Diane Arbus : an American career

Hales, Peter B. (Peter Bacon)
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The career of Diane Arbus has never fit the customary functional and critical categories. As an artist who at one point in her life was well known as an advertising and fashion photographer at the same time that she was producing work which united the seemingly contrary strains of artistic and documentary photography, her photographs have been subjected more to uncritical interpretation than to serious analysis. The extraordinarily ambitious work she produced has for the most part been obscured by impressionistic studies of her life, her method of working, and her choice of subject matter, in critiques that often misread or ignore the few facts and many hints that she left us. In this extended essay I try, if not to set the record straight, at least to point out the ways in which she, and her work, may be fruitfully examined. Though originally I wished to deal with her work' s contribution to photography, I soon found that this wasn't possible. For her life and her work touched a sensitive spot in her culture and set off a controversy within the art world and the larger society around her. Because she was not simply an artist, but a documentarian too, the world she chose to describe could not be ignored. It was one of the choices she made in an art form defined by choices. And because she was not only a documentarian but also an artist, the relation of the subculture she documented to the larger American culture of the '50s, '60s and '70s, and the way in which she documented that subculture are crucial to an understanding of her work. In the largest sense examining her relation to her culture was not my choice but hers, and to have ignored it would have been to deny, in a fundamental way, the richness and complexity of her work and her life. Thus I have set out to explain the nature of Diane Arbus' s photographic vision, to place her work both within the context of the medium and of the culture that defined her and which she then set out to redefine--to see her both as an artist and as a cultural phenomenon. In order to do so I have had to examine her life in search of clues to explain her decision to attack basic tenets of American society, and to romanticize its pariahs. I have attempted to explain her work both as moralistic didacticism and as artistic expression, to divorce her work from the rhetoric with which she and her critics surrounded it. The picture I have come up with is of a woman, born within the usual boundaries of middle-class urban America, who, after serving as mythmaker for its values, rebelled and set out to produce a powerful critique of the society and the values she had held so long. Within her rebellion, however, I found many of the same values she attacked. When, in the last years of her life, she retreated from the advocacy position for which she had been applauded and attacked, she forced her medium and her sensibility to their limits, and produced pictures so caustic and yet so rigorously purified of simple didacticism that they rank as some of the finest of American works of art