Woman's studies

When Diane Arbus turned her lens on `ordinary' women, she brought new meaning of the term photogenic. Here, Robin Muir welcomes the first show for 10 years, from a photographer whose work didn't flatter or deceive

Robin Muir
Friday 17 October 1997 23:02 BST

By the time of her death in 1971 in Greenwich Village, New York City, Diane Arbus, had changed documentary photography for ever. For almost 30 years, her quest had been for the quintessence of self, which she once said was "what's left when you take everything else away". In this mission, she was helped by the collusion of her subjects, who never doubted her motives, and by the co-operation of magazine editors who brought her extraordinary vision to a wider public.

It is said that Arbus had become resigned to being remembered as "the photographer of freaks", and, indeed, she is best known for her unrelenting portraits of the marginalised, the disfranchised and the outcast - those living on the fringes of acceptance and those in worlds of their own imagining: dwarves and giants, transvestites, sword-swallowers and side-show performers, the mentally retarded...

But a book of her magazine work, published in 1984, demonstrated that to most of those commissions she brought a different, although no less tender, sensibility. In particular, her portraits of celebrities penetrated the crumbling masks of their public personae.

Now, in the first exhibition of her work in London for at least a decade, a new arrangement has been drawn from the Arbus archive. Sixteen or so of her portraits of women are on view (and for sale) at a new gallery, Photology.

These pictures embody everything you want to see in an Arbus photograph. They have an incisive directness that still seems modern yet is quite inimitable today. It was said of John Deakin, who experimented in London with a similar composition a decade or so before Arbus (although he used cropping, where she never did), that he "discarded a tradition of over 100 years, of flattering his sitters and redefined the meaning of the word photogenic". The same can be said of Arbus, who makes no concession to vanity, using no sleight of camera, no soft focus, no blurring or retouching. "Think of this," she wrote. "Beauty is itself an aberration, a burden, a mystery, even to itself."

But if she did not flatter her women subjects, she treated them with no less compassion than she did any other.

Diane Arbus was born in New York in 1923 into the Nemerov family, owners of Russeks department store in Fifth Avenue. Her great friend, Richard Avedon, two months her junior, shared her roots: his family, too, were descended from immigrants, and ran a department store, Avedon's Fifth Avenue.

At 18, she married Allan Arbus, formerly an employee in the Russeks art department and later a photographer and actor. Picking up a camera herself in the Forties, Diane Arbus photograhed, as her daughter Doon has written, "landscapes, still lifes, nudes, anything at that time considered an appropriate subject for a photograph".

In the late Forties, although they both hated the fashion world, the couple collaborated as fashion photographers, shooting mostly for Glamour, Seventeen and, sometimes, for their stablemate, Vogue. In their days at Glamour it was said that Allan Arbus took the photographs, while Diane's role was that of stylist-cum-art-director. Her input to the creative look of the session was, however, as significant as that of the technician behind the lens.

She studied at the New School under the formidable Lisette Model. "Don't shoot until the subject hits you in the pit of the stomach," Model exhorted her students. Diane Arbus had found a mentor and a lifelong friend: "Lisette talked to me about how ancient the camera was and how the light stains the silver coating of the film silver so memory stains it, too."

She appears to have been ambivalent about her status as a leading woman in what was regarded in those days, especially in the commercial world, as a man's profession. "Look, I'm a photographer, not a woman photographer," she reportedly said.

Apart from Lisette Model, Arbus neither sought out nor associated with women photographers, but in pursuit of the picture she wanted, she once told a student, she would stop at nothing. "And being a woman helped."

In an article, "Full Circle", for Harper's Bazaar in November 1961, for which she took the pictures and wrote the text and captions, she perhaps came closest to articulating her quest. She had photographed what might be perceived as quintessential Arbus subject matter. The wording of the captions alone hint at an assortment of eccentrics: Jack Dracula, the Marked Man; William Mack, Sage of the Wilderness; His Serene Highness Prince Robert de Rohan Courtenay; Max Maxwell Landar, Uncle Sam; Miss Cora Pratt, the Counterfeit Lady. (There was to have been a sixth figure, Miss Storme de Larverie, The Lady Who Appears to be a Gentleman, but Bazaar's editor, Nancy White, had deemed it too extreme and discomfiting for her readers.)

"These are five singular people," wrote Arbus, "who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do, beckoned, not driven, invented by belief, author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be."

The length of her article (some 4,000 words) testifies that she was as much interested in those she photographed as in taking their likenesses.

Sadly, she was convinced that the public would not share that interest, they would see in her pictures only what they wanted to see, and would not look beyond the surface horror. She was, as her friend Tina Fredericks remembers, "upset that her motives were being misread. She was no more voyeuristic than any other photographer, nor was she `sicker' or `weirder'. It's just that she was more open, more honest, about her fascination with what society labelled `perverted' or `forbidden'."

The dialogue between sitter and artist has been expressed many times, but perhaps never more eloquently - or with such a scarcely concealed sense of wonder - than in one contributor's eulogy in Newsweek. "I have never seen pictures like them before, and I am sure I will never see their equal again. They are the product of something beyond the camera, the result of a long, complex and intensely human process. What led these people to unveil their secrets was Diane Arbus herself... What made her pictures great was everything that happened before she pressed the button."

The acceptance and trust of those upon whom she trained her lens seems to be one reason she persisted. Once, after the opening of the "New Documents" exhibition in 1967, which featured her portraits of midgets, drag queens and nudists, a cab driver told her, "Funny thing, I went to the Museum of Modern Art the other day to catch a show, and there I am, big as life, hanging on the wall. Picture of me! What a thrill! Wish I knew who the photographer was. Like to thank him." She beamed with pleasure, recognising him as the young man in straw boater, bow tie and "Bomb Hanoi" badge, whose portrait she had taken earlier that year at a pro-Vietnam demo.

Pictures like that, or "Woman on a park bench on a sunny day, NYC, 1969", and "Girl sitting on her bed with her shirt off, NYC, 1968", portraits of what we might term "ordinary" people are as crucial to the Arbus oeuvre as her depictions of so-called freaks. Though she may have been drawn more powerfully to some than to others, in front of the lens all were treated democratically, whether for a magazine article or for her personal portfolio. As Susan Sontag put it in On Photography, "The subjects of Arbus's photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village. Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America." Whether to overweight girls at a fat camp, or to Mae West for Harper's Bazaar, or to two women at an automat, she brought her own kind of photography and suffused them with an honesty and a dignity missing in the discipline since the days of Lewis Hine and August Sander.

She took her own life, for reasons that are unclear. "Nothing about her life, her photographs or her death was accidental or ordinary," commented Avedon. "They were mysterious and decisive and unimaginable except to her. Which is the way with genius."

A posthumous show of Arbus's pictures at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, a year after her death, drew more visitors than any previous exhibition of a photographer's work, and it went on the road around the world for seven years. In North America alone, more than seven million people viewed the show. The monograph that followed the exhibition is still one of the top-selling photographic books ever.

In 1972, she became the first American photographer to be shown at the Venice Biennale, and she was accorded a semi-mythic status, inevitable when an artist dies young. When that artist has specialised, as one commentator put it, in "extreme unfamiliar circumstances", and moreover died by her own hand, a cult following is almost ineluctable. Arbus stood no chance.

In 1984, Patricia Bosworth, biographer of the doomed Montgomery Clift, turned her attention to Diane Arbus. She received no help from Arbus's daughters, or from their father, or from two of her closest and most prescient friends, Avedon and the late Marvin Israel, a celebrated art director. The book is highly readable in the absence of anything else. Sanctioned or not by the Arbus estate, it is, apart from the pictures, the main source for most of us of our understanding of the complex Diane Arbus.

"Giving a camera to Diane Arbus," Norman Mailer said, "is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child." It is an off-the-cuff remark, alluding to one of her most famous photographs and perhaps the response of a vain and irascible sitter confronted with sure-fire evidence of his vanity - Arbus photographed him for the New York Times Book Review, allowing him, for one pose, to grip his crotch - but it speaks clearly for her work. It was explosive and it burns on the page decades later

`Diane Arbus Women' is showing at Photology, 24 Litchfield Street, London WC2, 23 October to 6 December `Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, NJ. 1963' (main picture), pounds 5,500; `Albino sword swallower at a carnival, Md. 1970' (above right), pounds 8,500

Topless dancer in her dressing room, San Francisco, Cal. 1968 (above top), pounds 8,500; Two girls in matching bathing suits, Coney Island, NY. 1967 (above), pounds 2,750; Two ladies at the automat, NYC, 1966 (main picture), pounds 2,750

Naturist lady with swan sunglasses, Pa. 1965 (left), pounds 2,750; Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, NYC, 1965 (below left), pounds 8,500

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