1972 Diane Arbus Documentary Interviews Those Who Knew the American Photographer Best

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Diane (pro­nounced Dee-Ann) Arbus received much new press a few years ago with the release of the high­ly fic­tion­al­ized and mis­guid­ed biopic Fur, star­ring Nicole Kid­man. The movie did not do well, and its crit­i­cal fail­ure may have eclipsed some re-eval­u­a­tion of her work in favor of pruri­ent spec­u­la­tion about the woman behind it. Anoth­er oppor­tu­ni­ty arrived last year on the 40th anniver­sary of Arbus’s death by sui­cide at age 48, and with the pub­li­ca­tion of William Todd Schultz’s Arbus biog­ra­phy An Emer­gency in Slow Motion. But long before all of this renewed inter­est in Arbus, there was the short doc­u­men­tary Mas­ters of Pho­tog­ra­phy: Diane Arbus (above). Pro­duced in 1972, one year after Arbus’s death, the film is built on inter­views with the peo­ple who knew her best: her daugh­ter Doon, her teacher at the New School, Lisette Mod­el, col­league Mar­vin Israel, and the direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy at the time for the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, John Szarkows­ki. That same year, Arbus became the first Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­ph­er to be fea­tured, posthu­mous­ly, at the Venice Bien­nale.

Born Diane Nemerov to wealthy par­ents in New York City, Arbus once con­fid­ed to Studs Terkel that she “grew up feel­ing immune and exempt from cir­cum­stance.” “One of the things I suf­fered from,” said Arbus, “was that I nev­er felt adver­si­ty. I was con­firmed in a sense of unre­al­i­ty.” Arbus gained a rep­u­ta­tion for pur­su­ing the seem­ing­ly “unre­al” in the midst of real­i­ty; her pho­to­graph­ic sub­jects were cir­cus “freaks,” social out­siders, eccen­tric per­form­ers, the phys­i­cal­ly dis­abled (whom she called “aris­to­crats”) and just ordi­nary, not very attrac­tive, peo­ple.

Some­times her sub­jects seem unre­al because their warts-and-all ordi­nar­i­ness con­trasts so stark­ly with the glossy denizens of slick, full-col­or magazines–those who can seem more real to us than we do to our­selves. She may have been dri­ven to the mar­gins because of her hatred for the fash­ion pho­tog­ra­phy she and her hus­band, Allan Arbus, did for Vogue, Sev­en­teen, and Glam­our.

Arbus had a unique abil­i­ty to coax pow­er­ful por­traits from her sub­jects, most of whom stare direct­ly at her cam­era, and the view­er, and do not shrink from con­fronta­tion. As with most artists who com­mit sui­cide, a “cult of Arbus” has sprung up to defend her from crit­i­cal scruti­ny, but there are legit­i­mate ques­tions about whether her por­trai­ture human­izes or exploits her sub­jects. Susan Son­tag believed the lat­ter and described her work as “based on dis­tance, on priv­i­lege.” React­ing to her por­trait of him, Nor­man Mail­er found her work dan­ger­ous enough to quip, “Giv­ing a cam­era to Diane Arbus is like giv­ing a hand grenade to a baby.” But Arbus was not naïve: she describes her­self in an audio inter­view above as “kind of two-faced, very ingra­ti­at­ing,” and “a lit­tle too nice” to her sub­jects while she cap­tures their flaws. I’ll admit, it’s a lit­tle hard to make up one’s mind about her moti­va­tions, but the pho­tographs are always deeply com­pelling.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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