In a world of Facebook, Twitter and online dating; we are all familiar with the ‘profile page.’ Through posting, pictures, and ‘liking’—we are forever creating an image of ourselves which we want people to see. We adopt a social mask that says to the world ‘Look at me! Aren’t I fabulous!’ This is not just a cyberspace thing: when going to a party (be cool); when in the work place (be professional); when at school (Poké-face,) etc.
Transvestite at her Birthday Party (1969)
Diane Arbus knew about social masks. Her photographs of social outcasts like freaks, transvestites, nudists, and the mentally handicapped were a nod in this direction. Having trawled through her photographs and words, I’m always amazed at how relevant she is to our own century—obsessed, as we are, with image and celebrity.
But it’s hard to hear Arbus amongst the chatter of the critics who gossip about the details of her life to the detriment of her photographs. Arbus had a dark and mysterious life: in a bitter battle with depression, she committed suicide in 1971 by getting into a bath and slitting her wrists. She was only 48. Patricia Bosworth’s biography starts and ends with Arbus’ suicide, locking her legacy into a tale of woe.
Arbus’ varied and passionate sex life has become the thing of myths: in the film Fur, she has an affair with a hairy ‘freak’ called Lionel Sweeney and in William Schultz’s recent psychoanalytical biography, he rumours that Arbus had sex with her brother.
The result of all this: Arbus is seen as a tragic photographer who took images of tragic people. Her photographs become manifestations of her madness. But this totally underestimates the power and lucidity of what she was seeking to do.
And when critics do speak about her work rather than her life, I’m always bewildered by the theoretical bollocks. She has been called an ‘id theorist,’ ‘a creatural realist,’ a ‘Kafkaesque surrealist,’ and a ‘resistor to a type of kinaesthetic ideology’—to name a few. There’s nothing worse than seeing some professor intellectually wank over Arbus’s work. It detracts from the power of her photographs.
So if we get back to basics, by LOOKING and LISTENING to what Arbus actually did and said—I think we get a clearer picture of what she intended to do.
Arbus knew that photography was exploitative. She admitted to sometimes being a ‘two-faced’ bitch. She would befriend her subjects, enter their homes, and then snap a picture which revealed their tragic truth.
Untitled 11 (taken between 1969 and 1971)
She wrote to her brother: ‘To have believed in both the guilt and innocence of photography.’ These dual emotions characterise her photographs. In Untitled 11 there is innocence in the play of the subjects but you feel guilty for staring. Arbus felt the same ambivalence when photographing—but it didn’t stop her. As Walker Evans said, she was a ‘huntress.’
In a recorded interview, Arbus talked about the role of ‘intention and effect’. She said that intention is what we want people to see, but the effect is what is actually seen. So I go to a party and although I want people to think I am cool, clever, maybe even a little edgy (the intention); in reality I often come-off a tad pretentious (the effect). According to Arbus, it is the ‘gap’ between intention and effect where reality—my true identity—lies. For Arbus, this was just ‘fantastic’: the unadulterated self.
Untitled 11 is an image of individuals who fall outside the process of intention and effect. The photograph was part of a series taken in American mental asylums between 1969 and 1971; which after her death were compiled in a photo-book called Untitled. The power of the subject lies in the fact that they don’t play the game of intention and effect. They are just true, unspoiled identities.
In the same interview that Arbus talked about intention and effect, she referred to our ‘flaw’. She said that because we are not content with the peculiarities we have been given, we create a whole new set in order for others to think of us in a certain way.
Arbus said that we all do this. So when Rene d’ Harnoncourt, the director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, asked Arbus to hang pictures of the stigmatized in a separate room for an exhibition—he received a blunt “no!”
People as remote in their lives as Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue (1968) and the male whore, Transvestite at her birthday party (1969), belonged together. Their desire to be something they were not united them.
In seeing the equality between a transvestite and an upper class woman, Arbus inevitably had a thing or two to say about the notion of the ‘other.’ She wrote in a letter,
‘…the world is a Noah’s ark on the sea of eternity containing all the endless pairs of things, irreconcilable and inseparable, and heat will always long for cold and the back for the front and smiles for tears and mutt for jeff and no for yes with the most unutterable nostalgia there is.’
She recognised that things could oppose and clash but this was necessary for the existence of both. It is the now familiar dependability point: normal needs abnormal, west needs east, male needs female etc; but with a poetic connection that links them.
Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue (1968)
It not surprising that Arbus was a big fan of the social psychologist Erving Goffman. He once wrote that ‘we construct a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain… inferiority.’ This is ‘imputed’ onto the outcast, making the ‘normal’ person implicit in the construction of the ‘abnormal.’ Arbus deduced a clear lesson, which she wrote in one of her notebooks: ‘if we are all freaks, the task is to become as much as possible the freak we are.’
In all this, Arbus had a special way of looking at the world. She once said in a lecture on Plato: ‘I see the divineness in ordinary things.’ Her work has a similar transcendental quality. She takes pictures of things we normally wouldn’t see and there’s a stillness and simplicity which makes them unique.
In a plan for the Guggenheim Foundation (1963), she had a project called American rites, manners, and customs. She said that she wanted to collect these ‘habits’ as they’re ‘our symptoms and our monuments’ rooted in time: ‘I want to simply save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.’ The ordinary becomes special in the eyes of Arbus. It has a spiritual, cultural and historical potential which can enliven the most banal.
A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y.C. (1970)
In her work—Arbus teaches. She reveals the process of intention and effect; our need to cover our flaws and in the process construct another equally flawed persona. In all this, we become equals. The freak, transvestite or whoever is labelled ‘other,’ becomes lodged within our own self. And in dryness Arbus sees vitality.
For us, living in a secular world dominated by social media and insistent on asserting a perfect individuality, we would be wise to see and listen. If we are to do this with Arbus pinned on our wall, we should take heed of her last bit of advice, which she once quipped to her psychiatrist: ‘human beings are obsessed with the question WHY… which attempts to remove or erase the subject of itself and the whole point…is in the experience of the way IT IS.’