When I first heard Diane Arbus’s voice, I felt as if I’d known it all along. It’s a voice that’s as singular as her pictures, girlish and definite in tone, a voice that conveys in its lovely trills and reasonableness the artist’s infinite ability to be continually thrilled, and to revel in the various mysteries her chosen medium had to offer. It’s a taped voice, obviously. The event: a lecture at the International Center of Photography, when that venerable institution was downtown. The year: 1970. Arbus is talking to the assembled about her work, and pictures ripped from newspapers and magazines that inspire her. (“I like to put things around my bed all the time,” she says. “Pictures of mine I like and other things, and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.”) A Japanese photographer is taping the talk so he can play it back to himself later on; he doesn’t want to miss a word of what she has to say, and his English is less than perfect.
The resulting tape—and the images she exhibited during the slide show—are all we have of Diane Arbus moving through time, as it were, and it’s that precious, forty-minute document that’s being screened at the School of Visual Arts theatre on October 6th. The slide show will be shown alongside the British-born photographer Neil Selkirk’s moving 2005 documentary, “Who Is Marvin Israel?,” an investigation of the life and work of one of Arbus’s close friends and intellectual companions, a pioneering art director and painter.
Arbus’s voice. Somehow one had always been prepared for the playfulness and charm and ready laugh, because it’s there in certain aspects of her work, and in the transcripts, interviews, and so on, that made up the introduction to “Diane Arbus.” In that extraordinary work, published a year or so after the photographer’s suicide, on July 26, 1971, we hear her voice on the printed page, framed by witticisms that always belied, at least for me, her reputation as the “dark lady of photography.”
In “Diane Arbus,” which remains Aperture’s best-selling photography book to date (and which is being reissued this year to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of its publication; the exceptional 1995 volume, “Diane Arbus: Untitled” is being republished as well), Arbus says, apropos of her experience of photographing a dog on Martha’s Vineyard, “I don’t particularly like dogs. Well, I love stray dogs, dogs who don’t like people. And that’s the kind of dog picture I would take if I ever took a dog picture. One thing I would never photograph is dogs lying in the mud.” In this and other similarly beautiful, goofy, and profound sentences, Arbus embraces—and imparts—the surreality of the photographic experience to her interlocutor, whether she’s behind the camera or not. What comprises a dog picture? A dog? The dirt the dog stands on? Or the photographer imagining how she’d photograph a dog if she took a picture of one?
Above all, Arbus knew what this exchange meant—that is, the dialogue between the portraitist and her subjects, their reality and her imagination. “I work from awkwardness,” she said. “By that I mean I don’t like to arrange things. If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.” That arrangement is about humility: you don’t change the subject, the subject changes you. Arbus’s pictures are characterized by a certain reverential silence; she listens as her subjects explain something of themselves. Listening and watching the slide show, one arranges one’s body not so much to fit the sound of Arbus’s language as to open oneself up to her enthusiasm for this or that image, and for the beautiful inscrutableness that comes with making anything at all. Indeed, one reason for Arbus’s continued controversy as an artist may have something to do with what she demands of the viewer: that they change their shape—their socially acceptable self—in order to meet her totemic drag kings and queens, nudists, soothsayers, and so on. Very few people are willing to give up all that they recognize, and construct, which is to say the comfort of the status quo, which Arbus indirectly criticized in her choice of subject matter, again and again. (Arbus was notoriously uncomfortable with her own privileged upbringing and considered it somewhat crippling.)
I first heard Arbus in Neil Selkirk’s kitchen. Selkirk knew Arbus, and is the only person besides Arbus herself who has ever printed her work. He is responsible for the delicate, resonant prints we see in “Diane Arbus”; “Magazine Work,” from 1984; “Diane Arbus: Untitled”; and “Revelations,” from 2003. (The prints in the recently reissued books are image separations by Robert J. Hennessey based on Selkirk’s prints.) We sat in a darkened area; the images flashed on a small screen. Arbus begins not with her work but with the clippings that inspired her. One slide: a newspaper image of a tornado. By way of description, she tells the folk at the I.C.P., “That’s a picture of a tornado,” and pauses. I laughed, because what more could she say? What more could be said? For pure photography to exist, it must live outside or beyond language, which means reducing it to its literalness. This is a picture of a tornado. Here’s a rock. Here’s a picture of me looking at a rock and imagining what kind of photograph I could make out of it.
Arbus is similarly amusing when she talks about one of her iconic images, “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C. 1962.” “That’s just a kid with a hand grenade,” she says on the tape, and her audience cracks up. My guess is that it’s the qualifying “just” that got Arbus’s audience; it got me. She didn’t “just” take pictures of kids with hand grenades, or girls in striped bikinis, or gay people in Washington Square Park, or a lady with a toy poodle: she inhabited what they shared with her. Working one summer in Washington Square Park, and fascinated by the social strata she found there, Arbus found herself stumped—at first. “I could become a nudist, I could become a million things,” she says not at all boastfully during this invaluable presentation. “But I could never become that, whatever all those people were.” She tried and tried. But sometimes trying doesn’t work, “and you just go to the movies.” Again the audience at the I.C.P. laughs, because art-making can, and quite often does, make you want to give up, and go to the movies.
Still, Arbus was primarily attracted to worlds she didn’t understand. She returned to Washington Square Park. The mystery of it appealed to her tenacity. “There were days I just couldn’t work there,” she says “and then there were days I could. And then, having done it a little, I could do it more.” That’s the lesson artists should run with: do it a little, do it more. Fail better and better. “I take rotten pictures,” Arbus announces in the slideshow at one point. “I think that’s another important secret. I used to think that you could just take the good ones. You could just be terribly efficient, and you just wouldn’t play unless you took the good ones. But it doesn’t really work that way. It’s just the thing of doing it so goddamn much.” Throughout her career, Arbus protected her right to retain the enthusiasm of an amateur with none of an amateur’s limitations. To fail better and more knowingly with each click of the shutter.
Diane-Arbus-Chronology.jpgWatching the slideshow, and listening to that voice, I couldn’t escape something she’d said once, and may very well want us to remember as we look at her images in the dark, or read the informative “Diane Arbus: A Chronology, 1923—1971,” a beautiful new, pictureless book of material culled from Arbus’s letters, diaries, and so on, which first appeared in “Diane Arbus: Revelations” (both book and catalogue will also be available at Arbus’s first retrospective in Paris, at the Jeu de Paume, which runs from October 8th until February 5, 2012; the show subsequently travels to Switzerland, Berlin, and Amsterdam): “I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”