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Over the years many extraordinary photographers have found New York’s dynamic street life, its monumental buildings, the variety and idiosyncratic character of its inhabitants, and its sometimes startlingly unconventional beauty as subjects worthy of turning into arresting photos. The photographers’ work has ranged from Edward Stieglitz’ and Edward Steichen’s evocative, soft-focus pictorialism, through Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s modernist vision of the city as a set of geometric forms, to the work of Helen Levitt and Bruce Davidson that captured the intricacy and spontaneity of the city’s street dramas. In my abbreviated list of New York photographers who have captured slivers of the city’s essence, I have left out, among others, major photographers like the great Walker Evans, Bernice Abbott, Andre Kertesz, Weegee, Lewis Hine, Aaron Siskind, James Van Der Zee, and Diane Arbus.
Arbus’ (1923-71) first museum retrospective in thirty years just finished at the Metropolitan Museum. It featured 180 of her most important photos (a number of the iconic ones like A Jewish Giant at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y.) and some that had never been publicly exhibited. The show also featured special darkened rooms that revealed Arbus’ methodology by displaying documentary material like her contact sheets, cameras, letters, notebooks, as well as books from her personal library. A book exquisitely reproducing 200 of her photos and including a great number of Arbus’ letters, Revelations (Random House), has also just been published. It accompanies the exhibit and carries an Afterword by Arbus’ daughter, Doon, who felt that anyone encountering the photographs should meet them in the “eloquence of their silence,” not try to translate them into words.
Doon’s antipathy to her mother’s work becoming fodder for the “onslaught of theory“ and academic “discourse,“ is something I sympathize with. But there are things that can be said about her mother’s work that won’t undermine its particularity, clarity, and power.
Arbus was a photographer who found most of her subjects in New York and its environs. Her portraits of couples, children, carnival performers, dwarfs, transvestites, and middle-aged nudists were shot in a static compositional style. And in the many photos where Arbus explored bizarre and marginal aspects of urban life, she clearly understood that the relationship between a photographer and subject was at once intimate and detached.
Arbus’ photographic style was devoid of virtuoso camera angles and stylized lighting but, at her best, she was able to subtly seduce her subjects to reveal parts of their interior life—capturing the elusive and hidden aspects of their being. In Arbus’ words, “it’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.“
What struck me most while ambling through the large crowd at the exhibit was that—how compelling and revelatory Arbus’ photos of “freaks” and deviant subcultures were (people she was drawn to and identified with because they were “born with trauma“). In her treatment of what society deems as the freakish (e.g., the tattooed man, the dominatrix, female impersonators) and the mentally retarded she displays a gift for unsentimental empathy and a refusal to patronize her subjects. Still, there are some photos where her subjects look like specimens on show, and one feels that her sensational material, at times, manipulates the viewer’s responses.
But in her photos of more normal life—a Christmas tree in a Levittown, L.I. living room, a woman sitting alone at a diner counter, an elderly couple sitting on a park bench— Arbus penetrated to the heart of her very prosaic subjects. The living room adorned for Christmas should emanate joy, but the room gives off a terribly sterile, desolate and unlived feeling. The solitary woman in the empty diner is seen in profile, wearing dark glasses and smoking. She looks disconsolate like some figure in Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks— but more psychologically defined. And the elderly couple are utterly disconnected from each other—the man abstracted, looking away, lost in his own thoughts—the woman looking downcast, as if she is close to tears. Each of these three photos by Arbus takes an everyday situation and grants it an open-ended complexity that prods the viewer to respond with speculative scenarios.
Also, while Arbus was no social documentarian or photojournalist, and had no social or political agenda, her photos implicitly convey some of the changes in New York’s ethos from 1956 to 1971 (the year she committed suicide). Her working class teenage couple, circa 1963, are formally dressed pocket- sized adults, looking as if adolescence has passed them by. Arbus’ city of the late 50s and early 60s was still dominated by white working class families. And in her photos of older middle class women they dress carefully and well—wearing fur coats, hats and strings of pearls. As the 60s progressed, Arbus’ photos show dress becoming more informal, social constraints beginning to break down, African-Americans with a greater presence—and other signs of the culture’s transformation.
Arbus was boldly committed to the truth of things as they are. In the main, she avoided exploiting her subjects; and she left as a legacy, photos that captured the uniqueness of the people she encountered and sought out.