December 2, 2011 10:08 pm

Ordinary magic

A retrospective of Diane Arbus’s photographs invites us to rethink myths by letting the images speak for themselves

Joel Meyerowitz, a great and influential photographer, used to accompany Diane Arbus sometimes when she was working. He said of her: “She could hypnotise people, I swear. She would start talking to them and they would be as fascinated with her as she was with them.”

Arbus’s fame is partly (inescapably) to do with the fact that she took her own life. She had remarkably few exhibitions in her lifetime, and all her books were published posthumously. Her first show – in fact, her only major show – was the 1967 New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which she shared with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.

Her subjects were often marginal outsiders but she, herself, was not. Working for Esquire in the early 1960s, she was in at the start of the “new journalism”, alongside Norman Mailer, Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. When she worked on Harper’s Bazaar, then the very vanguard of all that was hip, her friends included Richard Avedon and Robert Frank. She was a well-trained and literate photographer from a world in which photography was taken seriously. Within a year of her death in 1971, she had been chosen to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, the first photographer to do so.

It is a struggle, now, to remember just how radical her stance had been. On a wall panel of that first exhibition, the curator John Szarkowski, head of the photography department at MoMA, wrote: “In the past decade a new generation of photographers has directed the documentary approach towards more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy – almost an affection – for the imperfections and frailties of society.” That little phrase of Szarkowski’s has become almost the entry-ticket for a certain kind of photography, whose capital has been New York, and which included Robert Mapplethorpe and Nan Goldin.

A large retrospective devoted to Arbus has begun its European tour at the Jeu de Paume in Paris. It is set up to invite us to rethink the various myths of Arbus by letting the pictures speak for themselves. There is plenty of biographical material and addenda such as contact sheets, but that is all held until the end of the show. First you see a steady sequence of astounding photographs in white frames, paced out in a calm, unhurried manner with almost no variations of hang. A preliminary section is shown against a grey wall, which suits Arbus admirably. The rest of the show is against white, which I think a mistake. Arbus worked mainly in the darker end of grey and the white walls tend to suck a lot of the heat out of those tones.

With the pictures hung like this, and all text held back other than Arbus’s own careful titles, several things become apparent. Arbus photographed plenty of celebrities, for example, but never got the best out of them. Even a touching picture of Dorothy and Lillian Gish, photographed outdoors in the snow in their advanced old age, shows less about them than about the peculiar ferocity Arbus brought to a picture. She kept the old ladies there so long they have trampled the snow.

She had far more success with ordinary people, whose extraordinariness she always managed to find. It was at one time acceptable to describe Arbus’s subjects as “freaks”, and it is easy to lump them all together so. But sword-swallowers, transvestites, midgets, ballroom dancers and patriot boys don’t necessarily have much in common with each other. What Arbus wanted to see was how they faced up to their otherness, how we all do.

For a magazine photographer, she hardly travelled: it is striking how cooped up in New York she mostly remained. Yet although New York was her theatre, she didn’t really make street photographs in the manner of Helen Levitt. When she had to photograph in the street, she often went in so close as to eliminate it. She preferred to accompany people home and photographed them there.

Interiors are important in Arbus’s pictures, for providing the clues by which to read character: dressing rooms, bedrooms, green rooms were the places she really liked. She sought transitions in general, and among them the transition from the uniform of one tribe to that of another. Several different pictures in this exhibition show people in two states at once: most obviously transvestites, a recurring fascination for Arbus.

'Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L. I.' (1963) by Diane Arbus

'Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L. I.' (1963)

All photographs are still but her pictures are more still than most, frozen by flash or that relentless stare of hers. In this exhibition, the single blur of movement is the frenetic hand of a girl stroking her lover to climax. There’s a large sexual interest in Arbus, as though sex were the place where disguise falls away. Arbus sees people as actors, expressing themselves and we’re all creative in her pictures: odd taste in clothing or odd social habits are no different from the evidence of other kinds of memberships. It’s how we wear these things that Arbus sought to show, and how without adversity there can be no triumph.

Diane Arbus, Jeu de Paume, Paris, until February 5, www.jeudepaume.org

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