Susan Sontag, still the best commentator on Diane Arbus’s work to date, once divided photographers into two different categories: scientists and moralists. Whereas the former set out to make an inventory of the entire world, moralists attempt to concentrate their gaze upon the “hard cases.”
Curiously enough, Arbus could be said to fit into both categories at once. For while she once stated that her wish was to photograph everybody, aligning her project with the conceits of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (a novel purportedly about every person that has ever lived) and August Sander’s attempt to photograph every citizen of Weimar Germany, her perspective was utterly lacking in the earnest intentions of scientific cataloguing. Her big subject was vulgarity, and everywhere she looked, she found it. The more normal you seemed to everyone else, the more freakish you appeared to Diane Arbus. Take Patriotic Young Man with a Flag, NYC (1967), from a series of pro-war demonstrators. A freckled ginger with albino eyes stares skywards, an idiot smile adorning his heart-shaped face. The flaccid American flag he waves is echoed by the one on the round button worn on his lapel, under which is inscribed “I’m proud” in block capitals. As a blanket evocation of jingoistic stupidity, this is about as moralistic as it gets.
Arbus was the photographer America never wanted, but always deserved. She was the first to show us what’s wrong with the country in a non-documentary way. It’s difficult to imagine how subsequent dissident clickers of the country’s uglier private reaches would have fared without her example. In order to understand why she did what she did, I think we have to take her at her word when she said she really did intend to photograph everyone out there. What she means is that she didn’t go looking for her subjects; rather, they came to her.
So the curators of the Diane Arbus retrospective currently on in Berlin were wise to arrange her photos according to a similar logic. Her work strongly resists both the standard chronological approach and even the thematic tactic, which, while certainly possible in Arbus’s case, would have reduced her output to a series of examples. Clearly an obsessive editor of her own impulses, the power of her oeuvre lies in the particular unutterable truth that each image articulates on its own terms. So the exhibition arranges the photos according to Arbus’s own visual language, raw and uncompromising.
Even at her most banal, every image comes loaded down with pathos. In Room with lamp and light fixture, NYC (1944), she inflected a barren interior with a sadness so profound, we can’t help but remember that this is an artist who would kill herself twenty-seven years later. But is that room anymore empty than the half-full house seated beneath the awesome swath of projector light cutting across 42nd Street movie theater audience, NYC (1958)? The bodies comprising this midweek matinee belong to the unemployed, those playing hooky from dead-end jobs, the terminally bored – the socially listless that Arbus was too fond of identifying with. Voids can be located nearly anywhere one looks; but it takes a certain incredibly rare type to really see them.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author