Reflecting on Revelations
by Simon James
Diane Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 into a wealthy New York family whose business was a Fifth Avenue clothing store. She attended the then progressive secondary school of Forest Hills; and her first contact with the arts, as might be expected for someone of her background, was painting.
Described as having not inconsiderable talent for the medium but little regard for it, she married Allan Arbus in 1941. From that period on, photography seems to have been much more important to her, although it was only on her separation from her husband, 18 years later, that her real talent seems to have blossomed. Allan gave her a medium format Graflex camera, and she began taking classes with Bernice Abbott, primarily covering the technical aspects of the medium. An irony sneaks to the surface here in the fact that so many of the great photographers taught technique in order to put bread on the table and pay the rent. In the post-war New York of 1946, Diane, who is said to have had no interest in fashion, and Allan Arbus set up a fashion photography studio, working on titles such as Vogue, Glamour, and Seventeen. In addition to their commercial practice, both continued on more personal work. Those who have studied photography in a formal course will be familiar with the imagery of Diane Arbus and the un-traditional manner in which she used square format, direct flash photography, in what at the time was described as photojournalism. Equally, they are probably aware that she took her own life in 1971 and since that time has come to be regarded as one of America's truly ground breaking photographic artists. I was, therefore, unsurprised at first glance by this publication. Produced to accompany a major traveling retrospective exhibition of her work; the SFMOMA (2003) the MFA, Houston (2004), and London's Victoria & Albert Museum (2005), it has exactly the expensive sort of design and high production values you would expect. First glance, however, made me seriously question whether that was all that was on offer for what the publisher's release describes as "a milestone book for which we have been waiting years." Diane Arbus genuinely was a very major contributor to both photojournalism and the art of photography; and we have indeed been waiting a very long time for the sort of publication that really gets under the skin of her work. And yet it's always a subject for concern when the family or estate of an artist under the microscope is closely connected with the production of a book or exhibition: veils are often drawn across very relevant material that such people feel unable to release into the public domain. Doon Arbus, however, perhaps a bit like her mother, seems unconcerned with pulling punches. When you peer beneath the skin of this book, it really does begin to deliver on the subject of the artist and the issues that drove her. On a personal note, I would like to have seen many more contact sheet reproductions; those that do appear tell us much about her shooting strategies. But I would not have wished to sacrifice much of the content in order to fit in the many more unpublished photographs, of which there must be thousands. Looking now at this selection of her pictures, made around 40 years ago, it's interesting to note the relevance they retain for contemporary issues. The young man shown here, waiting to march in a pro-war parade, was of course supporting a war long passed; but the sentiment and controversy of the shot seems far from out of place in 2003.
Diane Arbus was a troubled, gifted, ground-breaking, eventually tragic photographer whose work has very much stood the test of time. Revelations: Diane Arbus makes a real contribution to our understanding of her work and the influence it has had upon a number of photographers practicing today.
Simon james is a photographer and journalist based in London. He is contributing editor to the Royal Photographic Society journal, and his most recent book of photographs is Mind the Cap: an unauthorized geography of London’s famous underground railway system.