New York

Diane Arbus

Robert Miller Gallery

These 28 photographs taken by Diane Arbus shortly before her suicide in 1971 many of them unpublished and rarely seen together—reveal the strength and unity of her late work. They are photographs of the retarded; most of the subjects are women, some are dressed in Halloween costumes. If these images weren’t so ironically beautiful, they’d probably break your heart. Instead, you stand transfixed, wondering how the artist could bear to do the things she did—and do them so well.

The venues here seem to vary, as does the quality of light and image: the pictures look to have been taken at three different homes and at three different times of the year. Not all of the subjects are in costume; but all of the images confront madness and death in the form of the (costumed) other, and all are elegantly preserved as gelatin silver prints, in Arbus’ signature raw-bordered 2-1/4-inch format. These exceptionally powerful photographs are simultaneously as familiar and as mysterious as the worst, most rattling nightmare.

There are, of course, the literal images; retarded subjects, examined in perversely intimate full-frontal detail through the lens of a high-fashion photographer’s Rolleiflex camera. There is no mystery in why these works should shock: it’s discomforting to see the malformed examined in such excruciating detail. But there’s a subtler vision shaping this collection of images, too—a vision that works through nuance rather than obvious statement. The distinctive qualities of the light—whether the “late afternoon early winter sunlight. . . so lyric and tender and pretty” (as Arbus described the Halloween shoot) or the lush, humid light of a summer morning, or the cool darkness of the flash photographs taken in a courtyard—are all exceptionally expressive of time and place, exceptionally evocative of the specificity of particular moments. The existential despair that characterizes these images becomes manifest as much through landscape as through the featured personalities of her subjects—as much through the irony of a freak in a costume as through the freak or the costume alone. There’s nothing simple about these photographs, which register a complex emotional transaction between the photographer and her subjects; they remain compelling puzzles. Arbus’ work is not simply that of a curious voyeur; desperately cool, determined not to flinch or pull away, she reveals a humanity here, not only in her subjects but in the probity of her own gaze, a humanity that makes such pictures art.

Justin Spring