Review: Diane Arbus - A Chronology


Book Reviews


It is most curious to see the strange obsessiveness that shines through so much of Diane Arbus’ work reflected in so many of the books published about the photographer post mortem. It is almost as if we think that if we managed to get as close as possible to Arbus we would finally be able to understand the work she left behind. Or maybe it’s the same idea that one would employ when taking apart a mechanical clock, laying out all the pieces on the table: That surely is going to teach us how it ticks, isn’t it? Yet photographers are quite unlike mechanical clocks. Photographers are human beings like you and me. Some are more human than others, and the occasional one is all-too-human. (more)

I think I must have had a mechanical-clock moment when I ordered the recently released Diane Arbus: A Chronology, a book comprising an almost overwhelming amount of detail from the photographer’s life, using all kinds of sources, including her own writing. Be warned, though: At the end, the book says that the texts “originally appeared in Diane Arbus Revelations.” So if you own that book, you don’t need this new one. If you don’t and are interested in the photographer I’s definitely suggest getting Revelations instead. It’s more money, but you get a ton of images to go along the words.

Reading the book (actually re-reading the text that I had read before) I currently have all the pieces up until 1963 on my table. What am I to make of this? I honestly don’t know. Oh, I know, it’s all going to make perfect sense once I’m done with the book. Sure.

I suppose if I were a serious photography scholar all those details might be interesting in some way. And some of them are interesting, albeit probably not in the way the makers of the book intended them to be. These insights are more like the short flickers of light on a late Summer night, when it’s firefly season, and you stare in wonder at what Nature is throwing at you.

So at the end of the day, I think we don’t have anything to learn from doing this exercise of dissecting the clock. Instead, let the wonder be the wonder, let the freakiness be the freakiness - and let that be the art! Let that make its impression on us, its imprinting of whatever it is that moves us onto our souls! Let the fact that we fail to understand every last bit stand for what makes the art of Diane Arbus!

Diane Arbus: A Chronology, writing by Diane Arbus and Elisabeth Sussman, Doon Arbus, Jeff Rosenheim, 177 pages, Aperture, 2011