© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus, ‘Woman in a rose hat, N.Y.C.,’ 1966© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Giant

A new exhibit showcases the work of Diane Arbus, surrealist ethnographer and the greatest portrait photographer of her generation

J. Hoberman
October 06, 2022
© The Estate of Diane Arbus
Diane Arbus, ‘Woman in a rose hat, N.Y.C.,’ 1966© The Estate of Diane Arbus

“Go in for the kill” is an expression I’ve heard photojournalists use. To me, it suggests that their art requires a skill akin to bullfighting. Still, it’s a truism that the camera can be “a weapon of aggression.” So it was described by Susan Sontag in her ferocious takedown of the recently deceased photographer Diane Arbus, first published in The New York Review of Books in 1973 under the headline “Freak Show.”

On the other hand, in Arbus’ case, the photograph might be the weapon. To enter Cataclysm—a facsimile of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition that so disturbed Sontag, staged on its 50th anniversary by the David Zwirner galley—is to be zapped across the room by the close-ups on the opposite wall. Tightly framed (or cropped), Arbus’ subjects typically stare directly into the camera. The show is something of a confrontation.

Arbus, who was born in 1923 and died by her own hand in 1971, was the greatest American portrait photographer of her generation. Indeed, with the possible exception of Robert Frank, she may be that cohort’s greatest photographer of any sort. She was also a woman possessed. Typecast as a collector of sideshow freaks, Arbus might equally be termed a surrealist ethnographer, a tragic humanist, a sensation-seeking existentialist, or, in the tradition of 19th-century French outsider poets, a camera-artist maudit.

Diane Arbus, at far right, with her husband, Allan Arbus, during a fashion shoot on the corner of 72nd Street and Park Avenue, New York, circa 1953
Diane Arbus, at far right, with her husband, Allan Arbus, during a fashion shoot on the corner of 72nd Street and Park Avenue, New York, circa 1953Slim Aarons/Getty Images

A fashion photographer before she turned freelance, Arbus was drawn to human anomalies, twins (and triplets), and pseudo twins (friends wearing matching outfits). She was interested in the mismatched couples she found in Washington Square and Central Park, as well as prosperous, middle-aged women encountered strolling on Fifth Avenue. She was fascinated by strippers, nudists, and androgynous men, many of whom she persuaded to pose in their boudoirs. Arbus, the mother of two daughters, also photographed babies. Cataclysm includes four close-up images of infants. Three are crying infants; the fourth, with eyes shut, has the placidity of a death mask. (In fact, he grew up to be CNN newsman Anderson Cooper.)

The title Cataclysm is meant to evoke the 1972 show’s tumultuous reception. (One photography critic accused the show’s curators and supporters of “confusing despair, melancholy, and nausea with profundity.”) It also has intimations of the biblical deluge—appropriate to the epic quality of Arbus’ strongest images as well as her life. Diane Nemerov was born to privilege and raised in what one biographer called a gilded ghetto. Her mother’s family owned the luxury Fifth Avenue department store Russeks. She grew up on Park Avenue and Central Park West, where she was schooled by governesses, and sent to the Ethical Culture school in Riverdale. At 18, she rebelliously married Russeks employee Allan Arbus. He served, as a photographer, in the Signal Corps but, like the Great Depression, World War II seems to have left Diane untouched.

In 1946, the young couple opened a fashion studio. A decade later, she struck out on her own. By the early 1960s, Arbus had a killer reputation as a paparazzi. “One hears stories of Diane Arbus stalking her prey at a cocktail party or an art opening,” is how the New York Times photography critic Gene Thornton began an article published a month after Arbus’ suicide. “A tiny, birdlike woman, freighted with all the baggage of a well-equipped freelance photographer, she tiptoes up to her intended victim and stops just inches away, camera to eye, ready to shoot … ‘It was a terrifying experience,’ said one such victim with passionate conviction.’” Arbus, however, had other ways to terrorize herself.

She was boldly interactional. Although often bracketed with street photographers Gary Winogrand and Lee Friedlander (contemporaries with whom she shared her first MoMA show in 1967), Arbus was more of a pickup artist. She befriended and at times even became intimate with her more outré subjects, some of whom she photographed over a period of years. Arbus’ portraits are in some sense collaborations, albeit carefully chosen from numerous possibilities. She invented what could be called a staged snapshot. One can see how Arbus posed her subjects, or how they chose to present themselves, but only imagine what, amid a barrage of shutter clicks, she said or did to illicit their expressions. (Her contact sheets are revelatory.)

Arbus was at once promiscuous and selective. Armored, so she thought, by her camera equipment, she went where she pleased. She trawled Times Square, Coney Island and drag bars from which she was often expelled. She attended orgies and befriended the human exhibits at Hubert’s Museum (and Flea Circus), the 42nd Street cabinet of curiosities that fascinated the likes of Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce.

In the mid ’60s, Arbus was a familiar sight among New York’s working photographers. Ubiquitous on the scene, she photographed at downtown clubs like the Dom on St. Mark’s Place, and attended William Burroughs’ reading in a Bowery loft. The underground filmmaker Jack Smith kicked her out of his apartment and the director Judith Malina expelled her from rehearsals of the Living Theater. She was on the set at the Warhol Factory and present for Timothy Leary’s wedding. (Whatever photos she took, none were deemed worthy of exhibition.)

As a photojournalist, Arbus covered all manner of protest marches and be-ins, although working the fringes looking for individuals who interested her. Attending a Rolling Stones concert at the Academy of Music, she zeroed in on an ordinary teenage fan.

The movie Rebel Without a Cause opened a month after its star James Dean fatally crashed his racing car. Viewers knew they were watching a ghost. So too with MoMA’s 1972 Arbus show. A photograph may be a memento mori. Here, each photo reflected back on its maker. “She must have been a mess—no wonder she killed herself,” sniffed the dean of British fashion photographers, Sir Cecil Beaton.

The presumption of Arbus’ morbid curiosity was amplified by the public who attended her show—in droves. The exhibition attracted more visitors than any previous photography show in MoMA’s history. Repeat viewers included Susan Sontag, so disturbed by what she saw that she was inspired to write a book-length critique of the photographic medium.

Remarkably disinhibited, Sontag’s strong reaction to Arbus’ work articulated what many must have felt. Her antipathy extended to Arbus’ subjects: The “work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate feelings.” Having made that confession, Sontag somewhat tautologically declared that Arbus not only sought out freaks but, like some camera-wielding Medusa, could transform anyone she photographed into a freak. Similar criticism was leveled against the great portrait artist Alice Neel about whom the art critic Hilton Kramer complained that people were “shown to be cruel or pompous or vacant or spaced out or just a little nutty.” (Interestingly, however, Kramer was an early defender of Arbus whom, he wrote, “lavishes an extraordinary candor and sympathy on her subjects.”)

Attributing uncanny powers to Arbus, Sontag claimed that “her sensibility, armed with a camera, could insinuate anguish, kinkiness, mental illness with any subject.” Not surprisingly, Sontag never mentioned that she herself had been photographed by Arbus, hugging her 13-year-old son David Reiff as he peers smugly at the camera, as part of a 1965 Esquire magazine assignment on famous people and their offspring. Nor, except to herself, could Sontag admit to her own longstanding interest in freaks. Her celebrated “Notes on Camp” evidently began as a meditation on morbidity. “To define the sensibility of Diane Arbus plunges me back into my original subject,” she noted in her journals.

Perhaps because Sontag understood Arbus as her “secret sharer,” she presumed to explicate the artist’s background. Arbus was not simply born rich, she “came from a verbally skilled, compulsively health-minded, indignation-prone, well-to-do Jewish family, for whom minority sexual tastes lived way below the threshold of awareness and risk-taking was despised as another goyish craziness.” It seems unlikely that Sontag (who grew up as Sue Rosenblatt and suffered antisemitic jibes as a child in Arizona) identified with Arbus’ haute bourgeois Jewish parents. Still, she saw Arbus as something of a Jewish heretic, an apikoros whose work was “reactive against gentility, against what is approved,” as well as “a revolt against the Jews’s hyper-developed moral sensibility.”

Diane Arbus in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1967
Diane Arbus in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1967David Gahr/Getty Images

However Arbus may have struggled as a freelancer to support her two children, Sontag typecast her as a sort of spoiled dropout who embodied “the ambivalence toward success which afflicted the children of the Jewish upper middle-classes in the 1960s.” But then, in Sontag’s paradoxical formulation, Arbus was not really shocking the bourgeoisie, only pandering to their prejudices: “Making equivalences between freaks, mad people, suburban couples, and nudists is a very powerful judgment, one in complicity with a recognizable political mood shared by many educated, left-liberal Americans.” If anything this equivalence was made by the self-anointed hippie “freaks” of the counterculture (whom Arbus found a dull subject).

Most telling, Sontag identified Arbus as a poster child for the same decade that brought her to prominence: “Arbus’s serious work coincides with, and is very much of, the sixties, the decade in which freaks went public, and became a safe, approved subject of art.” (Sontag was thinking of Fellini, El Topo, underground comics, and “rock spectacles” but not evidently her enthusiasm for mad Antonin Artaud or the underground movie Flaming Creatures which she had famously defended a decade before.)

Wanting no part of Arbus, Sontag suppressed her response to the photographs and thus simplified them. Yet, for all their immediacy, the photographs are complicated. Arbus may have been an urban creature but her most haunting images can be weirdly pastoral—the nudists in the woods, the rural carnival performers outside a billowing tent, under an ominous sky. One of her last series depicts the inmates and staff of a New Jersey institute for mentally disabled women in plein air, masked for Halloween or turning cartwheels in a barren meadow. Grotesque yet serene, these images worthy of Goya. They are also, however disquietingly, universal.

Arbus’ most powerful photographs are not so much icons or metaphors (although they can be seen as such) as found archetypes and even allegories. The youthful yet robust nudist couple standing shyly in the woods are Adam and Eve. The sour-looking elderly couple enthroned as a retirement home’s prom royalty present a comic yet unbearable statement regarding human mortality. So does the boy dressed as a man or the young girl with a middle-aged face and an old lady’s bathing camp. The critic Hilton Als has suggested that the man posing naked as a woman (his genital concealed between his thighs) is a kind of joke on Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”

Among my favorite Arbus portraits is that of the 8-foot-tall, 395 pound “Jewish Giant” Eddie Carmel, head scraping the ceiling as he towers over his bemused parents in their Bronx apartment. The literary critic Leslie Fiedler wrote a book-length meditation on the subject of freaks that barely mentions Arbus (and Sontag not at all) but ponders this image, noting that “in legend Giants are the most goyish of all Freaks—typified by the monstrous Goliath against the frail champion of the Jews, the boy-man David.” (The questionable nature of this assertion is underscored when he goes on to suggest Carmel as a potential Samson.)

The image allows for multiple readings. Carmel’s parents might be staring at the Golem or a manifestation of post-Six-Day War Israel. More simply, the photograph shows an elderly couple struck dumb by the mysterious entity—their child—they brought into the world. Might it also represent Sontag—or any of us—confronting the “monstrous” quality of Arbus’ photographs? It took years for her to get this image which, once seen is never forgotten. Hardly a memento mori, it may be as close as any photograph will ever come to immortality.

J. Hoberman was the longtime Village Voice film critic. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.