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Diane Arbus's 1960s: Auguries of Experience

by Frederick Gross
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012
248 pp. Trade, $75.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-7011-6; ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-7012-3.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

That there is a serious problem with Diane Arbus scholarship (to put it more bluntly: that it tends to be slightly repetitive, and stuck into a small number of well-marketed clichés) is not a secret. Neither is it a secret that, despite the efforts of many, such as the editors and guest-editors of journals such as History of Photography, this problem has much to do with the overprotective attitude of the Diane Arbus estate, which infamously refuses to grant any authorization whatsoever to illustrate academic research on this artist. It comes therefore not as a surprise that this new book on Diane Arbus, which proposes numerous new insights on her work, contains no images at all and probably refrains also from addressing too much the personal life and biography of the photographer. Triggered to a large extent by a new exhibition, the 2004-6 Revelations show that offered not only unpublished pictures but also more than a glimpse into Diane Arbus's notebooks and many of the books present in her own library. This study by Frederick Gross is a timely reminder of the importance of Diane Arbus as well as a wonderful attempt to interpret her work against the grain.

Two major stereotypes, both deeply rooted in the artist's biography, have blocked new developments in Arbus scholarship since various decades: her suicide at age 48, which transformed her into a kind of Sylvia Plath with a camera, and the widely accepted thesis that she somewhat exploitatively focused on one single subject, that of the modern freak (nudists, retarded, dwarfs, transvestites, etc.). In this book, Frederick Gross aims at dismantling this crippling typecasting, not by frontally rejecting it but by proposing a totally different framework intended to supersede most existing understandings and misunderstandings of the work.

The major and dramatic innovation of Gross's approach is the proposal, well-documented, and clearly argued, to study Diane Arbus in light in the tradition of the social panorama and the social portrait gallery. A continuation of the sociological ambitions of all those who, like Nadar, Bradley, Sander, Evans, Frank, and many others (yet none of them in the same vein or in the same spirit), considered photography a means to offer the visual analogon of a certain society, the work by Diane Arbus should be read as a postmodern version of it. The word postmodern here does not imply that the photographer is no longer eager at giving an encyclopedic survey of the social types and roles of his or her social environment, but refers to the fact that this representation does no longer claim to follow preexisting or preconstructed "objective" or "positivist" typologies and hierarchies. Arbus shares with the tradition of the social panorama the craving for a visual disclosure of the real, but this disclosure is no longer illustrative (as in the 19th Century model, where photography is expected to prove by showing what had already been told by others). Arbus's pictures refuse instead the social (class), biological (race) and cultural (ability) assumptions that underlie the available models of explanation, as endlessly repeated by middle-class publications such as Life and Cold War events such as Steichen's Family of Man. Frederick Gross has the great elegance, which is also a sign of great intelligence, to avoid any political overinterpretation of Arbus's stances, but his comparative close readings of the famous MOMA "New Documents" show, which revealed Arbus to the greater public, and the photo-journalism of the previous decade clearly demonstrates the critical attitude of Diane Arbus's pictures (which the contemporary viewers did not interpret as freakish in the very first place). A key issue in Gross' reading is the notion of pastiche, which he uses in the Jamesonian meaning of the term to point to a more intertextual way of photographing that takes into account the multilayeredness of the real and the intertwining of subject and image. Each subject does already exist as image, as representation, and it is only the critical dialogue with these existing ways of seeing and showing that make possible the realization of Arbus's fundamental project: the disclosure of the gap between intention (of the artist) and effect (on the reader or viewer) as well as the endeavor of laying bare the gap between the role or the type on the one hand and the individual on the other hand. The individual cannot be seized without the global framing of the social panorama, for no individual exists outside such a frame, but the implicit or explicit categorization of this structure has to be deconstructed by the artist whose work is to show the impossibility to map the individual on his or her role or type.

A second great achievement of Gross's book is to stress the importance of the intertextual dimension of Arbus. The study pays great attention to the magazine culture that has nourished, yet always in a very critical way and one suppose with a lot of editorial tensions, the work by Arbus. The clash between her unusual photo work and the shameless consumer culture that promoted in the other pages of the magazines in which she was invited or allowed to publish her reportages is absolutely amazing, and Gross is the first critic to underline the effects of this often unforeseen montage effects. He is also absolutely right to remind of the importance of Marshall McLuhan's first book, The Mechanical Bride, a pioneering essay against the deleterious effects of mass media consumption and advertisement (McLuhan was not afraid of using the term of "media fall out"). Yet the presence of Arbus's pictures in glossies is not only to be read in terms of clash and opposition, for Gross does also provide much evidence of positive interaction with other material, such as the literature that the short story sections of these magazines were publishing and whose influence on Arbus's work become now blatant (a good example is the ongoing dialogue with some short stories by Jorge Luis Borges, whose metafictional universe seems to have had a real influence on Arbus's way of thinking). Besides the strictly literary intertext of Arbus's images, which Gross reads in much detail, there is however also a strong photographical environment, and here as well the close-readings by Gross offer much food for a fresh interpretation of Arbus. Particularly illuminating in this regard is the collaboration with Richard Avedon, an artist whose work is too rarely associated with that of Arbus. Thanks to Frederick Gross, the explicit linking of Arbus and Avedon does not only shed new light on Arbus, it can also help reframe Avedon's work in the larger context of the social panorama.

Last but not least, the intertextual reconsideration of Arbus's photographs takes also a more cultural form. Instead of emphasizing the strangeness or the freakishness of these pictures which at first sight seem so different from other material of that era (yet not of the next one, and Frederick Gross includes also a very detailed overview of all those who, like Les Krims or Cindy Sherman, have been deeply influenced by Diane Arbus), this book offers an exciting rereading of the relationships between Arbus and the 1960's Zeitgeist, mainly at the level of the new visions of the body and the bodily involvement of the artist in her work. It should be repeated here that Gross does not enter very much into biographical detail but discusses these issues from a wider cultural point of view. In this regard, his main focus is on two evolutions or phenomena: first the emergence of the happening, which is only rarely associated with the world of photography but which enables him to describe Arbus's method in terms of contact and experience (but definitely not of confrontation or clash); second the spread of conceptual art, whose link with photography is well known but whose impact on Arbus's work had never been analyzed in such a subtle way (an important aspect here is the preference given to subject at the expense of form and what all this entails for the specifics of picture-making in the case of Arbus). Here as well, Gross proves to be a very clever close-reader and his whole book demonstrates that even an artist such as Diane Arbus, whose work and life are so well categorized that there seems to be no need for further research, can be opened again for new readings.

Last Updated 3 June, 2012

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