Thwarted Closeness

Adam Phillips on Diane Arbus

If it is too often said about Diane Arbus that she photographs freaks, it does at least suggest that we know what normal people are like, what people look like when they are not odd. It is reassuring to be reminded that we know a freak when we see one. There are, of course, points of view, angles from which we can all look like freaks to ourselves; and Arbus is unusually eloquent about this and about the way the camera can pick up the unwanted perspective. But the enthusiastic unease that her work generates, the pleasure we take from it, has something to do with our wondering what it must be to be people like that; and by the same token, what it must be to be people like us who for some reason – and Arbus was herself exercised by this – are fascinated by freaks like that: indeed, want pictures and exhibitions of them; want something from representations of them that we mostly don’t want from them in person. Arbus’s unique way of not turning a blind eye satisfies something in us. She has not, it should be noted, created a fashion for her subject-matter, but for her photographs, which, whatever else they do, create a kind of vicarious sociability with people we suspect we mostly wouldn’t be able to get on with.

One of the many interesting things about photography as a relatively new art form is that photographers talking and writing about their work is also a relatively new genre, and Arbus, it seems to me, was unusually keen and willing to articulate something about what she thought she was doing, mindful as people usually are now that words for pictures is a peculiar form of exchange. When Arbus speaks of her work she often enough talks of photography as a form of sociability: ‘Some pictures are tentative forays without your even knowing it.’ The camera gives the photographer something to do with other people, and it is like a safe lead, a ‘licence’ as she calls it, into the unpredictable. Who you can and can’t be with for Arbus is bound up with what you can and can’t know about people. As a certain kind of modern artist she thinks of intentions as passwords that get you what you never expected; and she locates the mystery that matters most to her in the unfamiliar (the family being the place where unfamiliarity begins):

I remember one summer I worked a lot in Washington Square Park. It must have been about 1966. The park was divided. It has these walks, sort of like a sunburst, and there were these territories staked out. There were young hippie-junkies down one row. There were lesbians down another, really tough, amazingly hardcore lesbians. And in the middle were the winos. They were like the first echelon and the girls who came from the Bronx to become hippies would have to sleep with the winos to get to sit on the other part with the junkie-hippies. It was really remarkable. And I found it very scary. I mean, I could become a nudist, I could become a million things. But I could never become that, whatever all those people were. There were days I just couldn’t work there, and then there were days I could. And then, having done it a little, I could do it more. I got to know a few of them. I hung around a lot. They were a lot like sculptures in a funny way. I was very keen to get close to them, so I had to ask to photograph them. You can’t get that close to somebody and not say a word, although I have done that.

I take this to be a parable of Arbus as a photographer. There is biographical material that would seem to make a certain sense of this, to do with Arbus’s recollected sense of being secluded, segregated in the affluent Jewish family she grew up in:

One of the things I suffered from as a kid was I never felt adversity. I felt confirmed in a sense of unreality which I could feel as unreality, and the sense of being immune was, ludicrous as it seems, a painful one . . . the world seemed to belong to the world. I could learn things but they never seemed to be my own experience.

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