Times Feature on 15 Women Who Received No Obituary Includes One That is Inexcusable

Someone posted this to a message board I frequent yesterday morning. I clicked on the thread and saw the names and thought, Bronte, etc, whatever. Ancient history. Sylvia Plath surprised me. But then I forgot about it all and went about doing other things. Later I opened the NYTimes app on my iPhone and the first thing I saw, because the Times is pushing this feature out there, was the image above of a woman with a camera. The face was instantly familiar but I literally could not believe my eyes.

Why is Diane Arbus’s picture attached to this feature?

So instantly, far from being appreciative of the long overdue recognition of this amazing iconic photographer, just seeing her there included and knowing per passing wasn’t noted at the time in the newspaper of record set off a rush of anger in me. Arbus is like a pillar of my photographic world.

The emotion I felt and still feel at seeing that Diane Arbus didn’t warrant an obituary in the New York Times comes from a place of meaning because I understand who she was during her life. I don’t think the reason she didn’t get an obit was about her being a woman. I think it was about her work. And also about her personal affect. And I think the writer they chose for this overdue obituary and the piece he produced says everything about why she didn’t receive an obituary decades ago.

Arbus had been championed by John Szarkowski and had already had an exhibition at MOMA. She was famous. But she was difficult and she’d pissed off a lot of people with both her work and her temperament. Many people poisoned her reputation and I think all of that impacted whether or not she would have warranted, in the eyes of the people who make these decisions, an obituary in her own city’s newspaper of record.

It’s one thing to pull up people from the ancient past. It’s a whole different animal when you admit to something from the modern era that is as glaring as this. And then blame it all on a bias against women. I’m just not having it. Read the piece. At this point, is it really necessary to include all of the scathing criticisms of her work and her life? You can literally see why the Times chose not to give Diane Arbus an obituary when she died. I’m not going to say that isn’t great writing. It’s great writing. But everything you need to know is inherent in this piece published today.

“After decades of intense examination of her work and life, perhaps there is room to understand Arbus as a woman driven by artistic vision as well as personal compulsion, and her photographs as documents of empathy as well as exploitation.”

Perhaps. As well as exploitation. Do you see what I’m saying? Agendas are everything in our world.

Just to be clear, Diane Arbus does not deserve this paragraph above in 2018. She is a giant of 20th century photography. 

I think I’m taking this personally for a couple of reasons. One I won’t get into. But the other is that I’m a photographer who fully expects to be ignored until long after I’m gone if not forever. Because I’m producing a controversial and unconventional (in the art world) form of photography that many would see as exploitative. Nothing on the level of an Arbus in any respect I will be the first to tell you. But to see this type of snobbery still shaping the perspective and assessment of the work of Diane Arbus? It’s soul crushing.

Someone tweeted this series of long overdue obituaries and added the following:

Read these beautiful tributes to extraordinary women who were overlooked by the New York Times. 

I would ask anyone to read James Estrin’s piece on Diane Arbus and ask yourself if it is a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary woman. In the case of Diane Arbus, a better and more honest approach the Times could have taken was just to admit the underlying yet obvious hostility that existed towards her work back in the years of her life. Admit it all now.

In the early 1070s, clearly in the modern era, when we should have known better, and because we were listening to voices who had nothing but contempt for someone who would go on to be regarded as a giant of 20th century photography, we decided not to provide an obituary to our readers to note the passing of Diane Arbus.

But if you read this correction of the record, you’ll find that you’re still hearing from one of those scornful voices. Very disappointing but not unexpected. Snobbery and probably no small measure of jealousy are still shaping our world. Shame on the New York Times.

3 comments

  1. I saw the headline, and I was angry that they grudgingly chose 15 women whose fame hasn’t quietly gone away and are cashing in on that fame now. Women struggle against the weight of the world’s assumptions of the irrelevance, sentimentality and banality of our work. Our words are found “lyrical” or “romantic” but rarely “incisive” or “insightful”. Mary Cassatt painted “domestic scenes” as if those matter less than images of strip clubs or bars. I am unsurprised that this affected your hero as well.

    I like her words: “A photograph is a secret about a secret,” she said. “The more it tells you the less you know.”

    I don’t like how happily they quoted her detractors and repeated salacious rumors rather than reporting the words of young people she inspired who still find her work relevant.

    Why do great women like Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus feel so depressed they commit suicide? Is it because their work is vilified, set aside or deemed irrelevant in their own lifetimes? Is the pressure of bearing up under a culture united against them too much?

    Thank you for speaking out. I wish you luck in your endeavors. I see genius in your photos. I don’t find them exploitative.

    1. Wonderfully put, Brenda. You put into words a lot of what I’m feeling but so much more. Thank you for what’s probably the best comment I’ve gotten. And thank you so much for the amazing and unforgettable praise of the images I make. Thank you.

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