Diane Arbus once told an art magazine, "A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know." In the course of a creative life lasting barely 15 years, Arbus helped redefine photography, bringing to it irony, detachment, and a deadpan commentary calculated to reveal that "secret about a secret." During the 1960s, she offered a new approach to portraiture that was at once blunt and probing, self-conscious and confessional. Fascinated by cultural and psychological extremes, Arbus became known in her lifetime for her depictions of people in the outer reaches of society. After her death by suicide in 1971, her reputation and influence grew with a high-profile retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and publication of a monograph of her work, both the following year. Since then, Arbus's identity has been more or less fixed as photography's tragic bard of freaks, eccentrics, and outsiders.
But the more we saw of Arbus's iconic photographs, the less we seemed to know about her. Subsequent books, presenting the photographer's magazine work and an extensive series of images made at mental institutions, expanded our understanding. But it's only through "Diane Arbus: Revelations," the large retrospective of her work now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that we have been able to fully examine or grasp her legacy. The first major exhibition of Arbus's work in more than 30 years, the show is really a comprehensive biography of the photographer, overseen by her daughter, Doon Arbus. Along with some 175 photographs, the show includes letters and notebooks, contact sheets and personal effects, which shed light on her emotional and intellectual processes.
Though Arbus found her voice in the margins of society, she was the product of an American success story. She was born in 1923 into a family of second-generation immigrants who had become wealthy New York furriers. Arbus was raised in a luxury Manhattan apartment and attended private schools. After operating a fashion-photography studio with husband Allan Arbus, she set out to make her own photographs around 1956.
These early images show Arbus already enmeshed in the shadowy side of American life, both physically, as when she photographs in the dressing room of female impersonators, and psychically, through the expressions of angst, alienation, and unarticulated anxiety she captures on the faces of passing strangers. The banner image at the exhibit entrance offers a prescient expression of Arbus's artistic themes. It shows an accidental double exposure from 1957, with images of New York streets overlaid on a steely, searching self-portrait of the photographer. Arbus's pictures offer a recurring vision of life emerging from darkness and being subsumed by it, hauntingly expressed in "42nd Street Movie Theater Audience," where the beam from the projection booth suspends spectators in a balcony in a furtive, uneasy gloom.
Arbus reserved her deepest affection for individuals most of society would reckon misfits.
Dwarfs, giants, madmen, and freaks are granted profound dignity in her sight, as are people whose eccentricities, preferences, and psychoses centrifuged them beyond the borders of polite society. In magazine spreads from 1960 and '61 - poetic essays featuring a weird cast of heroes and heroines - she clearly identifies with the existential tenacity of her subjects. Her Harper's Bazaar portrait of "William Mack, Sage of the Wilderness," a bearded patriarch with the mad intensity of John Brown, ran with her caption praising him as "an awesome, noble, enormous, possessed and legendary figure."
The current exhibition originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will travel to Germany and England before completing its tour next summer in Minneapolis. The show augments Arbus's photographs with artifacts of her artistic life, from the books in her library (she read Plato, Blake, and Yeats) to her darkroom equipment and several of her cameras.
In 1962, Arbus stopped working with the 35mm Nikon she had used up to then and switched to a larger medium-format Rolliflex. She wrote to friends that year, "I am inept and hopeless with the bigger [camera] and I no longer believe the language of the little one, which I so loved."
In Arbus's hands, the distinction between the two instruments was the difference between harvesting fish with a net and catching a fish with your hands. The new camera, which was not held to the eye but used peering into it at waist-level, placed Arbus in direct rapport with the people she was photographing. This quickly changed her relationship with her subjects, from observer to collaborator.
From the mid-'60s on, Arbus's pictures look more and more posed, not by the photographer alone, but also by the person before her lens. Her sitters became fully active partners in their own depiction, performers of their ideal self-image. The resulting pictures are psychologically naked and often unsettling, particularly because so often people divulge unflattering truths. Many of her portraits expose cowardice, ignorance, and venality. Arbus saved her harshest commentary for those at the center of the ruling class. Her debutantes and society dames seem long ago to have been drained of their life blood. Her prowar demonstrators are caricatures of twisted patriotism. And her 1968 portrait of a family in their Westchester backyard is a study in suburban alienation.
Just as often, however, the photographer unearthed beauty, nobility, grace, and a kind of off-kilter salvation. Much of Arbus's work echoed and amplified her own internal struggles, but it would be a disservice to her art to reduce the pictures to evidence of the depression that led her to take her life. Arbus's photographs are more than a portrait of herself. They are an autobiography of mankind's trials and redemptions.
• 'Diane Arbus: Revelations' continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 29.