Diane Arbus

I happened on Arbus’s work when I was about twenty years old – it was the young boy with the toy grenade – and although I don’t recall my precise reaction I know that I was intrigued.  This would have been around 1976 and the photograph was by that time  already fourteen years old, long enough to have appeared in exhibitions and been published in several books; Arbus herself had been dead for five years.

The photograph is raw, direct and appears authentically honest.  I was quite prepared to believe the child was – what we would have termed in those far-off carefree days – retarded.  The contact sheet tells a rather different story, that of a seven-year-old boy out for a walk on a sunny afternoon in Central Park with his family.  The boy (Colin Wood) recalls the meeting in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle:

“There’s a sadness in her that she also saw in me.” Wood says Arbus picked up on “this need, which was very big in me at the time, to be accepted and appreciated or paid attention to. I was not directed, but there was a collusion of some kind. There’s almost this ‘is this what you want?’ feeling on my face.”  Re-creating the expression, Wood screws up his face: “Exasperated.”

Sfgate.com, (2018). Post-developments / For the subject of Arbus’ ‘Child with a toy hand grenade,’ life was forever altered at the click of a shutter – SFGate [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Post-developments-For-the-subject-of-Arbus-2581756.php [Accessed 20/12/2018].

In the other frames Wood seems like an ordinary, if oddly dressed, young boy.  Arbus has chosen to print the frame which shows him as a grimacing simpleton.  It’s the picture with the most impact. Even in the short time she was photographing him, Arbus would have formed a fair assessment of his developmental status – it would have been obvious to her that her chosen picture did not fairly represent the truth.

Susan Sontag deplored this aspect of Arbus’s approach and in “On Photography” (in which she reprints her New York Review of Books article from 1973, a review of the Family of Man exhibition) she is similarly derisive of many others. She rails against the subject matter, the ethos, ethical stance and general all-round unwholesomeness of the work, claiming “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak” and ” [Arbus]… chooses oddity, chases it, frames it, develops it, titles it” and that “her sensibility, armed with a camera, could insinuate anguish, kinkiness, mental illness with any subject”

DIANE ARBUS (1923-1971)

Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965


These observations are undermined by some of Sontag’s other assertions:

“Like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon”  Not really.  Not at all, in fact.  Then warming to her theme-

“Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive”  I don’t think there has ever been a problem with gun, car or camera addiction.

“Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”

If Sontag was in one of my sessions (I used to be a psychotherapist) there would be lots to expand on here.  And those three quotes were from just two adjacent paragraphs.

In “Diane Arbus: Revelations” we are allowed a more considered view of the background to Arbus’s work, her process, and her ambitions.  She was a prolific letter writer and the content of these gives much weight to her authenticity and honesty.  Sontag’s comment that Arbus only photographed “freaks” is comprehensively rebutted by the range of engaging, sensitive photographs she made of her clients, friends and acquaintances.  It appears that Sontag made a number of sweeping generalisations on the basis of a very small part of Arbus’s oeuvre and the views expressed in “On Photography” are very much ad hominem.  Indeed, they caused considerable distress to her friends and collaborators, in particular Marvin Israel who marked up his copy of the book in three colours of ink, adding angry crosses to the text with which  he disagreed most strongly; Sontag’s judgement that her suicide “proved the photographs to have been dangerous to her” drew considerable disdain.

For my own part I am very well disposed towards Arbus’s photographs and more particularly her enthusiasm for and depth of engagement with photography; if only I had just a fraction of her drive and determination.

I went to see the Arbus exhibition at The South Bank.  Most of the prints were small, I was surprised to see, except the ones in the ‘folios’ which she had printed larger to try to raise some cash.  All the classics were there along with quite a few unremarkables.  The Arbus estate keeps a very tight hold on her entire oeuvre which is a shame.  I would like to see much more of her work including that which the family may deem ‘unrepresentative’ – the edgier stuff, in fact.  I was amused to hear the exhibition staff pronouncing Diane as ‘Dee – ann’.  I thought that was something her family, mother in particular, did, which displeased Arbus herself.