By Svetlana Alpers
I have never particularly liked Diane Arbus’ photographs. They are hard to look at. By which I mean her subjects: the cool representation of deformed people be they retarded, dwarfs, giants, crippled or just anyone exposed to her look. The argument that she shows us the oddities native to us all does not persuade. It is too reductive.There would have to be more to these photographs than that. But what?
I once saw an Arbus exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris which fascinated me because the prints were so fine. She gave great care to each small square image printed with uneven dark borders exposed. Each photograph had a crafted, attentive, hand-made look. And then on a lecture trip to the University of Kansas I spent time in the museum with some of her unedited film strips. What struck me was the persistence with which she looked again and again until the final edit picked the image that was right. True of many photographers, but the nature of her subjects made it more remarkable.
This wonderful, complex book changes the way one sees Arbus photographs. It offers an answer to my “But what?” It is complex because it is the record of Alexander Nemerov’s attempt to understand the art of and in his family—the photographs of his aunt, his father’s sister (the great Diane Arbus) and the poetry of his father (the fine Howard Nemerov). There is a triangulation between aunt (photographs) father (poems) and the art historian son (writing). And that is made eloquently visible by Fraenkel, the distinguished San Francisco photographic gallery which published the book. Photography threatens to takes over: we are shown photographs of the covers of books of poems, read the poems on photographs of pages, and there are photographs by Arbus whose estate rarely permits reproduction.
The starting place for the author (whose aunt killed herself when he was eight) is that his aunt and his father were distant to each other. His father had a deep dislike for photography, in particular the images made by his sister. The course of the book, the winding course of the book one should say, is the search for some common ground—the key to their “silent dialogue,” those being Arbus’ words to her brother on reading his memoir. Here a third voice is added.
The first mediation is, surprisingly, by way of Bruegel. Seizing the phrase Whatever is proverbial becomes pictorial from his father’s poem “The World as Bruegel Imagines It,” the son realizes that that is a way to understand Arbus way of seeing or, rather, of representing seeing. A two page spread—on the left an Arbus Untitled, a photo of a line of merry-making patients at a New Jersey institution for the retarded and on the right Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind shows it all. Suddenly, for me, the reach of Arbus is put in place. The reach being not to show that we are all odd, but that people are living allegories of some further, other reality.
The point is reiterated by the turn to the Nemerov poem called “Hope (as Bruegel drew her” which refers to the 1559 print from the series of Virtues in which Bruegel places the delicately balanced female figure of Hope amidst the mayhem of the world. The juxtaposition with the Arbus photo of “An Albino sword-swallower at a carnival” on the following page is perfect. Nemerov has discovered that seen by way of Bruegel, Arbus’ freaks are not freaks, but instead like allegorical figures whose significance has gone missing: the sword-swallower intuited here as a figure of hope. An art historian has come upon a fruitful way to see Arbus.
By way of seeing family bonds, consider that his father’s poem on Bruegel’s Hope (described in the poem as a beliefless lady riding out a storm) was published on the page adjacent to “To D . . . Dead by Her Own Hand,” Howard Nemerov’s tribute to his dead sister. The identity between Hope and Diana is made visible in the pair of poems as they were printed which appear photographed here.
In a delicate balancing act that is sometimes hard for the author to maintain or for the reader to follow, the book opens up to acknowledge familial tendencies, or call them obsessions. The author’s own experience appears prominently here. Take winners as losers. Arbus withering photograph of “The King and Queen of a Senior Citizen Dance” is coupled by Alexander Nemerov with his college journalism taste for writing on the losing Washington Generals over the doomed- to-win Harlem Globetrotters. The first section of the book concludes with a photo of Arbus looking out from a park bench. The author asks of the image of the aunt he never knew, “Who was that person on the bench? What is my relation to her?”
It is that strangeness, what is unknown about others, that is the subject of the second part of the book. It begins, two pages after the image of Arbus sitting on the bench, with Arbus own puzzling photo of two retarded women patients seated on the grass of a field. This is one of many so-called Untitled images of figures, often in costumes, arrayed against the sky sitting on what are rightly described here as the terrifying fields of their institution Nemerov cleverly refers to this group of photographs as the remains of a fractured altarpiece. Such images propose something beyond the world seen, beyond time, beyond even the self—a kind of doomsday view.
Photography can be the most literal of the arts in facing and seeing the world. That constraint, a powerful and productive constraint I would say, is here undone. This book has made me see that in Arbus. But it gives me pause.
Svetlana Alpers, an artist, critic and renowned art historian, is professor emerita of the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting scholar in the Department of Fine Arts at New York University.