“Buy Amy’s birthday present, go to the morgue.”
- Entry in Diane Arbus’s appointment book
Click here for the first part of this essay.
Like Shirley Jackson, the photographer Diane Arbus died at the premature age of 48. Unlike Jackson, Arbus took her own life.
Jackson and Arbus also shared wealthy but unhappy upbringings in the 1920s and ‘30s. Jackson was born in an affluent middle-class suburb of San Francisco; Arbus’s parents, the Nemerovs, owned a swanky department store on Fifth Avenue. They both had strained relationships with their mothers; Arbus’s in particular was often absent due to her own struggles with depression.
But what led me to group Jackson and Arbus together was the seemingly stark, Jekyll-and-Hyde contrasts within their professional output.
At first glance, Jackson’s ostensibly light-hearted magazine pieces on family life jarred with her reputation as a horror writer. As we’ve discussed, however, these domestic memoirs slyly comment on the dark side of motherhood.
Left: Diane and Allan Arbus, “The Smartest Girl on Wheels” (Vogue, 1956). Right: Diane Arbus, Girl with a pointy hood and white schoolbag at the curb, N.Y.C. (1957)
Similarly, Arbus got her start shooting for fashion magazines like Glamour and Vogue, but left to create art photography that upended social norms and niceties. And yet, there are unexpected parallels. As Susan Sontag puts it:
Who could have better appreciated the truth of freaks than someone who was, by profession, a fashion photographer—a professional fabricator of the cosmetic lie that masks the terrifying freakish world?
There’s quite a bit of controversy surrounding Arbus’s work (which I’m mostly going to set aside in this post). In her attraction to subjects at the social fringes – circus performers, drag queens – Arbus has been called voyeuristic, exploitative, sensationalistic. She took a walk on the wild side, as it were, but from a position of privilege, of outsider-ness.*
For me, though, it is her portraits of the so-called ‘normals’ that are more disquieting. The strained, preoccupied expression on the older society lady with her gloved hands clasped primly around a handbag. The teenager on a park bench who, despite his youth, telegraphs a doomed, fatalistic expression. The young boy pointing his pistol at the camera with an expression of deadly earnestness.
Like Jackson’s writings on family life, Arbus’s photographs seem to puncture the veneer of convention, respectability, to show us the psychological underworld lurking beneath.
Arbus married her high school boyfriend Allan, with whom she initially went into photography business. They had two kids together: Doon, in 1945, and Amy, born nine years later, when Arbus was in her early 30s. It was in 1956, just a couple of years after Amy’s birth, that Arbus decided to strike out on her own as a photographer.
Soon after that professional shift came a more personal one: Allan and Diane decided to separate in 1959. They still maintained contact, though. Allan would come over to Diane’s apartment for Sunday brunches with the girls; he even continued to develop Diane’s film.
Although there were many aspects of her single, working artist life that Arbus found freeing, she remained the primary caregiver for her two daughters. Alicia Ault reminds us that “For years, [Arbus] struggled not just as an artist trying to make a living, but as a single mother with two daughters.”
As with Jackson, money was always an issue for Arbus, a looming fear, despite their privileged upbringings. Art photography did not yet have the cultural cache (or financial rewards) that it does today; moreover, paid commercial work dried up as Arbus’s artistic reputation soared.
Her childcare arrangements were often ad hoc:
To be both a full-time mother and a professional photographer — there was no model for that, and the situation required some heavy improvisation…. while Doon was fairly independent, Amy was still only 5 years old. Diane would often leave her daughter with a friend for the day, or she’d take her along on her tamer assignments.
Arbus, though, was drawn to the maternal role, unlike some of her female friends who were also committing to a creative life. Her friend Pati Hill recalls: “Diane’s feelings about being a mother were different from mine. She felt it was something she had to be.” Arbus wrote loving letters to Amy at summer camp, dared Doon to race up to strangers in Central Park to try and make them laugh. She worried about helping to guide both girls during adolescence.
Arbus was both/and. A working single mother who was often playful with and devoted to her daughters. An adventurer who was maybe a bit addicted to the adventure of roaming the streets of NYC with a 35 mm Nikon, and to the thrill of visual surprise that she coaxed from these encounters with her subjects.
Years ago, when I taught a class on women’s literature, I lectured on a mode in mid-twentieth-century American art called the “female gothic.” The female gothic used images out of classic horror tales to represent a more internal, psychological struggle. According to literary critic Elaine Showalter:
Women’s writing (in the 1950s) was obsessed with freaks, multiples, monsters…. The traditional images of a heroine trapped in a gothic house, particularly apt in the postwar period when American women were repeatedly told that they were designed and destined to find fulfillment inside the home, took on additional meaning as these houses came to symbolize the female body, and the destiny of pregnancy, childbirth, and maternity.
The female gothic chronicled, in short, the quiet nightmare lurking beneath the ‘suburban dream.’**
In my PowerPoint from the lecture, there’s this famous Diane Arbus photo of triplets. Arbus explained that she was drawn to triplets as reflections of her own divided psyche:
Triplets remind me of myself when I was an adolescent, lined up in three images: daughter, sister, bad girl, with secret lusting fantasies, each one with a tiny difference.
By making visible this fractured identity, these repressed desires, Arbus seeks after a degree of wholeness.***
Even if we’re long past the June Cleaver Era, there are still ways that we feel pressured to suppress the rawness – and fullness – of our experiences as parents. We rarely admit to what spooks us, often within ourselves. It’s not Instagrammable or Pinterest-worthy.
But sometimes it is necessary to illuminate that darkness, even if we wouldn’t want to linger there.
To acknowledge that this dark side exists is not, as the writer Ursula Le Guin feared, to pathologize mothers who are artists, to take the tragic stories, like Arbus’s or the poet Sylvia Plath’s, as the norm. It’s simply to insist on a more nuanced account of motherhood. To broaden our sense of the possible, of the kinds of art that can be born out of domestic life.****
The tragedies of their troubled lives and premature deaths do not negate the bravery and eerie resonance of Jackson and Arbus’ art. They take risks. They issue bold, unsettling reports, on the state of the culture, on the state of their own psyches. They fight for self-expression. They f— with our expectations. Just like a mother.
*Susan Sontag, for one, wrote a devastating, Bob-Dylan-level putdown of Arbus in an essay for The New York Review of Books. Here’s a sample that accuses her of indulging in a kind of cultural tourism, and of punting on an ethical responsibility to her subjects:
Photography was a license to go wherever I wanted and to do what I wanted to do,” Arbus wrote. The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed. The whole point of photographing people is that you are not intervening in their lives—only visiting them. The photographer is supertourist, an extension of the anthropologist, visiting “natives” and bringing back news of their exotic doings and strange gear. The photographer is always trying to colonize new experiences, or find new ways to look at familiar subjects… Photographing an appalling underworld (and a horrible, plastic overworld), she has no intention of entering into the horror of those images as experienced by the inhabitants of those worlds. They are to remain exotic, hence “terrific.” Her view is always from the outside.
**The female gothic was by no means intersectional. It was a mainly a white, middle-class mood, describing only a fraction of women’s experiences in the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s.
***Of course, therein lies one of the criticisms of Arbus’s work. That her portraits were less representations of her subjects and more a distorted reflection of her interior life. Arbus believed (rather controversially) that “none of us owns our appearance — it belongs to the world. What our look and our manner communicate is a language for others to decipher.” In response, Sontag asks:
A large part of the mystery of Arbus’s photographs lies in what they suggest about how her subjects felt after consenting to be photographed. Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that? Do they know how grotesque they are? It seems as if they don’t.
****Jackson scholars, for instance, would express surprise that the author of such bleak, disturbing horror fiction was also a mother of four. As her husband Stanley Hyman later railed, these critics were guilty of “the most elementary misunderstanding of what a writer is and how a writer works, on the order of expecting Herman Melville to be a big white whale.”