August 1, 2011

Diane Arbus: The Problem of Biography

A Portrait of Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, 1969

It is perhaps a not very surprising irony that Diane Arbus should have come to occupy a position similar to those characters that populate her work, allowing for some discrete titillation under the guise of high art – she was a slumming Jewish princess from a rich family who took pictures of “freaks” and then killed herself. You can even read the autopsy report, one of several lapses into ghoulish hagiography for the otherwise excellent survey of her work, Revelations, published in 2003. Adding to the indignity is a breathlessly tabloid account of her life from Patricia Bosworth, followed by an execrable film “inspired” by Arbus , featuring a performance from Nicole Kidman so elegantly disaffected that it borders on the catatonic and which is also rife with factual inaccuracies.

It seems that we are far happier to let Arbus live on in the popular imagination as a tortured, (irredeemably female) genius than we are to seriously examine the deeper challenge of her work, a situation provoked in no small part by the famously intransigent keepers of her estate, whose defensive attitudes have discouraged many. Their strategies are understandable, given the sensationalism that has come to surround her life, but it remains to be seen if they are really effective, as the more conspicuous exceptions so far have been those biographers determined to tell all, with little or no reference to her major achievement in photography, other than the suitably grotesque encounters with the demimonde it provided.

If we discount an obvious temptation to conflate the sad facts of her life with the kind of pictures she made, the next critical trap is to think of Arbus as just a predatory voyeur, manipulating her vulnerable subjects into revealing the most blatantly damaged part of themselves, especially when those parts are there for all to see, or in fact, to heroically ignore. However, it seems to me that the unique strength of her work is in having the courage to be so nakedly voyeuristic, to stare and to be complicit in her staring with all those people that we are told never to stare at, so as not to make “them” uncomfortable and while Arbus herself might have been predatory (in the way that photographers often are) looking at these pictures we become the prey. It is that moment of awful fission when the stare is returned and we are reminded again of the positions we so carelessly inhabit, the way we can bring the “other” into being just by the tacit assumption of our privilege.

Any reading of her work must inevitably focus on the perceived otherness of those she photographed and this fact is then cited as the clear proof that she exploited her helpless subjects. It is there in the perverse authority of how she makes visible their strangeness, their difference, or somehow projects it onto everyone who appeared before her camera, regardless of who they are or what they look like. But paradoxically it is our willingness to regard these people as other and our denial of agency to them that is truly exploitative. Arbus seems to have regarded them as equals precisely by acknowledging their difference and photographing them anyway, by treating them as individuals worthy of attention. Their otherness rests with us, the conviction – in keeping with the dominant values of our culture – that it is only proper for certain people to be seen at all. If her pictures were of those we deem socially acceptable then there would be no question of whether or not the photographs are “exploitative” in nature. It is only when those boundaries are challenged that such questions arise. In a strange, but none the less pronounced way these are portraits that reveal more about the audience – and the very act of looking itself – as they do about the people in them.

Having just (briefly) examined the perils of biography then, it would clearly be unwise to speculate now on the kind of intention that drove Arbus to make this work, but I think there can be no doubting her deep study into the complexities of photographic portraiture as an act, the extent to which it is tied up with social hierarchies and how the sort of roles we inhabit in turn define those relationships. The transgression that Arbus perpetrates is of a more fundamental sort than a well-brought-up young woman in that time and place keeping outrageously bad company, because although it has proved irresistible to biographers and critics alike (most of whom should know better) even that is not what we would like to think.

The photographic encounter she has with the dwarf or the transvestite seems (and is) on a par with that of the respectable ladies, their hats just so, or the genial pro-war demonstrator. All are seen to have a frighteningly equal vulnerability; her embrace of difference is without boundary, suggesting that we all pretend, that we all play the role we’re given, but actually live inside of them, as something, or someone else – something impossible to ever really see. She addresses herself then precisely to the gap between those two roles. Her “freaks” don’t have a choice in the matter; their difference is an accident of birth and can’t be hidden. It seems the polite thing would be not to stare, or even look, but for Arbus it is necessary to acknowledge the shared otherness of just being human and in her photography no less a thing is at stake.

In the forty years since her suicide it is somewhat tragic that Diane Arbus has been accorded little of the profound empathy that she herself was so capable of – it is, no doubt, a familiar reluctance to let the truth get in the way of a good story, and her life was in that sense almost archetypal. She is the innocent abroad, whose destructive level of identification with others shattered an already fragile sense of self. Given that she was so obviously troubled it seems a fair conclusion that her state of mind influenced in some way the photography she made. Her courageous attempt to penetrate the turbulent surfaces of identity is not as easy to account for though and so is not likely to be found in any biography, no matter how scrupulous. The mistake is in thinking that we can ever really know someone, even when they are completely seen, or perhaps especially then.