Untitled by Diane Arbus, New York, Aperture 1995
By Elsa Dorfman
Originally published in The Women’s Review of Books, January 1996
Best known for her portraits of people who live on the margins of society – giants, midgets, freaks, transvestites, nudists – Diane Arbus is an undisputed master of photography. Her work is in every major collection in the world and her first monograph, published in 1972, has been a best seller for 23 years. Her reputation was established during her lifetime; since her death, her daughter Doon has done an exemplary, if controversial, job as executor of her mother’s estate. She nurtures and cultivates her mother’s reputation and rigidly controls exhibitions and the publication of images in magazines and books. (She will only give approval for the reproduction of an Arbus image after she has read the preceding and following accompanying text. The hard time she gives serious researchers is legendary.)
Untitled, edited by Doon Arbus and Yolanta Cuomo, is the third volume of her photographs published since Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971 at the age of 48. It could as easily have been called “The Unnamed” because the subjects are nameless, or “At an Unknown Place,” since the locale(s) are not identified. Probably most appropriately it could have been called “An Unfinished Work.” In any case, it is an essential collection.
These 51 black-and-white pictures, almost all of women and girls, are part of a series Arbus was working on at her death. They were taken in at least two unidentified institutions for the mentally retarded. Only a few of these images appeared in the first Arbus monograph; the rest have been held unpublished by the Estate since 1971.
In her Afterword, Doon Arbus does not explain why the Estate waited so long to publish these images. Was it manipulation of the Arbus canon? Was it for fear of lawsuits from families of the residents? Fear of a lawsuit from the institutions? Maybe 24 years ago these images would have caused a scandal. Perhaps the mentally retarded would have seemed like just another exotic group that Diane Arbus got to pose for her. (Her seductiveness once she found someone she wanted to pose for her was irresistible.) Nor does Doon indicate which images her mother had made work prints of and which images Doon herself selected from contact prints. (The photography critic A.D. Coleman has written in the New York Observer and on his home page on the World Wide Web, criticizing Doon Arbus for violating the privacy of the women and girls and for releasing work Arbus never selected herself. I don’t agree with him.)
Knowing/deciding/selecting whom to photography is part of the genius of the portrait photographer. Diane Arbus always had an uncanny ability to sense whom she could connect with to make a great portrait. In this case, her decision to try to photograph women and children with Downs’ Syndrome and other impairments on their home ground was inspired. Much of the power of these images comes from who these women are, from the details of their condition, and from the place where they live together and isolated. We can stare at these portraits in a way that we couldn’t stare at these women and girls if we met them on the street. We can be fearful and curious and safe all at once. They are Other.
We can even look at these pictures with a certain horrible nostalgia. Those were the days when people who were Other were confined, away, not living homeless on our streets. We have seen much worse than these sympathetic images of clean, responsive people with mental impairment in the last twenty years.
Part of the power of these mostly perfect portraits comes from the absolutely square camera format Arbus used. The square has just enough unfamiliarity to hold our attention and make us look hard. It compresses the space and is unlike the computer monitor or the movie screen. The subject is usually in the middle of the frame and the background cannot predominate the way it can in a horizontal image. Also, in using this kind of camera, Arbus could maintain eye contact with her subjects: she would look down to frame the image, her camera resting on her chest, and look back at her subject. The camera wouldn’t be covering half her face as 35mm cameras do.
The images are very simple. Most of the women and girls are standing outside in what seems to be a playing field. Sometimes it is obviously warm out. Sometimes it is the late fall. In half the images it is probably Halloween. Almost all of the women are photographed full figure, which means Arbus probably stood four feet from her subjects. Maybe she didn’t come closer because she sensed they wouldn’t like her to do that. Maybe she felt she would be intrusive. Probably she felt that their bodies were an important part of their story.
No one seems embarrassed by her stocky body and thick legs. No one seems embarrassed by her worn coat, her long, ill-fitting skirt or sweater over sweater. Most of the women and girls seem cooperative and docile. They don’t seem to be afraid of Arbus. They stand in front of her camera and play or relax. They’re not afraid to display their piercing eyes or frozen expression. They look like they appreciate the interest of the photographer. Many of them pose with friends; there is a sense of intimacy among friends in the pictures. In some of the images, an older woman is protectively holding a younger girl’s hand. Almost everyone wears white socks and black shoes. Almost everyone has bad teeth. Several ladies carry pocketbooks. Many wear hats of all descriptions. One woman wears a chain of white beads.
There’s not much to look at in the field. At most, there are out-of-focus wood frame houses in the distance, or a set of swings and a slide. Arbus uses this background to great advantage. It makes all her sitters equal and acts like background paper or a bare stage. There is nothing to distract us or the subject. There are no clues in the background.
During most of her career Arbus used a flash when she took someone’s portrait. The result was clarity and a lot of contrast between subject and background. The subject, be it a nude family, a dwarf, a man with a million tattoos, popped out of the frame. The uninitiated viewer wasn’t aware that the photographer used a flash. It was part of the “Arbus look.” However, almost all the portraits in this book are taken outdoors and for the most part without a flash – maybe because it would upset her subjects? The effect is a certain flatness and lack of contrast that makes her subjects seem very real, not like specimens.
At least 26 of the portraits were taken on Halloween or around Halloween. In some images the masks seem so much part of the person that it’s possible the people wore masks before and after October 31. Even the ordinary half-masks that cover the eyes and the nose meld into the women’s faces. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the mask ends and the real face begins. In one image, it’s hard to tell whether the woman is wearing a mask or if it’s her real face. Another woman wears her mask upside-down and it hardly appears to matter. It seems natural. There is a sense that wearing a mask is important to these people who because of their impairment look different from many of us. Are they wearing the masks to hide from us? Are they wearing them to pretend they are like us? Are they wearing them to frighten us? Or is it simply that it is Halloween and they want to have fun? There is a certain incongruity when a person with Downs’ Syndrome wears a mask that hides her friendly features. Masked people walking in a line to where? – the cafeteria? a country lane? a dance? to see the moon? make for unforgettable images.
An unnecessary awkwardness is that neither the pictures nor the pages are numbered. There is no way to refer to these images, except “the Downs’ Syndrome friends with hats” or whatever. I think this presentation, designed I suppose for a Great Book, disregards the reader and plays games with the subjects. It does the opposite of what the designers probably intended.
And Doon Arbus’ Afterword is a big disappointment. It reads as if it’s saying something profound, but looked at closely, there isn’t anything there. Doon Arbus wants her mother’s work to be uncluttered by any photo-historical explanations, but it would have been wonderful to get real information about this work. Since it is almost ten years since the last Arbus publication, Magazine Work, it would also have been very useful to have a bibliography. We want to know the dates of the images, which image led to which other. We want to know if Arbus worked just on this project or if it was concurrent with other work that we know. We want to know which images she selected from her contact prints and which ones Doon and her coeditor chose. We want to know if these 51 images represent most of the institution series. Is there another cache that will appear in ten years?
It would also be helpful to know how Arbus got permission to photography in these institutions and to know what the visits meant to her. Did they depress her? Was there a connection between their ailments and her depression, at least in her mind? (Many people confuse mental impairment and mental depression. Arbus’ subjects were mentally impaired; Arbus was mentally depressed.) Or did they exhilarate her? Did she feel she was just beginning this project, or did she think it was almost over? Was she limited to photographing outdoors? Were the institution staff cooperative?
Arbus’ subjects are nameless. Their home is nameless. Was this a legal decision dictated by the Estate’s lawyers? An aesthetic decision made by Doon? I think the namelessness emphasizes the invisibility of people with mental retardation. They are abandoned by their families, so they don’t have their family names. They could have any name, their names don’t matter and where they are doesn’t matter. They exist only in the photographs.
ASX CHANNEL: Diane Arbus
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