Diane Arbus

The Transformative Nature of the Photographs of Diane Arbus – The New York Times

“A woman with her baby monkey, N.J. 1971.” The Estate of Diane Arbus

Well, James Estrin has gone and done it now. He has made up for his (in my mind) less than kind assessment of Diane Arbus’s work with a piece today that gives the proper perspective on this truly amazing 20th century photographer.

But some of the thoughts expressed in this article really hit home for me. In many ways I have felt locked up in a world of photography as it is viewed and presented today, by voices that frown upon unflinching images of America and the conditions of life here. Images that are taken, and not made, (more on that in a second) and clearly without permission. So I’m going to be presenting some of that on this photoblog in the very near future.

More often than not, Arbus had permission from her subjects. But, as Joan Didion once alluded to about herself and the subjects of her writing as she encountered them, we can be pretty sure the subjects of both of these unflinching documentarians had no idea how graphic the end result would turn out to be. In the case of Arbus, it has been the source of great criticism of her work. For me, however, I believe you can’t argue with what we are left with in terms of the impact and resonance of great photography or great writing. Anyway.

So, this paragraph that I quote below. Wow. I wrote a brief thought here about four years ago on the whole ‘make-or-take’ question in photography. I have SO wanted to expound on that theme in greater detail and with a little more of a critical voice. So to be clear, I don’t ‘make’ images, in the Ansel Adams or National Geographic way of thinking. I don’t plan and calculate or place myself in carefully chosen positions waiting for all the perfect elements to fall into place.

So I find now that, at least in the words of Neil Selkirk, the only photographer to have printed her work since her death, Arbus and I have this one thing in common. I am trying to show the world what I see and where I’ve been, and I don’t give a damn and never have about ‘making’ images.

“The whole thing was about her wanting you to see, to share her experience of the moment and the significance of what she had witnessed, and that was a just completely different approach from any other photographer I’d ever been aware of,” Mr. Selkirk said. “They’re trying to make a picture. She couldn’t give a damn about that as the motivating idea. It was to present a document of something she had experienced.”

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.

Previously Unseen Arbus – The New York Times

“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” shows, among other things, that Arbus settled early on many of her major themes.

“Street photography was the advanced mode of the day, and practitioners like Lee Friedlander, William Klein, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand all claimed New York City as their turf. So did Lisette Model, a Viennese émigré with whom Arbus studied briefly. Ms. Model didn’t give her student much formal advice. Instead, she urged her to ease away from the stance of objectivity then considered requisite for serious photography and instead establish emotional relationships with her subjects, and see where that would take her. For Arbus, the advice was heaven-sent. It gave her permission to be the artist she was ready to be.”

“Diane Arbus: In the Beginning” runs through Nov. 27 at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street; 212-731-1675; metmuseum.org.

Source: Previously Unseen Arbus, Unearthed Years After Her Death – The New York Times