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We think of Arbus as so quintessentially modern that it's a shock to remember that she was a child of the flapper age and the Depression. She was born Diane (she pronounced it Dee-ann) Nemerov in New York City in 1923. Her father was the director of Russek's, a Manhattan fur and fashion emporium that had been founded by her mother's family and made them rich. Arbus, her younger sister Renee and her older brother Howard--later a U.S. poet laureate--grew up on Park Avenue. She spoke once of realizing the existence of another world, a forbidden zone, when her nanny took her to Central Park to see a shantytown built there by unemployed men.
As it turned out, Arbus would be crucial in the transition that documentary photography made from the social concerns of the '30s to the personal obsessions it began to take on in the 1950s. She went to private schools but never college. In 1941 she married Allan Arbus, who worked in her father's store. After the war they opened a fashion-photography partnership. In the '50s she studied with Lisette Model, a photographer who knew the power of people thrust forward heavily into the frame. In time Arbus' marriage decayed, but all the while she was creating herself.
"A photograph is a secret about a secret," she once wrote. "The more it tells you the less you know." Her simplest pictures, like A child crying, N.J., could have an unfathomable power, but her most basic aim was not so mysterious. Arbus wanted anyone who viewed her images to find spiritual kinship with her sideshow freaks and drag queens. She also wanted viewers to discover, in her photographs of "ordinary" people, what was feral or bleak or unnerving in us all. It's all there in A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, N.Y.C., a couple with their attempted aplomb undone, even though they don't know it, by the wild and lyrical distraction in the face of their little boy at the bottom of the frame.
You can't miss the fact that the wary father in that picture is looking at us as if he suspects Arbus might be turning him and his wife and kids into emblems for some human condition he's none too interested in symbolizing. Arbus knew how photographers cajole their subjects and occasionally deceive them. But even "concerned" photographers typically make us feel sorry for their suffering subjects, although our pity may be the last thing the subjects ever wanted. No one will ever feel sorry for the sovereign specimen who looms toward us in Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C., Arbus' 1970 portrait of a very short man who is stripped to the waist and sitting on a bed but still managing an erotic swagger.
Around 1962, Arbus switched from a 35-mm camera to a twin-lens Rolleiflex that produced the weighty figures in a square format that became her trademark. It gave her pimply drag queens the mighty tonnage of Rodin's Balzac. Our predispositions still place pressure upon the images in the hope of making them conform to conventional expectations. This is a dwarf, file under "Curiosity"; this is a retarded child, file under "Compassion." But the pictures keep refusing to fit into those files. In that refusal is the enduring power, both of the pictures and the people.