Hard Look, Tender Touch

“One thing I would never photograph,” Diane Arbus once wrote, “is dogs lying in the mud.” 

That’s an odd statement coming from a woman who looked so unflinchingly at the weird world around her. Technically there may not be any photographs of dogs lying in the mud in Revelations, the vast retrospective of the photographer’s work that is currently on display at Walker Art Center, but there are certainly scads of the portraits that many have long viewed as degraded human variants of Arbus’ one supposedly forbidden image.

Celebrated and influential as her work has been, those critics contend that Arbus was a cold and exploitive stalker of human freaks and garden-variety ugliness, a photographer who prowled human peripheries in search of the sordid and the sensational, and kept probing until she exposed the vulnerabilities and flaws in her subjects.

While Arbus was a master at exploring human fault lines, she also succeeded in demonstrating that the family of man is weirder, more wondrous, and multifarious than most of us can begin to imagine. Looking at her photographs, you often have the feeling that what we have all agreed to call human beings can’t possibly be a single species. Like so many other great artists, Arbus understood that we live both bundled in and surrounded by mysteries.

Much of the blame for the misinterpretations and misapprehensions that have dogged Arbus’ work lies in the psychoanalytic evaluations that flourished in the wake of her 1971 suicide. The criticisms tend to focus on her portraits of sideshow performers, transvestites, and denizens of rundown nudist camps or mental institutions, as well as ordinary people at moments that always, as Arbus captures them, appear to convey unattractive discomfort or utter cluelessness. Her own term for many of her subjects—“singular people”—is both revealing and useful. Although these photos still cast a powerful spell, they have mostly lost their ability to truly shock, eclipsed as they have been by all manner of art (much of it influenced by Arbus) that has gone much further that Arbus ever did. Artists like Nan Goldin, Joel Peter Witkin, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Alec Soth have carried on the quest for the ugliest American fringes of the strange and the purely mundane.

What is not often explored is how Arbus’ working methods relied a great deal on trust and tenderness. Ample evidence of this is provided by the biographical and documentary thoroughness of the Revelations exhibition and its accompanying catalog. She cultivated relationships with the subjects of her photographs, and her fascination was virtually always balanced by real curiosity and compassion. Images like Santas at the Santa Claus School, Albion, N.Y. 1964, or A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C. 1963 show that Arbus also had a marvelous eye for quintessential American tableaus and moments. Some of the most striking and lovely works in the retrospective have little in common with Arbus’ well-publicized taxonomy of American freaks—other than an unerring feel for the archetypically forlorn. Check out, for instance, Xmas Tree in a Living Room, Levittown, L.I. 1963, A Castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962, Clouds on a Screen at a Drive-in, N.J. 1960, or A House on a Hill, Hollywood, Cal. 1963.

For a photographer who produced so many widely recognized images, Arbus’ huge body of work has been almost shamefully underexposed. Before Revelations, and the sprawling catalog that accompanies the exhibition, monographs and museum shows were few and far between. Revelations, whose Walker appearance is the last stop on a tour that began more than two years ago in San Francisco, is only Arbus’ second solo museum retrospective; the first, also posthumous, took place almost thirty-five years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the photographer’s lifetime she had just one museum exhibition, New Documents, in 1967 (also at MoMA), which she shared with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. In the years since her death, there have been only three major published monographs of her work—1972’s Diane Arbus, the book that established the relatively small number of images for which she is most widely known; 1984’s Magazine Work; and 1995’s Untitled, her series of photographs taken at institutions for the mentally disabled.

Similary, exhaustive biographical information has been even harder to come by. The only full-scale look at Arbus’ life was Patricia Bosworth’s sketchy and mostly unsatisfying Diane Arbus, the 1984 biography that was written without access to the photographer’s archives and without cooperation from her estate or many of her closest friends and family members.

Revelations—both the show and the book—fills in the blanks, and then some. Featuring nearly two hundred photos (many of which have not been previously exhibited), contact sheets, notes, letters, source materials, an exhaustive chronology, and even some of the contents of the photographer’s library and studio, Revelations offers a sprawling look at the life and career of a woman who apparently knew from a very early age what she was looking for and, more importantly, what she was looking at. Reading her notes, diaries, and letters also leaves little doubt that Arbus understood exactly what she had gotten herself into.

“There are and have been and will be an infinite number of things on earth,” she wrote in a high school paper on Plato. “Individuals all different, all wanting different things, all loving different things, all looking different. Everything that has been on earth has been different from any other thing. That is what I love: the differentness, the uniqueness of all things and the importance of life … I see something that seems wonderful; I see the divineness in ordinary things.”

There, in the awkward, exuberant prose of a weird teenager, is the essential, unwavering mission statement that would guide Arbus’ career. She would also later claim, “I really believe there are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them.”

She was absolutely right about that; most of us go through life looking through or around the sorts of things Arbus routinely sought out and scrutinized through the lens of her camera. She was a fearless gawker, a master of the hard stare, and there’s never anything furtive in her approach—no evasion, no flinching or turning away. It’s one thing, of course, to look unflinchingly at someone strange, but Arbus had a gift for getting her subjects to look back at her. In many of her photographs, in fact, you have the sense that these people saw right through her and knew exactly what she was looking for. “I don’t press the shutter,” Arbus once said. “The image does. And it’s like getting gently clobbered.” The photographs that make up Revelations are the afterlife and aftershocks of that clobbering. Everything about most of her photographs, you have to imagine, was difficult—the search, the logistics, the process and meticulous printing, and, most particularly, the moments themselves, which are never quite Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment. They are something more slippery and incidental and subject to metamorphosis at shutter speed: brief encounters in that gray, expansive territory between fateful decisions and fate itself.