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Two New Books Try to Bring the Life and Career of Photographer Diane Arbus into New Focus

Diane Arbus: Family Albums

Author:Anthony Lee and John Pultz
Publisher:Yale University Press
Genre:Art

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 11/19/2003

Photographer Diane Arbus is most famous for her compelling portraits of people who were considered human oddities--dwarves and giants, sideshow performers and transvestites--figures who in her day were thought of as unfit subjects for either art or equal participation in society. With her lens, Arbus did the looking for all of us, gazing upon the forbidden and revealing the emotional depths behind the unsettling exteriors. She was not a voyeur, nor was she interested in making pictures of taboo subjects for sheer sensationalism. Rather, she wanted to explore the gap between the public face and the private self, and this exploration led to her outré subject matter. "Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience," Arbus once explained. "Freaks were born with their trauma. They've passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."

For the first three decades following Arbus' suicide in 1971, there were only three published volumes of work by the artist commonly known--and sometimes dismissed--as "the freak photographer." But these slender books hardly summarized the wholly original life's work of the woman who reinvented contemporary photography. She turned her camera on carnivals and drag shows, but also the wealthy, powerful, and famous; her unflinching, unsettling, and, some would say, unkind photographs of modern Americans reveal the freakish interiors of apparently normal people as eloquently as her more eccentric portraits speak of inner humanity. But while she left behind a visual legacy that launched thousands of art majors, there is still a dearth of material about her work and life.

Arbus was a prolific image-maker, but only a small amount of her work was ever published--usually in Esquire magazine--during her lifetime. In galleries, she exhibited in only a few group shows. And since her death, although Arbus was a dedicated journal keeper and voluminous correspondent, almost none of her writing has been made public, because her estate has kept a veritable chokehold on both her images and correspondence. Doon Arbus, Diane's elder daughter and executor of her estate, exercises absolute control over her mother's archive and refuses to allow reproduction of any Arbus image unless she first scrutinizes the accompanying text.

In the midst of such an information famine, any new book about Arbus would be a major event; that two Arbus books have just been simultaneously released is remarkable. Each accompanies a major exhibition of her work--one at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the other at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum in Massachusetts--and each takes a decidedly different approach to the artist, with varying degrees of success. One of the new books, Diane Arbus: Revelations, is sponsored by the estate and at times, reads like it. The other, Diane Arbus: Family Albums, exists only because its authors managed an end run around the estate, but even that didn't appear to help them shed much new light on the Arbus oeuvre.

Family Albums, first of all, is a folio of never-before-seen Arbus portraits, printed along with many of Arbus' other, well-known Esquire shots. The project behind the volume began when one of its co-authors, Mount Holyoke art history professor Anthony Lee, received from a Holyoke alumna the portraits that Arbus had taken of her wealthy New York family, the Matthaeis, in 1969. The other co-author, John Pultz, meanwhile, was teaching photography at the University of Kansas, which holds the Esquire archive. Together, the scholars were astute enough to recognize a windfall when they saw it--reproduction rights to Arbus photos unfettered by her vigilantly litigious estate--but they were not astute enough in their writing to deepen our understanding of the photographer and her work.

The fatal weakness of Family Albums lies in its attempt to contextualize and then dissect Arbus' work--not just that presented in the book but her entire oeuvre--as a kind of extended family album, lumping all of her varied obsessions into an eccentric "family of man." It's a thin conceit, and Lee and Pultz extend the metaphor much further than it was ever meant to go. Most irritating is the authors' attempt to present new Arbus scholarship in tangled, overwrought academic lingo, with references to "the intractable truth-status of the objects pictured" and the like. Some of their musings, such as those on the influence of Auguste Sander and Walker Evans on Arbus' style, are well-informed. But too much of what's left--like a section about Arbus' Jewish heritage and its supposed effect on her work--is merely unfortunate.

The main thing, though, is the pictures, and even here the presentation falls short. The Family Album exhibition, currently scheduled to travel through 2005, presents some of the photographer's most recognizable images--portraits of Mae West, actor/midget Andrew Ratoucheff, the king and queen of a senior citizens' dance--alongside the contact sheets for those same assignments, a fascinating and heretofore unavailable opportunity to witness the process by which Arbus created some of her iconic images. But the Arbus estate prohibited the reproduction of the contact sheets in the book itself (they were unable to block gallery display), which leaves us with well-known images that are already available in other publications.

Other than the Esquire shots, of course, the book does offer both contact sheets and prints from the Matthaei family portrait shoot that Arbus undertook over two days. Again, Arbus' greatest images were made as a collaboration of mutual fascination between photographer and subject, but there is no visual evidence that she felt any such fascination for this family. Though the authors make much of the Matthaei images, they are for the most part unexceptional, casual pictures. The only photos that resonate with Arbus' formidable powers are a pair of striking formal portraits of Marcella Matthaei, one of which is on the book's cover. But in all, there's little here to add to Arbus' visual lexicon.

By contrast, Diane Arbus: Revelations seems determined, from its title onward, to fling open the Arbus vault. The estate goes so far as to publish the coroner's report issued after Arbus' suicide (she took barbiturates, climbed into her bathtub, and slit her wrists) as if to emphasize that this book gives total access to the artist. And while the book is packed with fascinating peeks into the inner Arbus--pages from her notebooks, excerpts from letters, contact sheets galore--it's difficult not to suspect the motives of the famously controlling Doon Arbus and wonder what hasn't been included. Still, there's so much here to thrill even the casual Arbus admirer that such musings seem beside the point.

Of particular interest is the selection of Arbus' early 35-mm work. The images are gorgeously impressionistic, blurry and grainy, and, at least on the surface, vastly different from her later, unrelenting large-format portraits. But looking over the vast range of exquisitely reproduced plates, it's possible to discern Arbus' visual and intellectual trajectory through her work. "Woman on the Street With Her Eyes Closed," for instance, seems to capture an older woman in a moment of public rapture. It's a remarkable image made using the street photographer's aesthetic popular at the time, yet the underlying subject--someone publicly experiencing an intense, normally private experience--presages her later portraits and her predilection for freaks and eccentrics. Arbus' keen ability to understand and articulate the "traumatic experience" of human existence is what brought power and eloquence to her photographs. Both of these books serve to remind us, in their own way, of the utter originality of her life and legacy.

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