What is far more difficult to grasp from the work included in "The Dawn f Photography" is that the very frankness f photography can also inspire a whole other kind f artistic posturing. For if directness is photography's glory, it is also liable to be manipulated, used as a sort f all-purpose rhetorical device, until frankness itself becomes a form f obfuscation or artiness--which is a fair description, I think, f the work f Diane Arbus.
Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971 at the age f forty-eight, is widely admired as a truth-teller, and if the initial reactions to the new book, Diane Arbus: Revelations, are any indication, the woman and her work are exerting as strong an attraction today as they did at the time f the posthumous retrospective at the Museum f Modern Art in 1972. Arbus's warts-and-all photographs, which are at once exposes and benedictions, create just the right kind f psychological havoc for a public that is all too willing to believe that any image that disturbs your equanimity is emotionally authentic, and that the greatest works f art are the ones that leave you wondering if you are yourself emotionally authentic. The public all too easily confuses hyperbole with honesty, and Arbus, who is intent on telling us how awful everything is, is a master f the highfalutin creep-out.
In a series f photographs f older women on the streets f New York, Arbus seems to suggest that these ladies, who quite clearly take considerable pride in looking their best, are in fact ghouls; she gives such a sharp-eyed attention to their elaborately made-up faces and carefully arranged clothes that they begin to resemble the transvestites in whom Arbus also took an interest. The very eagerness with which Arbus's ladies out for an afternoon pose for the camera becomes a measure f their self-delusion. What's missing is the delicacy that Brassai (whose work Arbus admired) brought to his famous photograph f an old whore, swathed in cheap jewellery, seated in a caf. Brassa reminds us that, for all her haggard theatricality, this wreck f a woman is still the proud possessor f a pair f beautiful, velvety eyes. Arbus uses the fixity f the image to deny people their freedom--and in so doing she also denies them their self-esteem. She undermines the young as well as the old, the pretty as well as the ugly. Often photographed front and centre, in a dull symmetry, even her most sexually intriguing subjects seem wilted, marooned. Nobody ever looks their best, which is meant as some sort f revelation.
Arbus is one f those devious bohemians who celebrate other people's eccentricities and are all the while aggrandizing their own narcissistically pessimistic view f the world. In a letter from 1968, Arbus observes that "all families are creepy in a way," and f course we know what she means. There is a solipsistic element to family life, a comfortableness in the way that husbands and wives and children interact that can at times feel almost sordid. When Arbus photographs an upscale suburban family relaxing in their backyard, she seems to want us to believe that the husband's and the wife's desire to present themselves as an attractive, sexy couple hides some terrible secret. But the only secret that is