Revisiting Diane Arbus’s Final and Most Controversial Series
Early in her photography career,
The photographer’s unflinching gaze has been both celebrated and criticized since she rose to prominence in the 1960s, and after her death in 1971. Much of that attention is due to the subjects she was most drawn to: sideshow performers, nudists, dwarfs, transgender sex workers—people living on the fringes of society, but who also possessed a strong sense of identity. It’s well-known that Arbus would visit the homes of many of her subjects, who would invite her into their lives; she was able to connect with the people she met in a truly unique way.
Her gaze is most potent in her last body of work, “Untitled” (1969–71), both her most comprehensive and most incomplete series, made at residences for people with developmental disabilities. Much of the work was kept private until it was published in a 1995 monograph put together by her daughter, Doon; 66 images from the series—some never exhibited before—are on view now at David Zwirner in New York.
Arbus was invigorated by the residents, writing to her husband, Allan, in 1969: “It’s the first time I’ve encountered a subject where the multiplicity is the thing.…I am not just looking for the best picture of them. I want to do lots.” She would return to the residences for picnics, dances, and Halloween; in many of the images, her subjects are masked.
But the way that people with developmental disabilities were seen by society in the 1960s differs markedly from today. Genetic disorders such as Down syndrome were treated as if they were mental illnesses, and, during the post-war economic boom, there was a sharp increase in the number of mentally ill and disabled children who were institutionalized because they were seen as a burden.
Arbus, therefore, didn’t make any distinction in her series, as art history professor Frederick Gross pointed out in the book Diane Arbus’s 1960s: Auguries of Experience. Even decades later, the reviews following the monograph’s release are jarring to read now. In 1995, a New Yorker critique of the monograph called it “a collection of portraits of the mentally retarded,” and opened with the writer’s personal anecdote about a nephew afflicted with schizophrenia; later, the writer crudely described the resident’s “physiognomies.” (Physiognomy is an outdated pseudoscience that determined personality traits based on facial features, often with racist or sexist undertones.)
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.”
Though there is always a power hierarchy between photographer and subject—a photographer is seeking honesty and vulnerability when the camera is raised—there is a difference between a photographer who takes the shot and leaves, and one who stays. Arbus was one to stay, giving her time and respect, and building a rapport with the people she photographed. She met Eddie Carmel, the Jewish giant, a decade before she snapped the now-famous image of him and his parents; she was invited to celebrate the birthday of a prostitute whom she photographed in bed, in front of a cake. And, late in her life, she returned to the residences of “Untitled” again and again, taking portraits that suggested friendship and closeness between her and her subjects.
Looking particularly at the formal aspects of the images of “Untitled,” there was no pity in Arbus’s lens. She captured each portrait with the same head-on view. A lens placed low can signify heroism; placed high, it can render the subject as lesser. Arbus was on equal footing with everyone she photographed in the series. More broadly, by capturing all of her subjects in the same Rolleiflex square format—both those who lived outside of the margins, along with those who lives neatly inside—she effaced the line between them. “By photographing both ‘freaks’ and ‘normals’ in the same format, Arbus sought to eliminate the invisible boundary between traditional representations of the white, middle-class Protestant and the ‘other,’ and to depict the fragmentation of identity,” Gross explained.
Indeed, the ideas of critics like Sontag were undercut by their own revulsion to the people with whom Arbus best connected. “Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence,” Sontag wrote. “In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty,” she insisted. “You get dwarfs.” She loathed how Arbus’s subjects appeared in her photos, comfortable being themselves. “Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don’t.”
Though it was written decades later, O’Hagan’s 2011 critique is also questionable: “Her images hold us in their sway even when our better instincts tell us to look away.” Why should we look away from people who are different? Arbus never did, because she admired their tenacity. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma,” she once wrote. “They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
Arbus’s images may not be as shocking as they were in the 1960s, but they still have an enormous power to them. We may not be able to completely place ourselves in her pictures—as she noted, “it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s”—but she does help us get a little closer.
Today, hopefully, we are a little more inclusive regarding what “normal” means. What is normal, anyway? Arbus asked that question through each of her photographs. A quote from Laing rings as true today as it did when he wrote it in 1960, in his book The Divided Self: “In the context of our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal.”
Jacqui Palumbo is Artsy’s Visual Culture Editor.