Diane Arbus

© The Estate of Diane Arbus Courtesy of Masters of Photography

© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Courtesy of Masters of Photography

© The Estate of Diane Arbus Courtesy of Masters of Photography

© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Courtesy of Masters of Photography

In Elisabeth Sussman’s introductory essay on Lisette Model for Phaidon 55 p12 she quotes Model’s influence of Jiddu Krishnamuti’s doctrine of living in the moment: ‘I am a passionate lover of the snapshot, because of all photographic images it comes closest to truth …… the snapshooter(‘s) pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection, which is exactly their appeal and their style. The picture isn’t straight. It isn’t done well. It isn’t composed. It isn’t thought out. And out of this imbalance, out of this not knowing, and out of this real innocence towards the medium, comes an enormous vitality and expression of life.’ Sussman goes on to say that ‘Arbus and Model enjoyed the same critical relationship as she (Model) has shared with Schoenberg, in which teaching is understood in its broadest terms – as education in the philosophy of art and life’.

This notion of capturing the unplanned, unscheduled, unstructured and unmeant moments, underpins a great deal of Arbus’ photographs and perhaps came, at least in part from Model’s teachning.

I was intrigued listening to Arbus’ words, where she explained how she never felt threatened by whatever was in the frame when she looked into the ground glass viewfinder, and it struck me that this statement revealed a lot about her approach to photography, the difference between her and Model and, possibly, how she managed to capture those moments that she became synonymous with.

Diane Arbus never looked her subjects in the eye, nor did her subjects look her in the eye when the photograph was taken. Arbus was looking down, at the subject, through the prism of the viewfinder – decoupling the photographer from the subject, transfiguring the subject across the glass the wrong way round. This notion of separateness perhaps explains how she felt that she ‘looked for moments that were ‘in between’, that were ‘not what was meant to be shown’, between the posed and the un-posed. It could have been a trait of the technique that Arbus deliberately accentuated, like Parr, who claims that he holds the shutter release until a moment too long, thus revealing a question in the sitter. Again though Parr uses a camera that points the photographers face at the subject, a waist level finder introduces a dynamic whereby the photographer’s eye isn’t connected to the subject’s face. There is an inevitable unease or friction or some such emotional dislocation between the sitter and photographer when the photographer doesn’t ‘look’ at the subject. Most of Arbus’ subjects are Joe public, not professional models, these subjects aren’t used to be photographed in any case, they have been asked, cajoled, pleaded with perhaps to be included in her work be they freaks, children or plain ordinary folk sun bathing nude in a naturist park.

The course asks the question whether we agree with David Oppenheimer’s question is his very thin, essay of the life of Arbus: “Arbus, perhaps more than any photographer before and after, forces us to question the morality of photography. What is it that we’re doing when we take a picture, and what gives us the right?” The course notes go on to ask: “Do you (the student) agree with this statement? What is it about Arbus’ work that ‘forces us to question the morality of photography?’.

The answer to the first question is no-one gives us the right to take pictures, and I’m assuming that the pictures related to the question are those of ‘other’ people, and in Arbus’ case, those of ‘Freaks’. But then no one has said you can’t take pictures, especially in public places. This question is of course loaded with new politics post 9/11, but if that particular issue is set aside then, well it is still a difficult question due to paedophilia issues, but if that issue is also set aside…. The morality  question is probably targeted at producing images, such as Arbus was famous for, where the subject[s] are not at their best, those ‘in between’ moments where the subject is either relaxing, or changing face or about to, where the inference coming from the photograph is one that the subject would not recognize or certainly didn’t mean. Or those photographs where Arbus has captured ‘freaks’, people with a physical difference to the norm’ of society. Those people who were born with their trauma, the sort of trauma that most people simply dread – facial disfigurements, dwarfism, giantism. Arbus said she adored these freaks, they were aristocrats. These freaks that set Arbus apart, were only a part of her output, her morality in providing these people and others presence in the frame wasn’t, in my opinion, questionable, what is perhaps questionable is Oppenheimers thin essay, where that notion of her morality is questioned, much like the oft used phrase ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’, but not addressed. I can neither agree nor disagree with Oppenheimer’s question; what I can say is that Arbus’ work demystifies and represents people, all people, freaks included, in moments of time so small as to not be representative and that we must decide whether they are is the question that is lacking in moral substance. Stieglitzs’ ultimately failed and flawed attempt to capture a portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, with hundreds of studies would perhaps be a better subject to ask that question of, having at least the benefit of volume and the passage of time. And to that body of work, where both artist and sitter were complicit in the process, the answer would only perhaps be, maybe. Arbus wasn’t morally suspect I think, listening to her words I feel that her subjects were aware that Arbus was providing oxygen to their declarations of life. I was recently talking to a lady who, whilst younger than me, felt that her age had made her invisible; Arbus countered this process, though fixed in time. People, especially people who have had traumas, feel invisible, or at least marginalised, and Arbus provided them a way to inject a life into their lives. Provided them with a frame that allowed acclimatisation of their presence into society. For all those other subjects, the appearance of being a snapshot was almost certainly a technical device designed to provide her subjects an unlooked for opportunity to portray a part of themselves that either they didn’t expect to show or didn’t even know was there. Self relevance perhaps?

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DeeAnne

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Lisette Model Foundation

Another photographer, another journey, another realisation that what goes around comes around.

The course suggests some research into Diane Arbus, pronounced DeeAnne, there are some youtube videos to watch – done once and will again. Interestingly, for me at least is the realisation that one of her teachers was Lisette Model, one of whose photo books I have which takes me to one of her tutors Arnold Schoenberg with whom she had trained as a concert pianist whilst she lived in Vienna. It was Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” that I had and still want to interpret as photographic piece using the translation of Dehmel’s poem that I commissioned last year. I need a pregnant woman though.

I was also reminded of an essay that Bill Jay wrote about Arbus below.

Model’s work can be seen as a major influence on Arbus, and whilst I intend to do some more work on Arbus it is worth looking at a couple of Model’s images.

Diane Arbus

a personal snapshot ________________________________________________________________

Bill Jay

When a photographer’s name crops up in print or in a conversation, I do not think of biographical facts, the stuff of data sheets. Instead, if I have met the photographer in person, a specific and personal event of the past, linked to that photographer, slips through my consciousness, tinting my response with a feeling for the memory. These mental “snapshots” may not be the truth about a photographer but they are my truth.

I have just finished reading a biography of Diane Arbus, full of dates, facts, exhibition lists, publications and so on. All very useful – but lifeless. The author might as well have been listing the features of a camera as of a human being. My own mental “snapshot” of Diane Arbus may not be as factual but, for me, it is more truthful.

In 1968 I wrote from London to her address in New York saying that I planned to visit the city and would like to meet her. She mailed back a curt and succinct three-line scribbled note which said: I don’t want to see anyone, but if you insist come on…. And then she added the date and time.

On that morning in September I walked to her apartment building and climbed the stairs. The day was just beginning but already I felt like a wrung-out dishrag from the sweltering New York humidity. I rang the bell and a voice shouted “go away,” which was disconcerting. So I rang again. Same shout. I rang a third time and the door opened to the limit of the security chain and a mouth told me to beat it. Hastily, I said who I was and that we had an appointment. The voice was silent for seconds and then said: all right, you can come in, but only if you do not talk about photography! Now I was the reluctant one, but agreed. The door closed and a lot of scuffling took place. Then I was admitted, and the iron bar reattached to the steel-plated door and braced on the floor, the locks turned and the chain attached. This was New York.

The apartment was surprisingly airy and spartan, with whitewashed walls and very few pieces of furniture in large open spaces. Diane Arbus was small andslim but looked very energetic. I guessed she could be extremely explosive and hot-tempered. She had short dark hair and didn’t smile, or observe the usual pleasantries. As she led the way into the kitchen, containing a long wooden table, and benches, I noticed she was wearing a black roll-neck sweater and leather miniskirt. It was quite sexy and she looked a lot younger than her age, which was 45. Although I did not make the analogy at the time, she reminded me in retrospect of a small cuddly animal which had a ferocious bite. She was dangerous.

Diane Arbus noticed my bedraggled look and asked if I would like a jelly. The idea of a cold fruit dessert on such a day was appealing. While she mixed up the contents in a dish, she constantly needled me with remarks like: photographers are so boring I can’t imagine why you would want to see them, or, all magazines tell lies and yours is no exception. The jelly prepared, she placed it in front of me on the table and straddled the bench so that her skirt rode up her thighs, revealing a clear view of her panties. She either did not know, or care, and looked at me belligerently. I took a mouthful of the jelly, and thought I would vomit. It was the most foul-tasting stuff I had ever encountered, like a mixture of dishwashing liquid and gravy. Arbus’ eyes were on me. By this time I had had enough, both literally and figuratively. I spat out the mouthful and said: that’s the most disgusting stuff and if I have any more I will spew all over your table. I was angry.

Then Arbus astonished me. She suddenly burst out laughing. And at the end of her outburst, said: O.K. Now we can talk about photography.

To this day, I have no idea whether I passed some sort of bizarre test (of what?) or whether she actually enjoyed the “jelly” concoction, and expected me to eat it. Whatever changed her mind about discussing photography in general, and her own work in particular, also radically changed her personality. For the next few hours she was full of charm, warmth and good humor. And she was articulate, if not voluble, about answering all my questions with disarming frankness. She was delightful. Her bedroom walls were plastered with prints that she was “living with” before deciding if they had merit. I remember she was agonizing at that time over the image of the child playing on a lawn while a couple are spread out on lounge chairs in the background. Eventually she must have decided that it “works” because since then the image has been frequently published.

Subsequently when I called on other well-known photographers during the same trip I found out that Diane Arbus had called ahead to smooth my way. At the

Museum of Modern Art, she was waiting for me in person and was anxious to show me “the best things in the whole collection.” From a brown parcel in the back of a cupboard she drew out a stack of prints depicting vaginas with teeth and other equally grotesque and fantastic imagery. “These are from the Kronhausen collection of erotic art,” she said, “but they have not been accessioned in case the trustees would object.” “Aren’t they fantastic,” she kept saying, “They’re really great,” “the best photographs in the place,” and so on. So that is my mental snapshot collection of Diane Arbus. I remember a sensual volatile woman with extremes of mood, but most of all I remember an enigmatic photographer who was already a legend, but who took the time to encourage and assist a young photo-magazine editor.

A few weeks later, back in London, I received a large envelope from New York. Inside was a 16 x 20 inch print of one of her “doubtful” photographs which I had urged her to “accept.” Her gift asked me to accept it too.

I never saw her again. Diane Arbus committed suicide in 1971.

I have no record of this piece having been published but it must have appeared somewhere because Patricia Bosworth used the anecdote in her biography of Diane Arbus. I have since heard that the incident of the jelly was indeed a “test.”