Monday, April 9, 2012


The first Diane Arbus photograph that I saw was Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967. I saw it in a museum exhibit in Bremen, Germany and remember being absolutely transfixed by it. I found it creepy and perverse but also tender and somehow funny. I thought about these little girls for days. Who are they and what do they know that are not telling me?! For years I thought of Arbus' work in those same terms. "A photographs is a secret about a secret," she said. "The more it tells you, the less you know". I looked at her photographs of freaks and outcasts and saw photographs of regular people caught in freak-ish acts. She is just fast with her camera, I thought. Strange, sure, but tender, curious, sympathetic. I never quite cared to read about her. Her work spoke for itself.

Then this past weekend I read An Emergency in Slow Motion, William Todd Schultz's psychobiography of Diane Arbus, and here I am trying to figure out if I have been wrong about Arbus all along or, to the contrary, had it right from the very beginning. I swear, I can't tell which one it is and in my mind, that right there is a clear sign that I read a good book.

I was originally quite skeptical over the premise of the book. Schultz, writer and professor, is not interested in doing a straight-out biography of Arbus. And about that, I'm with him. Who cares about the minutiae, tell me why she made the work she did, right? Schultz sets out to explore Arbus' psychological life– "her goals, her dreams, her view of herself, her strategies, not all of them conscious, for dealing with difficult feelings, her modes of psychological defense, and most importantly the subjective origins of the pictures themselves, the art, the source of her fame." He relies most heavily on adult attachment theory to argue that throughout her life, Arbus needed intimacy and used all means necessary– including her workto get it. She needed to compensate for "early attachment figure unresponsiveness", i.e. her parents didn't care for her much. I doubted the integrity of this method mostly because I am aware that theories and psycho-social frameworks go in and out of style and that with more or less fudging you can make any life fit the story you are trying to tell. The choice of this particular theory is not sufficiently spelled out and that is my only real criticism of this book. Although, admittedly, this is a work meant for a general audience and my guess is that the theoretical considerations of other similarly well-accepted theoretical frameworks were omitted for practical reasons.

Schultz anticipates this criticism, I think, because in the introductory chapter of the book, he admits that once selected a theory begins to "shuffle, shape, and reorder the life". With that caveat in mind I decide to surrender and enjoy and end up utterly convinced that in a way, Arbus used her work to "revise history" by creating "a world of enforced closeness" that she did not have as a child but needed and therefore attempted to develop later on in her adult life.

"She was fascinated by twins, triplets, and look-alikes," Schultz writes, "by true and false self-expression, by self-plurality, by masks– in short, by identity and how we get it and make it and alter it, partly by counting on others to tell us who we are, partly by being something other than what we're supposed to be." Which pretty much sums up why I love Arbus and her work and partly makes me oddly disturbed by how much "me" I find in that description and the things that I try to sort through in my daily life but also on this blog. 

As an immigrant, I guess, I am almost subconsciously drawn to this type of work and re-imagining. I remember my first couple of years in the States feeling so terribly self-conscious and freakish, so much more VISIBLE to others than I had ever felt before and almost noticing becoming weirder and more eccentric just because in a way I already was. I clearly remember thinking, well, people are watching so I might as well deliver. Not that I ever got especially crazy or anything, but knowing that I was under observation, I definitely felt like I couldn't disappoint.

My most favorite parts of the book were exploration of Arbus' contact sheets and Schultz's thoughts on why she selected the particular photographs that she did print. On several occasions, he remarks that when you look at the contact sheets, you see that Arbus had taken numerous "normal" looking photographs of a subject but had selected to print the one odd one in the bunch. He says that about one of her most recognizable images Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City (1962)

The boy looks totally deranged, sick even. But when you look at the actual contact sheets, you can see that she got a whole bunch of photos of him being a totally happy, careless, playful child. 

Schultz quotes Colin Wood, the grown up grenade boy, who remembers: 

I have to say, Arbus felt a special empathy with that kid– with me. My childhood was not a comfortable one. My mother and father split up when I was very young. I had asthma. I was alone in many ways. I was a troubled boy. There's a sadness in her that she also saw in me, this need, which was very big in me at the time, to be accepted and appreciated and paid attention to. I was not directed [by Arbus to pose], but there was a collusion of some kind. There's almost this "is this what you want?" feeling on my face. Arbus sought out her own heart in people but she peeled away the wrong thing. As much as I find beauty and love and sympathy in what she did, I also think Arbus went down this pathway that brought her to an inconclusive place. What she ultimately found, I think, is nothing. When look at her art, I see a woman who was misled in many ways by herself.

This is why I really loved this book. I think that Schultz does an excellent job of demystifying and, in a way, unsanctifying Arbus' work by stipulating such a selfish, if not consciously so, motive in her work. "She saw what she wanted to see and snapped it; the result was autobiography, not biography." It's not that she didn't care for her unorthodox subjects. The book is fantastic because it shows that she did but for reasons quite different than had been previously suggested.  


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