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.
The gist of the recollection is her strong sense that there was somewhere else she needed to get to, some other kind of experience, some necessary illness that she was immune to. It is unlikely that she never felt adversity as a child, but likely that she might have felt in retrospect that she didn’t get the adversity she wanted. In Washington Square Park in 1966 the world seems to belong to the world again: she doesn’t belong to it. And what she’s interested in, in the groups she observes, is how people who are so separated can get together; ‘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.’ And Arbus is quite clear that here she has reached her limit, the horizon of her ambition: ‘I could become a million things. But I could never become that, whatever all those people were.’
But what you can’t become you can photograph: you can get close to. And the way to get close to them is to ask them for something. If you ask someone for a photograph of themselves you are asking them to give you one, not to let you take one. Arbus – for some reason she doesn’t need to articulate – wants to get close to these people ‘whatever they are’, and the way is to ask to photograph them – words for pictures. But what does that make the photograph? If the camera is an ice-breaker – a way of having something to do with these people who she could never become – what is the picture a picture of? If we take Arbus at her word, the pictures are of an impossible aspiration: ‘I could never become that, whatever all those people were.’ They are records, or reminders of a thwarted closeness; of where sociability stops. You can’t be, or really be with these people; and this is where the photography, the work comes in.
Sometimes Arbus starts from the diametrically opposed position, with no affinity, no longing, as though alienation from the subject-matter, or its irrelevance, was the precondition of the work. ‘The Chinese have a theory,’ she writes,
that you pass through boredom into fascination and I think it’s true. I would never choose a subject for what it means to me or what I think about it. You’ve just got to choose a subject, and what you feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold if you just plain choose a subject and do it enough.
In Washington Square she starts with the fascination; here she ends up with the fascination through apparently arbitrary choice and dogged persistence. But in this formulation the photograph is far more, and far more obviously, significant; it is the revelation of feeling and meaning. The photograph gets you closer not to the object, but to the photographer’s unfolding apprehension of the object. As ever with Arbus, closeness is the issue; and it is not insignificant that so many of her photographs are taken so close up, and quite often are of people one mostly wouldn’t want to be that close to; at least in so-called real life.
‘Nothing is ever the same as they said it was,’ Arbus says. ‘It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognise.’ What other people say distances you; if it’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognise, we have to assume that this is because ‘they’ prevented me with their words from seeing the thing that mattered to me. ‘They’ have kept her away, immune, unreal, and her project, the new – ‘what I’ve never seen before’ – becomes the desired; it becomes symbolically equated with the necessary thing from which she has been somehow excluded. Her question, or rather her dilemma, is how much she wants to know, how close she wants to get to whatever it is she believes she has been excluded from. She starts from a position of exclusion; the people in Washington Square Park, like the arbitrarily chosen subject, are nothing to do with her. But she is never sure whether she is interested in the experience of exclusion – and her so-called freaks are, by definition, the excluded that she is including – or interested in finding out exactly what it might be that she is excluded from. This is what her ‘freaks’ make us think about. Becoming obsessed by exclusion can become a way – perhaps it is the way – of not thinking about what it might be that one is excluded from.
When Arbus a bit too famously says that ‘a photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know,’ she is both making a distinction between showing and telling, which photographs draw to our attention, and giving us her potted theory of photography. What a photograph apparently tells you is what you don’t need to know: that in photography the explicit is always misleading; and that photography, at least in Arbus’s version, is a peculiarly intent form of secrecy. A secret about a secret means that what is being kept a secret is that there is a secret. Photographs, unlike photographers, can’t speak (and a secret about a secret is as good a definition of the unconscious as one is likely to get). But a secret about a secret is two degrees of separation. Arbus is not saying that she knows what the secret is; she is just saying she knows that what is being kept secret in the photograph is that there is a secret. The photograph, in Arbus’s words about it, has something to show us, if not tell us, not about odd people, but how odd we are about closeness and exclusion.
Many of her photographs have a baroque longing in them. And many of her remarkable statements about her work have something to say about the dread and the draw of being left out. ‘Lately I’ve been struck,’ she says, ‘with how I really love what you can’t see in a photograph. An actual physical darkness. And it’s very thrilling for me to see darkness again.’ To see darkness is to see what you can’t see, and what you can’t see through. In her photographs the thrill of being left out contends with the dread. It would be terrible to believe that there is nothing to be left out of. What are the so-called freaks in her pictures left out of, and what is it about this that is at once so poignant and so horrifying for us? Or to put it a little more glibly, who is left out of what? If we so much want to look at Arbus’s pictures of freaks, what are we feeling excluded from?
The story Arbus wants to tell us explicitly about freaks – that is to say, in words rather than in photographs – is that she is envious of them. ‘Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot,’ she says, not wary of using either noun:
It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.
This is characteristically shrewd and unsettling, both in its blitheness and in its gravity. Like some of her best photographs, the remarks come somewhere between a comedy routine – ‘I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends’ – and an existential fable. They are at once unreal – things, legends, people in fairy tales, aristocrats – and most intensely real; they’ve got their trauma in first, they’ve passed their life test, they are aristocrats. They are, one could say from a slightly different angle, or ‘corner’, to use her word, a bit like Jews, born members of the aristocracy of trauma. And what is striking about Arbus’s account is just how explicit she is about the erotics, the fantasies in being a fan. There is a terrific kind of excitement, adoration, shame, awe. And the lives of her freaks, in her version, are constituted by what they are excluded from. Because they are born with their trauma they are born with the very thing that will separate them out from others. That’s where they start from, not what they have to go in search of, as Arbus did in Washington Square. As though their test in life, the test in life for Arbus, is what you make of your exclusion, or of the thing that excludes you.
Arbus, quite rightly, is keen always to remind us that the photograph is not in any simple sense its subject; it is its so-called subject re-presented, recognised in a quite different medium. And, clearly, to talk about photography is to talk about this difference in new ways because photography appears to be so effortlessly mimetic. ‘What I’m trying to describe,’ she says, ‘is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s. And that’s what all this is a little bit about. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.’ Perhaps the thing one is most left out of is other peoples’ traumas, other peoples’ tragedies. You don’t need a photograph of a freak, or indeed to photograph a freak, to tell you that you are not a freak yourself. So what, to ask the pragmatic question, are Arbus’s photographs of freaks for? Why photograph them, and why photograph them like that? ‘Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me.’ One of the first things, that is, after the fashion models she and her husband photographed in the 1940s and 1950s. There is a suggestion here that freaks were Arbus’s way into her own kind of photography. So it is worth wondering, by way of conclusion, what that was a way into. How fashion models and freaks go together, or how one leads to the other; beauty being another way of being singled out, whether you like it or not.
Arbus describes becoming fascinated by a blind street performer in the 1960s who, she says, ‘lives in an atmosphere as dense and separate as an island with its own sea’. An island with its own sea is a very separate island indeed. If Arbus was drawn to the impossibilities of closeness then it is tempting to suggest that her photographs at once record this impossibility and try to break it down. Eudora Welty remarked that Arbus’s work ‘totally violates human privacy, and by intention’, as though Arbus couldn’t bear, or more interestingly didn’t trust, the privacy of others. As though privacy was some kind of mystification; as though the opaqueness of ourselves and others was becoming sacralised. Welty was over-stressing something – violation tends to be total; no one talks of feeling a bit violated – that is important about Arbus’s work, though it may be truer to say that Arbus’s work more often shows us how inviolable modern human privacy is: however close or close up you get, you never get that close. And that there’s something about modern life that generates fantasies of closeness, of intimacy, that are way in excess of human possibility. Secrets can be found out, but privacy cannot be violated because once it is violated it is no longer privacy. The idea of secrecy is the last refuge of romance. It may be not that we have secrets but that each person sees us differently. It may be that we are at our most revealing not in our intimacies but when we are at our most anonymous. These, at least, are the areas that Arbus leads us into when she talks and writes about photography. ‘Our whole guise,’ she writes, ‘is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.’ Other people see us in ways that we cannot anticipate; we cannot know ourselves because we cannot be everyone else in relation to ourselves; and so on.
It is clear from all this just how psychologically-minded Arbus is when she talks and writes about photography, and like all good psychological writing hers sounds compelling and pertinent. It is not surprising that, growing up and working when and where she did, she should have found herself speaking in this way. But speaking like this can take us a long way from the photographs as photographs, especially when the photographer is as eloquent and canny as Arbus obviously was. The worse your art is, John Ashbery once remarked, the easier it is to talk about. What is truly odd about Arbus’s work is not her subject-matter, but how difficult it is to conceive of not talking about it in psychological terms. And I don’t mean, as an alternative to this, talking technically. The difficulty is to look at Arbus’s photographs without trying to imagine what might be going on inside her subjects; as if, in fact you couldn’t. A person who is as dense and separate as an island with its own sea may not be available for that, and so may be available for something else. For being photographed.