Saturday, December 12, 2015
I just finished Patricia Bosworth's fascinating biography about the life of photographer Diane Arbus, who is famous for wandering New York in the 1950s and '60s, taking photos of peculiar characters. Her images are often said to capture and accentuate the grotesque aspects of humanity, though she resisted the idea that she only photographed "freaks" and did not want to be known as the "freak photographer."
Toward the end of her life in the early '70s, by suicide, she began to believe she was losing her ability to "capture a person's soul" with her camera. She felt like her newest work didn't reveal anything about her subjects.
But she had a lot of demons of her own, going back to her girlhood as the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan department store family. She was prone to depression, as was her brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, and she often seemed fixated on physicality and sexuality, and would flirt with and manipulate her subjects to get them to give her what she wanted. As the rather overblown back-cover copy on my mid-'80s edition said, "HER CAMERA WAS THE WINDOW TO A TORTURED SOUL."
I came away thinking I might not have liked her very much. Which makes sense, in a way, because her pictures are not my favorite, either. Portraiture has never really been my thing, and the idea that you can reveal a person's inner character through a portrait seems like folly to me. You can say something about them, yes, and you can try to capture the moment their "mask slips," as Arbus put it, but what they reveal may be no more than a passing mood or reaction. I'm not sure it's an inner constant. Why is it significant to annoy your subject enough to get a photo of them pursing their lips or grimacing? Part of why she became so frustrated with her own work, I think, is that she expected more from it than it could give.
She also shot in a style that doesn't appeal to me much -- occasionally dark, grainy images with slightly tilted horizons and cluttered margins. She's not as slapdash and immediate as Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, but like them, she seemed to rebel a bit against the neatly composed image. I, on the other hand, am very into neatness -- and where she was interested in exposing grotesquery, I'm more interested in accentuating the beauty of the routine. So we have different objectives, I guess.
(Photo: Our neighbor's driveway, on Wednesday.)