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Sunday, June 23, 2019

Diane Arbus's Twins

Here's another thing to look at. Closely. It comes here from Mike Johnston's recent post on ToP. Let us really look at it.

You will probably note the usual things quickly. The girls are not quite identical, one appears sad or neutral, the other is smiling. They are dressed almost but not quite identically, in slightly clumsily made dresses. There is a slightly weird sensation to the thing. Dig a little deeper and ask why it feels weird.

The non-smiling child appears much older. It is probably just one of several quirks of expression here, but her face is reminiscent of a grown woman's, out of place on the child's body. The smiling child's face appears crooked, probably an artifact of the angle of her head, her expression, and the wide angle lens Arbus used here. One child is "freakishly old" the other is "freakishly distorted."

The children are off center in the frame, and the line of the floor behind them is likewise angled in the frame. The child closer to the edge of the frame is the one distorted, which suggests optics plays a role here. If I asked you to, from memory, tell me how the children are posed and framed, you would likely say: backs square to the wall, centered in the frame and you would be wrong on both counts.

In short, everything is slightly askew in this picture.

If you've spent much time with Arbus, another thing should more or less leap out at you. Contrary to received wisdom, this picture is a radical departure for Arbus. The subjects are wearing their "camera face" here, that expression one dons in front of the camera. One is playing the role of oneself, in that moment. This picture shows subjects that have fully settled in to playing the role of themselves-being-photographed, which is a posture Arbus seems to have vigorously avoided.

Arbus's subjects in her well known photos are, generally, playing a role, but it is never that role. They are, generally, putting forward some more appealing, more interesting, fantasy of themselves. Most of them are pushing forward some slightly forced notion of freedom from, defiance of, social norms: transvestites, nudists, circus performers, and so on. These are people concerned with concealing themselves behind a role, behind a pose.

Earlier photographs, as I have noted earlier, are largely concerned with the mask that drops in the moment the camera is noticed, but slightly before "camera face" or other reactions begin. There is no conscious role here, but there is a mask, there is a concealment of the self behind a posture, an expression.

This photograph, of the Wade twins, still partakes of Arbus' characteristic weirdness. Weird both for reasons noted, and also because twins dressed identically seem to simply generate an impression of weirdness. I was in San Francisco, living in the right neighborhood, during the last days of San Francisco's Brown Twins, two tiny old ladies, identical twins, who dressed identically and made a bit of a career of being local characters. They evoked pretty much the same "how cute, but, a little weird" response.

We know that Arbus took this picture at a party for twins and other multiple births. She took, one imagines, at least a roll of picture of various kids. Given the contact sheet and the selected picture from the "kid with the hand grenade" photo, we can guess with some justification that Arbus picked this one because it was the weirdest one (and, in fact, a contact sheet is available, you may examine it and decide for yourself.) Mostly the party would have been a bust, endless cute kids with "camera face," nothing Arbus wanted in the least. The fact that she picked out this one and printed it, rather than throwing the whole lot away, is telling.

This photo isn't interesting because it represents some distillation of Arbus, because it is some pinnacle of her ideas, but rather because it is not. It flies in the face of most of her other work. It reveals to us that, at this moment quite near the end of her life, Arbus only cares if the picture looks a bit weird.

Mike repeats the notion that Arbus's work is some sort of investigation of "self" which seems to originate (?) with Arbus's biographer, which possibly derives, at least in part, from this statement from Arbus's notebooks:

“what is left after what one isn't is taken away -- is what one is.

which is a kind of Deepak Chopra level aphoristic bullshit Arbus was very good at. It's a true statement, but it's exactly as true about donuts. Donuts are what are left when you take away everything that isn't a donut just sounds kind of stupid, right? It's exactly the same statement. Anyways, if you take this as some sort of statement of principle, one might as well assume that Arbus is interested not in "self" but in "what one isn't" and in fact you'd be a lot nearer the truth if you did.

I have previously quoted Szarkowski on Arbus:

her true subject was no less than the unique interior lives of those she photographed.

which contributed to the weird notions about what Arbus might possibly have been up to. The one thing Arbus seems to have been definitely not interested in is what people's true self, true interior life, was. Every single photograph she published makes this painfully clear, all one needs to do is actually look.

All of this suggests strongly that none of these people (Szarkowski, Bosworth, Johnston, and I dare say a great number of other people) have failed to actually look at the pictures. They looked at Arbus's notebooks, and then at what one another have said.

The mission of the critical apparatus, of course, is to bundle up an artist's oeuvre into a single coherent story, with a neat progression (from worse, shallower, to better, deeper, natch) and so of course Twins has to be crammed in there. It does fit, after a fashion, but the progression is going the wrong way. This is evidence that, by 1967, Arbus just wanted things that looked weird, and was no longer much interested in the person in the picture, thus culminating a pretty definite trivializing trend from the 1950s to the end of her life.

As I have noted earlier, her 35mm work, while less polished, shows a definite interest in certain aspects of the humans she is photographing. As her career unfolds, she becomes more polished, and less interested, until at the end all she cares about is whether the picture looks "Arbus-weird" or not.

Here are three pictures in a row. 1957, 1963, 1967:

Having placed these pictures down in a row, I find myself far more appalled than I thought I would be. There is, at least to my eye, a clear progression from interesting to outright lazily dopey.

There is, possibly, a reason why curators are careful to put these things into separate rooms, isn't there?


  1. Very good observations, especially about the arc of her work, how it shifted.

    I was a graduate student briefly in NYC in time to see the show of Arbus' work at MOMA in 1966/67. I had been pouring over Popular Photography magazines so I knew you weren't supposed to use a wide angle and stand too close, as it made people look weird. Arbus was obviously doing this deliberately, and it seemed mean.

    The image that riled me most wasn't the Twins, but "Teenage couple on Hudson Street, N.Y.C. 1963". Your analysis applies perfectly to both pictures: the slanting lines, everything off kilter, the difference in apparent age, plus a few ugly distractions around them. Like the Twins, these are actually regular people formed into Diane Arbus characters. That's what I saw anyway, and as I said, it seemed mean.

    Much older now, I think this is ok. They're damn fine, provocative pictures.

    1. Well done, I had not really examined the Teenaged Couple before, but you're right, it's virtually the same photo. Now I am wondering how the hell she got that high vantage point with the TLR. She must have been standing on something pretty big, and pretty close. Her waist is at the boy's throat level, but she can't be more than about 6 or 7 feet away?

  2. "There is, possibly, a reason why curators are careful to put these things into separate rooms, isn't there?"

    Are you suggesting a 'conspiracy'?

    Arbus's *mature* work is of a piece; it is more than a sum of its parts, including this one.

    The earlier, *immature* work suggests a direction, one that many other erstwhile photographers embark on, but precious few get past.

    Sontag has given the best and most persuasive arguments to date as to why photography is a problematic, even illegitimate art form. While I greatly admire the quality of her thought and writing, I'm not at all convinced by it.

    1. No conspiracy, I just think that if a curator happened to hang the three pictures I selected (more or less at random) in a row, that curator would instantly notice how out joint the sequence looks, and break it up.

      I didn't try it with other groupings, but I suspect that many similar time-compressed sequences would display the same problem.

    2. Curators hang stuff to illustrate some thesis, whether it be a personal whim, such as "Arbus-weird [...] lazily dopey" (which at least has the merit of originality, but may not get you invited to curate many important shows. unless you happened to be of some aggrieved demographic), or to fulfill the blockbuster show canon.