BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 143

The Controversial Art of Looking

A new book on the writing of Diane Arbus prompts a deeper understanding of her photographs

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 NOV 11

Tennis, with actual winners and losers, contents me and other workers in fields of indeterminacy – artists, musicians, writers – where first prizes declare arguable standing. Choosing sides is often wrong but not in sports. In this year’s US Open, Novak Djokavic beat Rafael Nadal as if Nadal were an ordinary mortal. I was torn between them, and miss that action. Fortunately, since art can be long, sports short, I’m absorbed in Diane Arbus: A Chronology, 1923–1971(Aperture, 2011), a new book of her beautifully written diary entries, letters and work notes.

Sides formed early about her enigmatic,brilliant photography. At home, Arbus’s photographs upset my father, viscerally. I experienced them, as an adolescent, the way I did Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) – identifying with uncanny strangeness, fascinated by what I didn’t understand. Some of what Arbus had imaged – people once referred to as ‘freaks’ – was usually kept from sight. In the 1960s, families still institutionalized their ‘mentally retarded’ or ‘insane’ relatives. Various art critics and civilian viewers over the years have thought Arbus cruelly exploited unsuspecting subjects. Some felt she went slumming.

There are English words whose definitions confound definition. Words such as ‘exploitative’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘pretentious’, when applied to art and writing or their creators, form blurry impressions, subjectivity shaping them. Mindful of Virginia Woolf’s dictum, in her 1937 essay ‘Craftsmanship’, that ‘words don’t live in dictionaries, they live in the mind,’ I know recourse to a dictionary definition won’t clarify much that is significant to me. Words live in usage, with connotations.

A film test of Diane Arbus made by her husband Allan Arbus, c.1949. Courtesy © Allan Arbus/The Estate of Diane Arbus, LLC

Lewis Hine, among other documentary photographers, pictured desperate people in desperate conditions. His photo­graphs presumed what I’ll call a ‘benign-looking contract’ between viewer and viewed. ‘We’ viewers were expected to feel sympathy for ‘others’ and their stricken lives. Specific assumptions shaped the spectator as well as those imaged. Hine’s subjects existed primarily in one dimension, which might indeed overwhelm other aspects of their lives, but it was likely only one way they saw themselves. Still, Hine had a specific purpose in shooting them as he did: to expose terrible poverty, appalling slums. I can’t imagine that he was grilled about intentionality then.

Any discomfort I experience looking at a Hine feels simpler to explain than at an Arbus, because her purpose was various, ambiguous, dimensional. Deprivation, lack or difference in her work, which encompassed many living situations and conditions, is generally psychological, cultural and physical, often genetic. There is no consensus about – and in looking at – the characters she pictured. No consensus in part because how ‘normals’ perceive ‘stigmatized’ people, and vice versa, is an ever-evolving process. (See Erving Goffman’s Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, 1963, which Arbus read.) Goffman called these interactions ‘mixed-contacts’. There was also no ‘social-looking contract’ – my term – codifying how viewers should look at her photographs. Still isn’t.

‘Someone told me it is spring, but everyone today looked remarkable, just like out of August Sander pictures, so absolute and immutable down to the last button [...] all odd and splendid as freaks and nobody able to see himself, all of us victims of the especial shape we come in,’ wrote Arbus in 1960, in a note to her friend, the artist Marvin Israel. Arbus recognized the precariousness of her interests and knew her terrain was treacherous. Curiosity, identification, fear, discontent with her upper-middle-class origin, and fascination with what she was not, caused her to seek and embrace difference. Her characters aren’t posed in shadows. They look directly, baldly, at the camera. Her photographs don’t take a recognizable side: she is not moralistic or judgmental. Her most infamous or celebrated images reside in the interstices of ethical positions, since the eye of a wavering beholder is also a judge.

A viewer might be thrown contending with Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. (1967), girls who are common or normal and also different. Or, by Arbus’s representation of an upper-middle-class white family in their suburban backyard, A Family on the Lawn one Sunday in Westchester (1968), which appears to have landed in ‘The Twilight Zone’ – ‘nearly like [Harold] Pinter but not quite’ she writes in a letter. Or, by A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, N.Y. (1970): giant man and parents stand in the living room of a small apartment and compose an unbalanced image, one that also upends the nuclear family and makes it ‘other’, even perverse.

Risking ambiguities, Arbus vigorously subverted the subject/object position, shoving the viewer onto her soft ground. She interrogated looking, aggressively, and made looking itself controversial.

Diane Arbus, 1923–1971. Courtesy: Roz Kelly/Getty Images

A naked gaze forced the viewer’s look to rebound onto itself, which may not make a pleasant picture. Consciously, unconsciously, viewers hold points of view and attitudes about what’s pictured. If it is hard to look at or turn away from an Arbus photograph, it may be because viewers experience unwanted or unclear impulses – disgust, loathing, fascination. Arbus’s photographs work with and against self-disguise.

Art-conscious characters know that,early in the 20th century, Marcel Duchamp threw the seminal art screwball, but his work provoked a mostly sectarian response, testing institutional limits and aesthetics. Arbus’s photographs ripped up the ‘benign-looking contract’. There is no social contract anymore.

Do ‘others’ see themselves as ‘other’? No, she or he is not marginal in his or her life. And, whoever ‘they’ are, they probably view and shoot too. Anyone can ‘exploit’ anyone on TV, and many do. So, ‘willing’ or ‘unwilling’ participation begs new ethical definitions. There’s power, advantages … I’m longing for an elastic dictionary. Fortunately, it’s football season in the US. But the concussions suffered in that game …

Main image: Male Photographer Standing On A Wall And Taking Pictures, undated. Courtesy: Sur Da Sri Ceriy Phakr / EyeEm / Gretty Images

Lynne Tillman is the author of Mothercare (2022) and numerous other books. The reissue of her 

second novel, Motion Sickness (1991), was published by Peninsula Press in September.