Diane Arbus: Revelations


Book Reviews

The patchiness of information that can be found online mirrors the life and especially the art of Diane Arbus. There are brief introductions here and there, and you can find a couple of radio segments about her or one of her photos. Maybe there are simply too many “weird” photos - or photos of “weird” people or of people society doesn’t like to see: Just look at the photo entitled Patriot, and you realize there’s quite the divide between the official narrative and Diane Arbus’ photos, a divide that in the case of the Patriot photo maybe reflects how society has regressed back from its (partial) willingness to question the wars it was/is involved in, which alone would be worth discussing in detail. But let’s not digress.

I don’t know whether the book entitled Revelations, which accompanies the extensive retrospective of her work that is currently touring, reveals much. But it is a fascinating experience. You can’t help but feel that the book and its contents have been very carefully assembled, with Diane Arbus’ daughter Doon Arbus in charge of the project.

The book probably has not brought me any closer to gaining a better understanding of Diane Arbus’ life despite (because of?) the very detailed timeline with lots of quotes and letters etc. You don’t really gain much from reading through all of that. At the end, you find the statement “Her suicide seems neither inevitable nor spontaneous, neither perplexing nor intelligible.” followed by the details of the coroner’s report. I can’t help but feel that that is a very odd combination. One might want to read Patricia Bosworth’s biography to understand her life better.

As far as the photography is concerned, Revelations couldn’t be any better. The photos are beautifully reproduced, and you get to see lots of “outtakes” and contact sheets of her work. Of course, you could argue about whether you really want to see work that Diane Arbus didn’t feel worthwhile showing. If you don’t want to see it you can save a lot of money by buying the Aperture book.

I’m always interested in seeing how photographers create their work, so I enjoyed looking at the contact sheets. They are interesting: The exposures are quite uneven. However, she was a master printer, and I enjoyed reading an article written by her posthumous printer Neil Selkirk about how he re-created her photography’s signature look (which, apparently, does not require any dodging or burning). For example, if you look at the photo Boy with a Straw Hat on the contact sheet you can’t help but be amazed how she got the print to look so good.

I think what I got out of reading through the book is that Diane Arbus should be considered as an artist first and then as a photographer. Maybe that’s where the revelation lies that the title promises.