'I do feel I have some slight corner on something about the quality of things," artist Diane Arbus told a class in a lecture at the Westbeth building in Manhattan the year before her death in 1971. "It's very subtle and a little embarrassing to me, but I believe there are things nobody would see unless I photographed them."
This is most assuredly true--and it was really true in the oppressively cheerful 1950s, when she developed her signature style. A savagely honest artist who made unflinching portraits of marginalized people--the homeless, the physically deformed, the mentally disabled--Arbus explored the unfathomable gulf that separates appearance from substance. Obsessed with getting beyond the physical, she struggled to mine an ore infinitely more elusive--the human soul--and toward that end, interpreted physical oddities as merely incidental. She did this most masterfully in her final body of work, made in the three years leading up to her suicide, at the age of 48.
Portraits of residents of various New York homes for the mentally disabled, this untitled series of 59 photographs is regarded as her most challenging work. Seven of these images were included in "Diane Arbus," a monograph on the artist published in 1972, but a more complete version of the series wasn't available until last year, when Aperture published "Untitled: Diane Arbus." The book includes 51 of the 59 images in the series, which is available in its complete form only as a portfolio printed in an edition of five.
On view at PaceWildensteinMacGill beginning April 25, the series is quite moving in its intimacy, tenderness and candor; it does not, however, make for casual viewing.
"Photography involves a kind of scrutiny we don't normally subject each other to--we're nicer to each other than the camera makes us," Arbus commented in the same lecture, one of the few taped records of her, which comprises the meat of "Diane Arbus," a segment of the series "Masters of Photography," released on video by Camera Three Productions Inc. in 1989.
"It's a little harsh. I don't mean to say all photographs have to be mean; rather . . . if you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really get to it, it becomes fantastic," she said. "It really is totally fantastic that we look like this, and you sometimes see that very clearly in a photograph. What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin and into somebody else's. That's what all this is a little bit about--that somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own."
Born and raised on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Diane Nemerov was the second of three children of wealthy retailer David Nemerov and his wife, Gertrude Russek Nemerov. Educated at a series of private schools, Arbus once commented she "found the family fortune humiliating," and she escaped into marriage to Allan Arbus when she was 18.
It was her husband who introduced her to photography, and they began working in New York as a commercial photography team in 1946, while raising their two daughters. Eleven years later, their commercial partnership dissolved, and she began working on her own under the tutorship of Viennese photographer Lisette Model, then the head of the photography department at the New School for Social Research. From the start, the way Arbus worked was uniquely important to the pictures she produced.
"My favorite thing is to go where I've never been," she said. "There's something about going into somebody else's house, and when it's time to go, it's like I've got a blind date. If I were just curious, it would be hard to say to someone, 'I want to come to your house and have you tell me the story of your life,' but the camera is a kind of license.
"I would never choose a subject for what it means to me. You just choose a subject and if you do it enough, what it means to you begins to unfold. Freaks was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific excitement for me," continued Arbus, who spent a lot of time in the '50s at Hubert's Freak Museum at Broadway and 42nd Street. "Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle, there's a quality of legend about freaks. If you've ever spoken to someone with two heads, you know they know something you don't."
By the late '50s, Arbus' marriage was unraveling and photography was taking over her life. She and her husband moved apart (though they didn't divorce until 1969), and she began prowling the streets of Manhattan shooting pictures, often in unsavory quarters, at all hours.