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Diane Arbus’ Photographs: Americana and Suicide

August 9, 2007

IT IS NOT THAT THE LIKES OF DIANE ARBUS NEEDS MY ENDORSEMENT to cement her place among the most respected and innovative “fine art” photographers in American history… It’s just that I am curious about her. This is the best website presentation of some of her photos that I have found, and also the one where the above photo was found: http://www.duvekot.ca/eliane/archives/diane_arbus.jpg.

Arbus’ photos enter in Sontag’s book, which I blogged about previously, in the chapter discussing the uniquely American vantage on the art of photography. Sontag previously declared photography a uniquely “democratic” artform, which seems to predispose it to the American sensibility, which she sums up as “the American partiality to myths of redemption and damnation, [which] remains one of the most energizing, most seductive aspects of our national culture.” (“On Photography” pg.48)

Arbus as Photographer Americana presents the idea that America is a sort of orgy of freaks, and the photographer is a new anthropologist. If you bring that concept of America into play with certain inherited national values, such as Puritanical ideals and the mythology of The Self-made Man, America does seem obsessed with oddities, with “redemption” and “damnation.” What to make of all of this, is beyond me. What I enjoy about the exercise, is the chance to read a analysis of some piece of my own artistic inheritance. I feel unable to do what Sontag is doing, that is to shed my cultural identity and step outside of it, in order to have a better look.

In Arbus’ own words, she admitted to having a fascination with “freaks”:
“Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

I had an interesting conversation with one of my professors a couple of weeks ago, a piece of which is also called to mind here. He and I were discussing my semester in London, and began to compare experiences as Americans in England. Both of us came up with the impression of being the “Restless Yank” according to our British counterparts. There is something in the American culture that must constantly stir the pot, push the envelope, question…

Secondly, Sontag mentions about Arbus one fact which makes her, in our collective consciousness, a tortured Romantic of sorts: she killed herself. Sontag writes, “…as with Sylvia Plath, the attention her work has attracted since her death is of another order–a kind of apotheosis. The fact of her suicide seems to guarantee that her work is sincere, not voyeuristic, that it is compassionate, not cold. Her suicide also seems to make the photographs more devastating, as if it proved that the photographs to have been dangerous to her.”(39). Following this “lead” I found mention of a work called “The Journalist and The Murderer” by Janet Malcom:

which I will have to track down and peruse. What creates this “destructive” relationship between artist and subject/art? I know that it is mimetic, in my own experience, of a certain kind of obsessive love, which is the unique product of certain persons entering into a relationship with each other. I am just fascinated by the process, and by our imaginings about it…

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