photography, writing and the spaces between
Some people express themselves well visually, others are great writers, and a lucky few are talented in both areas. Diane Arbus was one of the few who could do both. Known for her intimate, unflinching photographs of society’s fringe-dwellers, Arbus also wrote with the verve and originality of a true writer. That was the opinion put forward by two heavyweight writers—Michael Cunningham and Francine Prose—during a recent evening at the Museum of Modern Art celebrating Diane Arbus, wordsmith.
I was excited about this program, which took place as part of the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival. I love Francine Prose, both for her novels and for her 1998 Harper’s magazine essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, in which she asked why women’s writing is not taken as seriously as men’s (a question that was recently renewed by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times). And although I had mixed feelings about The Hours, I have great respect for Michael Cunningham and like his attitude to writing as expressed in this New York Times essay.
So there we were in Theater 2 at MoMA—but as the lights went down, the audience was time-traveling to a lecture hall near NYU in 1970, with Arbus’s voice coming out of the dark. We were watching A Slide Show and Talk by Diane Arbus, a rarely-screened film that reconstructs a lecture given by Arbus in 1970. “Do you want to know what my favorite thing about photography is?” are the first words Arbus says, giggling a little. “I always thought it was kind of a naughty thing to do.” Her voice is flutey, girlish. She sounds like Little Red Riding Hood, equal parts knowing and naive.
She then goes on to show a range of images that have inspired her. Some are highbrow (an Edward Curtis photograph of a Native American chief is “a terrific Indian picture”) but most are tabloid clippings with grisly or absurd themes. Petty criminals; ugly girls getting makeovers; kids stuffing their faces with pie. One, a smiling engaged man and woman taken a few weeks before their murder, draws her because it’s “so goddamned still” and “doesn’t forecast anything.” (This theme would surface again in 1971, when she wrote that photographs “are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling.”)
I noticed that the 1970 audience was amused and discomforted by some of this material. There was a lot of laughter over the tabloid shots, which Arbus didn’t seem to mind, even cracking jokes of her own. (“You always wonder how much your parents would have paid for you,” she said, referring to her fascination with the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.) But when it came to showing her own work, she seemed more perplexed by the laughter. “I don’t know what’s so funny,” she protested, seeming genuinely taken aback when her image of a naked waitress at a nudist camp drew a huge guffaw.
This brings us to the issues of invasiveness and voyeurism, which are always big flashpoints when discussing Arbus’s work. Midgets, nudists, transvestites: she photographed margin-dwellers, people who are not meant to be celebrated. Regular families were “creepy” to her—but what did she want people to take away from her images? And what was she prepared to do to get them? Germaine Greer wrote a memorable description of how Arbus literally pinned her to a bed during a shoot that became something of a psychological wrestling match. The result was an image Greer found to be “an undeniably bad picture.” For Greer, Arbus’s creativity “was driven by disgust.”
So, was she a cynical exploiter or a compassionate collaborator? To be honest, I think she was a little of both. In the film, I was surprised to hear her laugh over the fact that a young Brooklyn man and wife she portrayed very movingly with their Down Syndrome son were “incredibly inarticulate.” That sounded pretty judgmental—but later, talking about a wealthy society woman, she showed unexpected empathy, saying how she was “terrifically moved by that lady.”
If she seemed girlish and vulnerable in her spoken delivery, leaning heavily on a select few adjectives like “naughty” and “terrific,” Arbus’s writing was far more nuanced and original. This became apparent after the movie when Cunningham, Prose and Doon Arbus took turns reading from Diane Arbus: A Chronology, a new book that features Arbus’s writing and doesn’t include a single photograph.
Francine Prose read from a high school essay Arbus wrote on Chaucer, in which she described the Medieval poet seeing things “like a newborn baby,” with wonder and curiosity and a lack of judgment. No wonder this appealed to Arbus, Prose said: she did it too. (Take that, Germaine Greer!)
Then there was Arbus’s description of Hubert’s Museum, an underground freak show emporium near Times Square:
Coming in to the unholy fluorescent glare of it you’d see yourself dwarfed and flattened and stretched in several distorting mirrors and all around you like flowers a thousand souvenirs of human aberrations, as if the world had quite literally stashed away down there everything it didn’t need.
Unholy fluorescence: “Those of us who think of ourselves as writers would kill for a phrase like that!” said Prose. One of the things that makes Arbus’s sentences fun to read is “the rhythm: they just roll along,” she said. Cunningham wondered if, when she planned a photograph, Arbus went through a similar mental process as he does when he creates a character, first focusing on the person’s weaknesses. Doon Arbus shot this down, saying, “I think she was the exact opposite. In the best photographs there’s no opinion, judgment falls away.” (Germaine Greer might have walked out at that point.)
Since the event, I’ve been reading Diane Arbus: A Chronology. Generally, I’d say this is a book for hardcore Arbus fans, since it goes into an exhausting level of detail about her day-to-day life. There are moments of exquisite prose, like the ones pulled out at the MoMA event, but there’s also a lot of prosaic stuff relating to the vicissitudes of the artist’s life. “Sudden money panic… I owe 1800 not counting normal next month bills and taxes” is not likely to draw sighs of envy from Michael Cunningham.
And yet, Arbus has some writing chops. Her writing is inflected with the same curiosity, delight and weird originality that informs her best pictures. Let’s not forget, too, that her brother was the distinguished poet Howard Nemerov. I’ll end with some text Arbus wrote for the magazine Artforum, to accompany a portfolio of her images that was published two months before her suicide in 1971:
Once I dreamed I was on a gorgeous ocean liner, all pale, gilded, cupid-encrusted, rococo as a wedding cake. There was smoke in the air, people were drinking and gambling. I knew the ship was on fire and we were sinking, slowly. They knew it too, but they were very gay, dancing and singing and kissing, a little delirious. There was no hope. I was terribly elated. I could photograph anything I wanted to.
Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.
… A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.