PRINT November 1999

DIANE ARBUS: A house on a hill, Hollywood, Cal. 1963

In this ongoing series, writers are invited to discuss a contemporary work that has special significance for them.

DIANE ARBUS’s A house on a hill, Hollywood, Cal. 1963 is remarkable for what isn’t in it as much as for what is. Missing from it is the human population that is front and center stage in most of Arbus’s work, never mind the “freaks” that are its most celebrated fare. Indeed, there is almost nothing at all in the foreground of the image, that place from which the human mask customarily confronts us in an Arbus photograph. And so absent from it as well is the physiognomic focus of her photography, its attention to the face and the pose, and the conditions of facingness and posedness that attend her squaring-off against the oddities of human appearance, making her photographs so peculiarly pseudo-nineteenth-century in their detailed stillness and their aura of spectral monumentality.

And yet A house on a hill is a gothic photograph. Scudding across the sky at twilight are streaks of cottony clouds whose luminous diagonals throw off the photograph’s inert, foursquare arrangement, disturbing the flattened cube of space that it carves out, unbalancing the equidistance of its horizon from the top and bottom of the photographic cell, breaking the spell of its motionlessness with the trace of movement. Like a Stieglitz “Equivalent,” those clouds introduce a vertiginous note into an otherwise grounded world. Their sweep is met and countered by a looming foreground full of nothing but dry California grass and weeds, abruptly abutting the brittle horizon, and an abandoned building, like the horizon almost equidistant from the photograph’s edges, so that it is a marker of the image’s near-symmetry. Despite the dark-gray zone that it occupies along with the horizon and the foreground, that structure’s stonework, windows, cornice, and metal fire escapes are all specified.

The “house” is a facade, and as such it fronts for the facingness foregrounded in Arbus’s other photographs. But because of its slight turn away from frontality, we can see that it is an empty facade, spooky and hollow-eyed, with nothing back of it—as the exposed armature behind it testifies, and the piece of detached scaffolding glimpsed next to it punctuates with preternatural precision: Standing off by itself, looking as much like a ladder to nowhere as the fire escapes whose form it mimics, that detail is isolate, a nonsensical and poignant punctum, and as such it points back to all the dim particularity that makes up the facade and the photograph that contains it. The building’s difference from a gothic ruin is urged by the photograph’s deadpan title and the double-take realization that this must be a Hollywood set, a counterfeit habitation forsaken of its ersatz uses at some indeterminate time likely not so very long ago. This is a picture of the land of the movies, we are all of a sudden reminded, and the past that it evokes is that of movieland illusions. And thus the melancholy of its scene is less Wuthering Heights (the book) than West Side Story (the movie, 1961, shot half on location and half on set).

Which brings me back to what is absent from A house on a hill. New York, to start with, that predominant though not exclusive site of Arbus’s photographing. The faces of its inhabitants, to follow. And life and habitation more generally, after that. For A house on a hill is a photograph of the absence of the things it depicts, emblematizing the constitutive absence of photography itself in the deserted, faux New York tenement: the lack not only of New York, its facades, and its faces from the photo’s surface, but of any place from any place-photograph, any face from any face-photograph, not to mention any life from the mortuary remains that any photograph is. And it emblematizes as well the relation between the absences that ground the silver photograph and the silver screen alike: the relation between the lacking of the one and the mirage of the other. Both of them, the factual photograph and the filmic fiction, are founded on that-has-been (but is no more). But the stillness of Arbus’s still reins in the movingness of the movie, bringing it back to earth, to the pensiveness and the irremediable pastness of the photograph.

It is true that A house on a hill is an exceptional photograph. Arbus photographed only a few other empty places (e.g., A castle in Disneyland, Cal. 1962; Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown, L.I. 1963; A lobby in a building, N.Y.C. 1966). All of those pictures index an absent humanity, and all of them speak of the relation between themselves and other mass-produced illusions—the Disney castle at nighttime when the visitors have left, as fraudulently mysterious as the Hollywood set with the Sleeping Beauty brambles grown up around it; a tinsel-laden Christmas tree as silvery as the photograph’s surface; photographic wallpaper rendering the great outdoors in an urban indoors, as flat as the black-and-white print that re-represents it. And all of them, in their very aberrance, point back to Arbus’s signature preoccupations. But none more so than the anomalous A house on a hill.

Arbus once said, “Lately I’ve been struck with how I really love what you can’t see in a photograph. An actual physical darkness. And it’s very thrilling for me to see darkness again.” What she meant by darkness was something at once “technical” and psychical—the important principle of making a “bad” photograph, together with the impossible postulate of desire (which always wants what it lacks). She meant something paradoxical: the thrill of envisioning invisibility, the love of seeing what you can’t see. A house on a hill is literal about its obscurity: Most of it verges on that dark part of the black-and-white spectrum, without fully inhabiting it, the place at which the photograph stops yielding up its details to sight. As such, it sits just on the horizon of its own disappearance into the gray element of photography. At the same time, because of the air of abandonment that surrounds this house-that-is-no-house, the image summons up everything else that can’t be seen in it—not only the faces that aren’t there, but also the actors that no longer act, the crew that no longer films, the filmic apparatus that is no longer present, and with its absence, all the moments, stopped down to a single moment, that are (is) past. That faux-gothic, not–New York, Hollywood house conjures up the chimera that the photograph is, as it sits on the cusp between the eras of Daguerrean memory and Tinseltown fantasy, staging its eerie contest between a photographic dusk and a cinematic day’s end.