Art Doc of the Week | Masters of Photography: Diane Arbus
Doon Arbus, Diane Arbus’ daughter, kicks off this 1972 documentary on her mother and her mother’s work by sharing childhood memories of how the appeared and existed in their home, and keen analysis of what photography did for and meant to her mother – not only as an artist, but as a human being. It’s a smooth toggling back and forth between personal anecdotes and professional contextualizing. In her voice you hear pride and thoughtfulness, but never sentimentality. (She refers to her mother as Diane, not “mom” or “mother.”) After that set-up, we’re dropped into a stream of Arbus’ work, with her recorded voice explaining her process and what she’s ultimately after with her camera.
Arbus remains a controversial figure. Were her photos an exploitative wallowing in misery and freakishness for shock value? In the four decades since her death, her stark, compelling images of the flipside of cultural “norms” and ideals have amassed more fans than detractors (Susan Sontag wrote of Arbus’ work that it is “based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other”), but there are still those who view her aesthetic and approach with a suspicious eye. And there are even more who grapple with the work without being either fanboy or reflexively dismissive, who try to parse what it means for a woman born into great privilege but who feels like an outsider to identify with society’s freaks and outcasts.
At one point in the film, Arbus’s recorded voice says, “They [freaks] made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks – like a person in a fairytale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. I mean, if you’ve ever spoken to someone with two heads, you know they know something you don’t. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” You can imagine someone rolling their eyes at the soft fetishizing taking place in the photographer’s words, but there’s also genuine affection and thought there – and a kind of truth as well.
Subject matter and aesthetics once considered shocking or unnerving are now – largely because of Arbus’ unconventional interests and dogged documentation of them, the way she funneled them into mainstream discourse through her work – the stuff of fashion layouts, music videos, and indie films straining for outsider chic credibility. Everyone from Nan Goldin to Cindy Sherman is at least somewhat influenced by her.
On the recording of her that plays over her work (a recording made by a former student), Arbus says, “If I were just curious, it would be very hard to say to someone I want to come to your house and have you talk to me and tell me the story of your life… people are going to say you’re crazy, plus they’re going to keep mighty guarded. But the camera is a kind of license, and for a lot of people they want to be paid that kind of attention. And that’s a reasonable attention to pay.” The film cuts back and forth between passages where Arbus’ images flow across the stream as she talks about her childhood, why she does what he does, how she gains the trust of her subjects, and talking heads giving their analysis of her art.
Photographer Lisette Model contextualizes Arbus’ talent as fitting in the age-old model of the artist who is so new, who is doing something so unprecedented, that they are met with hostility and confusion because we don’t yet have the tools or language to process what they’re doing. In her own voice, the photographer weighs in on how she wins the trust of her subjects (“I think I’m kind of two-faced. I’m really ingratiating. It really kind of annoys me. I’m just sort of a little too nice.”), and of the jumble of motivations and emotions that flow through her when she’s in the throes of her creative pursuits. Digging into the role of artist as philosopher, she speaks on the gaps between who we want to be, what we might think we are, and who we really are, the gap between intention and effect, and there’s an unexpected joy in her voice even as she sometimes stumbles through her explanations. (It’s actually a pleasure to hear an artist speak on their work without sounding like a CEO pitching product.)
There’s an oddly soothing quality to the documentary, its tone and rhythm, which is interesting given the discomfiting quality of so much of Arbus’ work. But the early ‘70s fashions, the fact that images don’t whiz by in jagged quick-edit rhythms that are now the norm, the absence of music to tell how to feel, and the openness of Arbus when speaking, all gently pull the viewer into a fascinating critical overview. At one point, Arbus seems to sum up her practice and how it fits into the culture.“Something is ironic in the world,” she says, “and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intended. What I’m trying to describe is that it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s, and that’s what all this is a little bit about – that somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.”