or Anselm Kiefer why they’re obsessed by their obsessions? Do guys get away with it?
Rail: It appears that the fact that she’s a woman has a lot to do with this. And that she’s a woman who did things that a woman might not normally have done.
Rosenheim: Like use a camera?
Rail: Like be an artist and an artist with a camera—and also use that camera to get into physical and psychological places where most people, certainly most women, and definitely bourgeois Jewish girls, simply didn’t go. Then she mythologized herself (not necessarily intentionally), by killing herself. So everything taken together becomes dangerously and mysteriously, charismatic—the stuff of dark legend. And people are both curious and uncomfortable about it.
Rosenheim: She was sure that she had a gift and I think that may have been threatening to the power structure, but I think it’s facile and unfair to use the suicide to foreshadow her work. What is the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus? They committed suicide?
Rail: They were gifted, ambitious, accomplished; they lived outside the box, and they had a hard time with it. They also lived within roughly the same period, and yes they both committed suicide. But that thing is a thing that people know about—
Rosenheim: It’s the fact that sticks.
I think this show is a perfect antidote to that. The pictures are elegiac; they’re beautifully structured. They remind me what is great about the medium of photography at a time when nobody has emerged, in my opinion, with authorial expression in the way that she did. You know, she walked out on the street and she found her subjects because they found her, now how extraordinary is that? That’s photography. What other medium can you say that about? I’m fascinated by it. That’s what fascinates me: not why she was interested in certain subjects—but why they were interested in her.
ContributorMichele Gerber Klein