A personal contact with her subjects
Arbus's photographs offer intimate glimpses of others' lives - and of her
Venturing into Diane Arbus's "Revelations," one encounters "Self-portrait pregnant, N.Y.C. 1945," an image that shows the artist in the most personal and somewhat vulnerable situation: a nude portrait. The image works as a warning that this book is no curatorial exercise, but an open and intimate look at her life.
"Revelations" is meant to continue or even redirect an ongoing dialogue about her work. It attempts to connect Arbus with some of the great photographers of her time: Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Walker Evans. However, the main thesis in "Revelations" is that Arbus was not interested in the "formal possibilities of chance" that both Winogrand and Friedlander pursued, nor the detached look of Evans.
She wanted a personal connection with her subjects, and that's beautifully displayed here in her contact sheets where one is allowed to witness that intimate process. Nowhere is this involvement more obvious than in contact sheet #4457 of an interracial couple half-naked on a couch. In the middle of the negative strip, a frame shows Arbus naked in the arms of the man. In the contact sheet for "Child with a Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C 1962," we can witness the connection being made frame by frame, as if Arbus and the child reach a mutual agreement.
Even though Arbus is never found in the photographs chosen for public view, her presence is always marked by the subject's acknowledgement of her in their eyes.
The second half of "Revelations" has an extensive chronology that maps her life as well as her work. This collection of postcards, letters, journals, and images tries to connect the privileged girl from New York with the woman who became genuinely interested in the lives of people who were considered peripheral.
As Doon Arbus, Diane's daughter, writes in her afterword, "The accumulation of all this evidence, the revelations lurking there, seemed to demand a forum, a safe place for everyone who cares to wander around at will and play detective ... to invent a path without the interference of the tour guide...."
In the last 30 years, Arbus's work has been as influential as it's been controversial. Her critics accuse her of making her subjects a bit freakish and therefore feeding our voyeuristic hunger for the exotic. Through her journals, correspondence, and the outtakes of her well-known work, "Revelations" addresses these issues and defends her effectively. For that reason, this book is perhaps directed toward the initiated, those who already hold an opinion of Arbus but are willing to reopen her case.
• Alfredo Sosa is the Monitor's feature photography editor.