Diane Arbus

Hiram Butler Gallery

Is it true that the only track open for critical assessment of Diane Arbus’ photographs is to trace the history of their reception? Before taking up this question, we should mention that the Arbus exhibition was part of Houston’s month-long, international celebration of photography, “FotoFest ’88,” which in total (83 exhibitions) represented a diversity of current camera practices and a variety of historical perspectives with a slight bias in both categories toward “documentary” traditions. Given the widespread familiarity and surprising popularity of Arbus’ photographs, the heavy critical traffic they have attracted since 1967, and the problematic management of the Arbus legend by her estate, why should we choose to deal with this exhibition at all? Predictably, some images still provoke an intense curiosity about the physiopathologic phenomena that she presents: Does that man really have three eyes? By itself this form of scopophilia, or the fascination-with-freaks syndrome, only reanimates old debates. What seemed so noticeable in this exhibition, however, was that after two decades of public life these recalcitrant photographs no longer fold comfortably into the mythic envelope that had evolved so quickly (especially after Arbus’ death in 1971) to contain them.

The exhibition included more than photographs, far more than have been seen before in Houston, or perhaps anywhere, at one showing. Prints were hung in four tightly spaced groups, triple-tiered on three walls and double-tiered on the fourth—cheek to cheek, as it were. The effect was like walking into a crowd of largely familiar faces, only here it was a crowd of Arbus people on parade, assembled in closed ranks. Presented this way, it was almost impossible to isolate and view one image at a time. To the purist this is a grave sin, all the more so given that Arbus worked within an exclusively subject/object, Cartesian mindset. In other words, in the Modernist tradition, one way for the viewer to recapture the artist’s subjective vision is to experience a single, autonomous image-object, and then another, and another, etc. But hanging so many photographs so close together generated a kind of interference pattern that inhibited and even subverted this esthetically determined, cumulative process.

It also squeezed out some of the hyperbole and sensationalism that have characterized the Arbus aura, and resulted in a certain visual leveling, because the usual array of Arbus “subjects”—exotic and ordinary, costumed and naked, the beauty of grotesqueness and the grotesqueness of beauty—were thoroughly dispersed across the four walls. This is not to suggest that the message of the exhibition was “Freaks ’R’ Us” or any other reductive shibboleth. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude that her work still “raises the issue” of the normative structures that operate in the world of appearances, of identity and difference, even in the world of desire.

Clearly the passage of cultural time has altered our perception of what we confronted twenty years ago as disturbing, bleak, and existentially loaded expression. Our collective experience of alienation and ontological crisis has since been replaced by social texts, integrated circuits, and the benign Death of the Author. The photographs thus no longer appear exclusively driven by the dark, legendary figure that “Diane Arbus” has become.

The arguable weakness of this massive, gridded display was its tacit assumption that a body of work speaks for itself. Of course, it doesn’t. But in the silence of that heterogeneous group (no individual labels, listings, or wall text were provided), there was finally space for us as inquiring viewers to interrogate the structures of appearance and interpretation so peculiar and particular to these by now historic images.

The answer to our opening question is, No. There is, for example, the major issue of the modes of production operative in Arbus’ work, which apparently was outside the interests and intentions of this exhibition.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom