Gross noted that Arbus owned several psychology texts about mental illness, and she was particularly fond of psychiatrist R. D. Laing, who was critical of its surrounding stigma. Laing, Arbus wrote, “seems so extraordinary in his empathy for madness that it suddenly seemed he would be the most terrific guide.” He also emphasized that her work was a departure from past photography series taken of the institutionalized, which often provoked greater stigma by focusing on the deviance of the subject’s facial features and expressions.
But Arbus’s images in “Untitled” are, at first glance, unsettling. Why did she choose to train her lens repeatedly on people who were so vulnerable? There’s baggage to the work, knowing that she often proclaimed her love for photographing “freaks”—a caustic word to use today, though Arbus seemed to do so with affection. Critic Susan Sontag famously railed against Arbus’s practice in her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, saying her work was “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other.”
“Othering” is a term we are especially cautious about today. Arbus did come from privilege—she was the middle child in a well-to-do Manhattan family that earned its wealth from her grandfather’s luxury department store. “One of the things I felt I suffered from as a kid was I never felt adversity,” Arbus herself once said. She sought out people with unusual stories, and titled them as such: Mexican Dwarf in his Hotel Room, N.Y.C 1970, and A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents, in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970. Even in her portraits of people who were not marginalized, such as her widely known picture of twin girls, Identical twins, Roselle, N.J. (1966), she emphasized their strangeness.
So was Arbus’s work the case of a privileged photographer who was othering her subjects? Six years after Arbus died by suicide, it’s possible Sontag did not have the full picture of the photographer’s intent. This was largely because Doon Arbus was meticulous with her mother’s estate after Arbus died; she was exceedingly careful about where the images appeared and what was written about the photographer. (Unsurprising, considering that even in 2011
, critic Sean O’Hagan reduced Arbus’s vigorous personality to a woman who was “troubled,” with a “fragile state of mind,” her whole life eclipsed by her suicide in the very first sentence.)
It wasn’t until a 2003 retrospective of Arbus’s work that many of her images, letters, and journal entries were made public. They clarified that she was empathetic, not voyeuristic, a word that continues to trail her legacy. In 2005, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl argued that “imputations of ‘voyeurism’ are absurd; voyeurs must feel safe, and Arbus’s pictures are like the gaping barrels of loaded guns.”