Diane Arbus

Publication: The Times.   
February 2015

Diane Arbus
Kirkcaldy Museum

Until 31 May


The work of American photographer Diane Arbus, who took her own life in 1971, aged 48, has famously divided popular and critical comment. While some view her large, square-format, black and white portraits of ‘outsiders’ ? such as giants, twins, mixed race couples ? as empathetic, others find the images obtrusive, exploitative and prurient.

Arbus was born in 1923 in New York city where her Russian Jewish parents  ran Russek’s, a famous department store in Fifth Avenue. Her brother Howard Nemerov went on to become Poet Laureate of the US, and her sister, Renée Nemerov Brown, carved out her own identity as artist. The siblings had a privileged upbringing, largely insulated from the effects of the great depression.

The writer Susan Sontag, who knew Arbus and was photographed by her, wrote: “ [Arbus’] work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as  well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate  feelings.”

Whether or not we agree with Sontag’s observations, it is obvious that Arbus’ arresting images continue to hold our interest.  The photographs surely force us to admit some uncomfortable truths, including the fact that we are fascinated by the sheer variety and oddity of others.

These portraits show their subjects head-on, allowing us to peruse, to stare and to scrutinise. Arbus is less interested in deformity than ‘otherness’.

‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970’ shows the 34-year-old circus performer Eddie Carmel dwarfing his parents, and their living space. Arbus has confined her subjects in the corner of the harshly-lit room. The cracks in the ceiling, the cheap décor and drawn curtains emphasise an air of subdued desperation. The giant stoops, his enormous frame supported by a stick, as if under the weight of his own condition,  while his mother stares up at him, in apparent incredulity.

In ‘Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. 1963’ three wizened faces return the stare of the lens. The two women are wearing aprons, thick socks and flat shoes while the bespectacled man is attired in slacks and open-necked shirt. His left hand proffers a card of some description. The expressions on the trio’s faces convey bemusement, as if puzzled as to why they are such compelling subject matter. They are, like so many of Arbus’ subjects, willing accomplices in their own entrapment by the camera.

Not all of Arbus work is focussed on apparent oddity, nor people.  ‘Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown 1963’ retains its status as portraiture while being notable for its absence of people. Levitttown was built in 1947 as a ‘racially segregated planned community’   to cater for the post-war demand for housing. The sterility of the cheap, rapidly built housing is echoed in the sparsely furnished room with giant tree crammed into one corner. The TV set and mound of presents seem to offer a critique of consumerism.

Like all of Arbus’ work, the title offers profound clues towards her thinking.  The specification of date, place, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, bodily form and social status is intensely directive, as well as descriptive. In other words, the titles somehow force a particular interpretation of the images.

An up-market suburban utopia appears to be the subject of ‘A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968’.  A boy, playing in the background, is framed by his sunbathing parents. The father shields his face from the sun, or the camera or both, while the glamorous blond mother stares on inscrutably. Although outwardly there is nothing sinister, Arbus seems to imbue the scene with disquiet.

At the opening of the Arbus retrospective, Revelations, in New York, in 2005 covered by the Washington Post, the subjects of ‘Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967’, Cathleen Mulcahy and Colleen Yorke, are shown alongside their portrait taken years earlier. The women are easily recognisable from the now iconic portrait in which Arbus eerily portrays the identically dressed girls, one half smiling the other half frowning, as if conjoined. 

This is Arbus’ special quality —  to imbue the ordinary with an air of otherness, and to point her lens in directions unremarked by others.