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Diane Arbus
Text from Bystander: A History of Street Photography

Colin Westerbeck: You mentioned the flash mounted on [Arbus's] camera. What about her use of it: how crucial to her pictures do you think it was?

Joel Meyerowitz: Oh, pretty important, really essential. She really introduced an idea that has of course been picked up by everybody, flash in daylight on the streets. She didn't want to have too much of this situation where faces got dark because the background behind them was lighter. By employing the flash she didn't have to manipulate people who were backlit and turn them around into the sun where she would cast a shadow on them and they would be squinting into the camera. Instead, she could get them unblinking, because if you turn someone around to the sunlight, then they start screwing up their face.

Not only that, but the flash in daylight gave an unnatural feel to the pictures. It gave her subjects a certain fun-house presence, picking up the shine on faces in a way that made them physically gross, even grotesque, or that brought a careworn quality to them.

The flash also casts a bizarre light on the account you just gave of how she worked, how she insinuated herself into someone's life. The flash creates an image that looks more like a confrontation than the seduction you describe.

If it was a confrontation, it was a very soft and entangling one. Garry [Winogrand] was the bear, and she was the spider. You could see how she got into people's lives. She was genuinely interested in them, and they became entranced by her, enamored of her. She had what would be called, in sixties parlance, good vibes - an aura, charisma, something that emanated from her. If she was next to somebody, near somebody, and she wanted to photograph them, she would send out her interest. It was as if a bloom would just open up, and they would see her, and she would say something to them in hardly an audible way, and they would listen. Because if someone speaks low enough, people listen. There was a kind of incantation in her whisper, and people would go limp.

Yes, you can literally see that in the pictures. The people in them are limp, often. The posture that she elicits from them is the kind of limpness that you see in the street portrait of the old couple sitting on a bench or the family from Brooklyn where the kid is hanging, goggle-eyed, off his father's hand.

You know, if you look at her pictures, the one thing you don't see is resistance. You don't see people chin up, toughing it out, saying, "Here, take my measure, I dare you!" People are giving themselves over to her. When you look at those pictures, their subjects are just flowing out toward her, giving up their mystery. Diane was an emissary from the world of feeling. She cared about these people. They felt that and gave her their secret.

The truth seemed to be that she was usually limp and defenseless herself. In my experience, anyhow, she was always exhausted, searching, sighing. There was a sigh, a profound human sigh deep inside her somewhere: "I can't do it, it's beyond me." But then she would stifle that inner voice, that doubt, enough to lift her spirits so she could go and photograph.

She was always worn out by the demands of working with the camera. She liked to think she was klutzy, that she didn't know how to use this implement, she couldn't print well enough. But that didn't stop her from working. it was part of what she put out around her. It was as if everything was too hard, yet she was doing it all the same, in spite of how hard it was. Even the pressure of her voice, the hushed tones in which she talked, seemed to be saying, "This is too much for me, Joel, this camera, I've got to put the camera down." But she never did.

The most passive and defenseless of her subjects are found among the nudists, I feel, because those people aren't simply nude in the aesthetic sense of the term. They're naked - naked and vulnerable. They're laid bare not just by their own nudity, but by a kind of collusion with the camera; and (worst of all) they don't even know it.

These people seem to stand for all the others in her work, who are also being exposed in some sense by the photograph. It's striking to what extent one set of subjects - fringe groups like nudists or transvestites, or institutionalized people who are retarded - seems to reflect the others. The "ordinary" people she found on the street look as if they live in the same seamless world as the mentally handicapped, the carnival sword swallowers, and the rest.

Diane's world looks everywhere the same because of the way she printed everything. I remember that she had proofs pinned up on a folding screen, maybe four or five panels, that was around her bed in the big main room in her carriage house. That's how she displayed her work there.

She had this funny way of making her prints with black edges. Nobody could figure out how she did it, really, but I thought I knew. I thought she probably had a piece of glass to hold down the paper she was printing on, and that she had masked the glass with tape or paint. That's why you get those strange, wavy, unfocused edges; if you look closely at them, even in reproduction in the book, you'll see that the bumps and wiggles come always in the same places, as if she was using the same printing matte for every image.

It's a very effective device, as if she had pulled back the enlarger head to reveal the void that exists beyond the confines of the photograph, as if, beyond the photographic frame, you just fell off into indefinite space. I always suspected that the inspiration for those edges came from the work of Richard Avedon, who was of course a close friend of hers, and who was printing his 2 1/4 negatives so that the Kodak name on the edges showed in the print.

I think Diane was there first. I'll tell you, though, I picked up a clue from her about the portraits that I started to make a number of years ago - that you could allow the subjects the room to liberate themselves for a moment and speak to the camera with their inner self, that that's the thing to photograph, not the surface only, because who cares, you're going to get the surface anyway. But if you could somehow open them up and let them be, as she lets them be....

Where I think she ran into a brick wall was with the people who were institutionalized, because there the inner self was closed to her. 1 think she spent herself and drove herself crazy with those people because there was no feedback from them. Functional people - the sword swallowers and taxi drivers and so on - were like her. But these others were impenetrable, and I think it must have made her frantic to be on the outside like that with her subjects.

Do you feel that the social consciousness that seems to inhere in the photographs was in Arbus herself, that it was any part of her intention with the work? The reason I ask is that I think there was a distinct social overtone to the remarkable success of her posthumous exhibition at the Modern.

That show, in 1972, was the most popular photography exhibition the museum had done since Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man," which the Arbus show was very much the opposite of in spirit. It was grim and rather queasy about life in our time, whereas the earlier show had been very upbeat and sentimental. Arbus's pictures suited the mood of the public, or a part of it, anyway, in the Nixon era, the last stages of the Vietnam War, just as Steichen's editorializing had appealed to the more positive, confident attitudes of a decade and a half earlier.

In fact, one particular image by Arbus, which was very popular and much reproduced at the time, was especially telling, I thought - the one of the skinny kid with the toy grenade in his hand. 1 always felt that in a funny way that exasperated kid with the grenade was seen by people as an emblematic character. His puny rage, and the way it makes him pull the trigger on that grenade, made him a perfect political cartoon to represent a nation choking on its own bile over Vietnam and greatly diminished in self-image.

I agree that there was a kind of timely social significance to Diane's pictures, though how aware she herself was of that I don't know.

You have to keep in mind how intimate the process was by which they were made, even many of the street pictures. She wasn't expanding anybody's horizons, but narrowing down her own focus, homing in on subjects who were enthralled by her because they could feel how personal and private her interest in them was.

You know, I have to say that the reason I think Arbus and Winogrand were the central photographers of that generation your generation, the one after Frank's Americans - is that they were the ones who were really flying by the seat of their pants, being guided purely by their feelings and intuitions and a kind of subconscious instinct, following through most powerfully on the lead that The Americans offered. Whether they felt they were actually being influenced by Frank's example or not, they were still fulfilling a certain promise for the medium that his work held out.

They were trying to make pictures out of a deeper part of their personalities than anyone else had before, the kind of pictures where you remove the constraints of the rational mind. Where Cartier-Bresson would use an elegantly constructed frame as a setting for the one nutty thing he would allow to come into the middle of his picture, Winogrand and Arbus were making pictures that were all nuts. They let the beast get loose in their work.

Diane made the pictures out of her needs, you know, and they took shape from her needs and her curiosity, so we can see the real point, the knife edge of her curiosity, in them. It probes and it sticks us hard and it hurts and it inspires and it's all those sharp things that come when someone needs to do something and they find a way. And it's just the same with Garry. He didn't lean on Robert or Cartier-Bresson or Evans; he was just Garry. The same with her. She created her photographs out of who she was.


 


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