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What a fact is. A reassessment of the work of Diane Arbus

What a fact is. A reassessment of the work of Diane Arbus

42nd Street movie theatre audience, N.Y.C. 1968 Copyright © 1994 The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC

Not just Arbus had her own sense of what a fact is. The same reasoning that can establish Arbus’ vision as obsessively one dimensional and a historic in ‘atomising’ the human condition into horror, must surely alert itself to its own brand of critical monomania in stringing the atomised fragments divorced from context – which constitute the introduction to the Monograph of 1972 – into an integrated and independent absolute. Abridging what is thus already abridged, almost any commentary – Susan Sontag’s On Photography being amongst the most obvious – that wishes to implicate Arbus’ fondness for ‘freaks’ will tend, with an almost embarrassing surrogate frisson, to stop first on Arbus’ ‘terrific’ excitement and then on the word ‘freak’ itself. It is, perhaps, sadly predictable that by bringing ourselves to say the word as freely, but more self-consciously, than Arbus, we establish our greater sophistication. However, the Arbus estate withholding until now so much of what one might learn of a clarifying context – images no less than words – it is always helpful to introduce what context does exist back into critical debate.

With regard to freaks we learn also, for example, that there was about them ‘a quality of legend… Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle.’ “In photographing dwarfs”, says Sontag, too intent on historic specificity to care much for tales, “you don’t get majesty and beauty. You get dwarfs.”

We have only to introduce the concept of legend into Sontag’s main argument against Arbus – that the work rules out an historical understanding of reality – to notice the extrinsic and forced nature of such arguments. There is a standpoint from which one is better equipped to hazard a guess at the very likelihood of one unified, coherent project informed by one unified, coherent sensibility; and what that project might have been.

It is undeniable, from the two first portfolios she worked for Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar (The Vertical Journey and The Full Circle, respectively), that Arbus was intrigued by eccentricity; by those, ‘who-if-you-met-them-for-the-first-time-would-have-no-need-of-a-carnation- in-their-buttonhole’.

However, where Sontag later found “assorted monsters and borderline cases,” Arbus saw only “the quixotic, the dedicated, who believe in the impossible, who make their mark on themselves.” Arbus sitters are each a legend “invented by belief”; whether this be the subject’s mental support system for an invention of themselves (as with the Marked Man, Bishop Predonzan, or assorted transvestites) or the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief (in not divesting Hollywood stars in repose of their aura or overlooking the fact that a former fashion luminary, in her current state of being, might already have been embalmed.) Much attention has been paid to Arbus’ cold strobe on the ‘gap between intention and effect’ – between how her subjects wish to be seen and how they are seen/shown, limiting the incongruity of which is reliant on the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief – but little is said of each sitter’s self-belief which, conceptually, allows a physical darkness into the work which the glaring specificity of the photographic medium itself, and of portraiture in particular, might not otherwise have allowed. It is self-belief which, most of the magazine and some of Arbus’ personal work, mantles each ‘hero of a real dream’, filling that gap between intention and effect by which it is ultimately the viewer’s “courage and cunning [that] are tested and tried.”

Take, for example, the image of A Teenage Couple On Hudson Street, NYC 1963. The figures present us with a riddle in that they are at once ‘teenagers’ and mere children dressed in seemingly adult clothing. The boy’s hand thrust into the pocket of a raincoat, which might equally conceal a gun or a toy, would be purely freakish were it not for its consistency with his protective stance towards his partner (his arm around her, his watchful glance etc.) He protects her and he believes that he protects her. The girl’s amused, slightly ironic, smile is directed outwards at the photographer so that the joke is on Arbus and, by extension, on us. As there can be no illusion as to the absence of the photographer (according to Arbus, photography’s distinction from film), photographs deal with ‘facts’. As the couple refuse to be anything other than the riddle of themselves, these facts – in lavish detail – afford us nothing we can readily understand; making it impossible to get out of one’s skin into somebody else’s to experience a tragedy that is not one’s own.

We need not, then get hung up on theories of alienation or disillusionment in the sixties or philosophies of the absurd to explain this conceptual darkness or what critics describe as the impossibility of achieving the bond of identity between viewer and subject. It is the nature of legend – of the general from the specific, of difference within sameness – that we do not identify in a wholly personal or straightforward way with legendary inhabitants. On a workaday level, it is the nature of photographic portraits to force the issue. What is unusual about Arbus’ people is that, irrespective of whether she photographed them as they wanted to be seen, they retain sufficient belief in themselves to allow us, if we dare, to wonder on “what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we maybe.”

One has only to compare Avedon’s sitters’ palpable crisis of belief – for example, his moribund father, or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor tricked into tears – to appreciate Arbus’ distinction. In this respect, it is probably more appropriate to concentrate less on what Arbus gave to her sitters – her own visionary kookiness – rather more on what she did not take away.

What Arbus may have underestimated, however, is the limited extent to which, faced with fiction that is concrete, a viewer can be relied on to suspend disbelief. Where her work moves closest to pure fantasy, to art, to people whose belief systems are so integral to each image that the subjects themselves ‘appear like metaphors’ – as in A Family On Their Lawn One Sunday In Westchester, NY 1968 in which”‘the parents seem to be dreaming the child and the child seems to be inventing them,” or in her images of drooling babies or ‘down’s syndrome’ women at Halloween – her subjects’ belief systems no longer fill but accentuate the gap between intention and effect. Her subjects are now so self contained, remote and (thus) unnerving, and her method – seen as uniformly, intractably specific – so unsuited to transcending the concrete, that we become voyeurs to an actual event.

Perhaps sensing this, Arbus, towards the end of her career, starts to speak of ‘mysterious technical problems’ that have beset her, of trying to make her “sharp pictures blurred but not too much so.” It was when working on the images of ‘down’s syndrome’ women at this time, that Arbus discovered – somewhere between extremes of strobe and darkness – sunlight. Had Arbus painted these images – and the late afternoon winter sunlight does give them a pictorial, a painterly quality – we might have sought their meaning. But handing us a fact more lyrically and tenderly does not make us any less in possession of a fact.

Were we able to think less crudely in terms of photographic subject identification, however, and with more self-reflection when faced with ‘outsides’, we might take up a challenge to enter into a kind of engagement with the images more appropriate to the overall project. We might even find, as Arbus herself found, we “cannot know without not being.” Sadly instead, treating all the work the same, we seem more inclined to turn the lot into freak show, and stop indexically, and gape at flesh and at faces more frightful than a mask.

Artist: Diane Arbus is a New York photographer whose work captured 1950’s and 1960’s America. She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963 and 1966.

Writer: Julia Dogra-Brazell is an artist and writer. Since 2001, she has devoted herself to ‘Plot’, a succession of episodic film sequences forming a highly textured, authorial, autobiographical, oneiric landscape.