Published: Jan 01, 2005
We reeled out of the Diana Arbus show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art into the blissful order of the Renaissance art rooms.
You would have too. Because, among other photographs, we saw these:
— Siamese twins (in a jar) in a carnival tent
— a "human pincushion"
— Santa Claus students at "Santa school"
— a tattooed lady
— a boy holding a toy grenade
— the 1938 debutante of the year…photographed in 1966
— James Brown in curlers
— the "king" and "queen" at a senior citizens dance
— a seated man in bra and stockings
— a Jewish giant
— a Mexican dwarf
— a living room in Levittown, Long Island, at Christmas
— a blind couple in their bedroom
In the Renaissance room, I spotted a museum guard who used to be one of my students at NYU.
"Ever have to work in the Arbus show?" I asked.
"For a week."
"How was it?"
"The first day was tough," he said. "I went home and just sat and looked at the wall. But as I spent more time with the pictures, I saw what she was getting at. I got that these people were beautiful. That Arbus loved them. That she in no way exploited them. These pictures celebrate the freak in all of us. When I was on the street, I found I was willing to look at stuff I’d ordinarily turn away from. In the end, I was sorry when I was rotated back to Renaissance art."
I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a few weeks now. I’ve re-read Patricia Bosworth’s brilliant biography. And I’ve decided that although I can’t decide if these are breakthrough photographs that power-wedge our hearts open or just the sad obsession of a doomed woman, that question is, in itself, important — and worth sharing with you.
Here’s what I know: Diane Nemerov was a New York City rich girl who had a dominant father and a self-involved mother and a brother (Howard) who would become one of the better-known poets of his generation. She lived in a fantasy world. An unusual one — her fantasies were other people’s idea of grim realities. Example: On subways, as a schoolgirl, she would watch men expose themselves.
As a sophomore in high school, she fell in love with Allan Arbus, a 19-year-old who worked for her father’s store. When she graduated, she married him. No college for her. Suddenly she was a woman — and her husband’s partner in fashion photography. Already, she was an eccentric. She used no deodorant. In lieu of a purse, she carried wrinkled brown paper bags. She had a child and devoted herself to motherhood — and then she began an affair with her best male friend.
And she was compelling. Bosworth writes: "At thirty-five she still looked like a little girl in her shirtwaist dress and ballet slippers." At the same time, she announced, "I want to photograph what is evil." (Her daughter says what she meant was "forbidden.")
Yes, but what led her to photograph the weird? More, to identify with the weird. Why was her privileged background so unimportant? Why did the modest reputation she’d gained from collaborating with her husband of no consequence? She was in her late 30s, and she felt isolated from the world, and she suffered from low self-esteem — many women know how that feels.
What we don’t know is why taking these pictures required such a total commitment. There are writers and painters and photographers who do great work — and go home at night to peaceful lives. Diane Arbus seemed to lack that dividing line. She sought adventure. And when she found it, adventure became a drug. She always needed more: another subject, more extreme sex, whatever. She said she was looking for "authenticity" — but why, you may ask, must that be equated with ugliness and pain?
Ah, but that was the point the museum guard was trying to make. Arbus pushed us to suspend our judgments. Who are we to say those retarded women are unhappy? That the transvestite suffers more than we do? These are jolting questions — questions that might, if we were willing to consider them, bring us to the kind of understanding that Arbus seemed to grasp instinctively.
At the end, she felt her work had taken her to a place that she couldn’t get to any more — the magic was gone. She had no steady lover. Depression was the air she breathed. And so she slit her wrists and took pills. She was 48.
A contemporary question: What if she had Prozac or any of the drugs people take in such abundance now? Would that have made a difference? Would she have gained smoothed-out moods at the expense of her work?
We can’t know. And so we turn away from the life, back to the photographs. I started in shock, I ended with questions. I’ll have to go back to the Met and confront those images — and myself — again. And that is the magic of Diane Arbus: I’m looking forward to that confrontation.