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Diane Arbus at the Modern: Something Cruel in the Total Effect

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
December 7, 1972, Vol. XVII, No. 49

I spy with my little eye
by Alexander Cockburn

He’s probably dead now, but some years ago in London there used to be an escape artist who had a pitch on one of the busier streets. If you came by when his act was under way all that could be seen was a porpoise-like form, festooned with chains and padlocks. When there seemed to be enough paying customers around the assistant used to shout that a miraculous escape would be effected within five minutes. Then the sack would heave, the chains mysteriously fall away, and in a moment the flushed figure would be before you, asking for a contribution. People used to watch this act with a certain silent, gloomy relish. Many evidently hoped that one day some lock would be too much for him, that he would be doomed for ever to lie on a cold London pavement. When it appeared that once again he had triumphed over his bonds, the crowd would trickle off, before he became active enough to ask them for half a crown.

There seemed, the days I went, to be something of the same spirit in the thickets of people looking at Diane Arbus’s photographs on show at the Museum of Modern Art (open till January 21).

Many paused briefly but intently before each picture as though they were interrupting by their inspection some destiny not evidently comprehensible, and moved on again, slightly thankful that the images could not step from behind the glass to ask them for money, bore them with the story of their lives, get them involved in some dreadful way. Many of Arbus’s subjects seem content to accept this impossibility of contact, as though they were briefly complicit in this title trick of looking into the camera, and then got on with the business of being a Senior Citizen, a Jewish giant in Brooklyn, or a freak in a circus. Each to his own, each to her different path.

I wonder if any of the subjects have got to the show, to see their images; now no longer a little trick of sitting just so, and looking just so; a private recording deal fixed up between them and the photographer; but part of the cast in a big and very successful exhibition. It is indeed one of the most successful the museum has ever put on. Seventy thousand people went in the first 20 days: 7000 on a single Sunday. Would any of those subjects feel just a little humiliated, as though there were some aspects of the trick that had not been quite explained to them? Who wants to be a freak at the Museum of Modern Art?

It should be said at once that certifiable freaks are not even in the majority at the exhibition. A large number of Sunday people are on show, sedately looking into the camera, and as sedately observed. But freakishness is what people seem to remember: the dwarf in Mexico City gazing with a kind of quizzical melancholy; the Jewish giant crouched under the ceiling, peering at his parents good humoredly, while they peer rather more gloomily up at him. And even those who are not in fact freaks seem distanced in a way that makes them curiosities, rather than people, caught in a little act that they might later vehemently protest “was not the real me.”

There is something cruel in the total effect of the exhibition — and something depressing in that it has evidently such great appeal. I don’t think the remarks of either Diane Arbus or of John Szarkovski, director of the Department of Photography, do much to dispel this emotion. He has it that her photographs “challenge the basic assumptions” of most documentary photography, for “they deal with private rather than social realities…Her photographs record the outward signs of inner mysteries…Her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed.”

But the point is that the act of photography has rendered those private realities social: the question is, are we left with merely outward signs, or with the interior lives? I think we are left with masks, the specific arrangement each person makes with his or her features and with the poise of the body when the camera is raised and clicktime comes. The truth is rather that we are asked to participate in the kind of game interactional psychology has made popular. How would you present yourself to the camera? With strained attention and self-conscious dignity, like a 19th-century marriage couple in front of a magnesium flare; with the bashful pleasure of the girl in front of the circus tent; with the contained rancor of the King and Queen of a Senior Citizen’s Ball?

It all becomes a question of each individual’s adjustment to exposure. How would you perform? Diane Arbus seems to have been well aware of this sense in which the camera becomes a social permit: “If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone, ‘I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life.’ I mean people are going to say, ‘You’re crazy.’ Plus they’re going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license. A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that’s a reasonable kind of attention to be paid. Actually, they tend to like me. I’m extremely likable with them. I think I’m kind of two-faced. I’m very ingratiating. It really kind of annoys me. I’m just sort of a little too nice. Everything is Ooooo. I hear myself saying ‘How terrific,’ and there’s this woman making a face.”

A great many photographers have this sense that they are constant agents of a dubious bargain, voyeurs of the dreadful instant. I once shared a hotel room with Donald McCullin, the most famous of English war photographers. Far into the night he kept me awake with a nightmarish monologue, half guilty, half jocular of the pressures of his job: to get to the front line, to photograph blood, bodies, pain; to chase always the ultimate “terrific” moment. Late on, when I did some picture editing, the real horror came in seeing the extent of this voyeurism commitment. One might have printed one middle-distance shot of a dead child in Cambodia. In the files would remain a ghastly panorama of close-ups; of the child’s head taken this way and that way. Twenty-four different angles, with due regard to focus and lighting technique.

Such war photographs — their grimness dependent on public tolerance and desires — have an apparent social destiny, which is accepted: to portray the disasters of war. Diane Arbus did not occupy herself on this particular battlefront. She chose other victims: “Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It” (sic) “was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

It would be interesting to hear “a freak” on this point — but I suppose another way of looking at it is to see that the freak lives at the same kind of angle to the world as the photographer — in reverse. The whole world seems a voyeur; the self the freak presents is one formally adjusted for display, and the camera just one more manifestation of an audience eternally curious. An aristocrat indeed — in the world of the voyeur.

So what is the social destiny of Diane Arbus’s work? Her photographs seem to me distressing emblems of a kind of life, a way of seeing that was formalized in the last 10 years, in for example the poems of Sylvia Plath.

The observer moves through an alienated world, of masks and of distortions, where the subjects (other people) stay behind glass, represented through the observer to the world as inhabitants of a private and eccentric universe, beyond sympathy or comprehension. And the suicides of both Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus are termini that render their worlds more accessible, and in a way more appealing to the onlookers. Death bestows a backward coherence.

This style of alienated observation — of cruel detachment masquerading as involvement — seems to me to have a curious general appeal now, in the peep shows put on by people like Goffman and the late Eric Berne; in the group therapy sessions, where your heart may not actually go to someone, but where you have to stitch a semblance of it to your sleeve for general inspection.

We have moved a long way from the somewhat damp humanism of “The Family of Man” photographs also put on at the Museum of Modern Art some years ago. Would thousands of people then have wished to plod, as it were, through an undertaker’s parlor, their faces masks of attention before the images of those masked before the camera? Only in the last pictures, developed after Diane Arbus’s death, did I ever have a feeling of good cheer. They are untitled, so it is difficult to see what the occasion was, but they display groups of old, odd looking people moving about in groups. In one of them a quartet of old women walk past the camera, for once involved with each other, rather than staging themselves for the lens. They seem happy, as though they had escaped identification, as though they for once were in command of the action.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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