Diane Arbus, acknowledged as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, thought photographs were the ultimate enigma.
"A photograph is a secret about a secret," she said. "The more it tells you, the less you know."
Arbus was a pampered Jewish princess turned chronicler of the weird. That she, of all photographers, would characterize photographs as secretive is somewhat paradoxical. Her most famous images have a startling directness about them. The photographs pull back the curtain on a surreptitious underbelly of people that are not "like us." They expose the sideshow of society, compelling the viewer to confront things that he or she might be embarrassed of and would prefer to not see.
But the directness is deceptive. The images force us to look, but reveal nothing of what we are looking at. Why does the wife in "A young Brooklyn family going for a Sunday outing, New York City" (1966) look like a drag queen impersonating Elizabeth Taylor? Why does the son in that same image look cross-eyed and deranged -- is he mugging for the camera, or is his face always like that? And why does the father's lack of pizzazz seem so horrifying in that context? An Arbus photograph might show, but it never tells.
On Feb. 29, the first major Arbus retrospective since 1972 will open at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Diane Arbus, Revelations" consists of nearly 200 of the artist's most significant photographs. The exhibition will also display her contact sheets, cameras, letters and notebooks, to give some indication of Arbus' working methods and intellectual influences. The exhibition -- and the accompanying book of the same name that her daughter, Doon, put together -- are the most complete presentation of Arbus' work and life ever assembled.
"She was really an extraordinary photographer," said Robert Flick, a photographer who also teaches photography at USC. "What is extraordinary about her is that she seems to know where she can place herself to be at just the right distance from her subjects. [The distance and framing] is always one of intimacy, even when she is looking hard at something."
Arbus was born Diane Nemerov in 1923 in Manhattan to wealthy Jewish parents who owned upscale clothing stores. Judaism was not the most central aspect of the Nemerovs life, but it was an important identifying feature for them. Part of the "gilded ghetto" -- a clique of wealthy Jews who lived uptown, the Nemerovs sent their children to Sunday school, and they celebrated the holidays. When Diane's sister, Renee, announced that she wanted to marry a non-Jew, her parents tried to buy him off.
Arbus called her JAPy upbringing "irrational" and "unreal," and later, through her work, she tried to distance herself from it -- to find the world that was the antithesis of the one she came from.
Arbus started out as a fashion photographer, working with her husband, Allan Arbus, shooting department store newspaper ads and fashion features for glossy magazines. Later in 1956, when her marriage broke up, Arbus started taking photographs on her own. She became a portrait photographer, and prowled the streets of New York and New Jersey hunting for the subjects that could evince the startling quality that typified so much of her work.
Jewishness was not endemic to Arbus' work, but nor was it unfamiliar to it. Arbus photographed Jewish matrons in an attempt to study, as Patricia Bosworth puts it in "Diane Arbus, a Biography" (Norton, 1995), "The relationship between role-playing and cultural identity."
In 1963, Arbus shot "A Jewish couple dancing, N.Y.C" -- the middle-aged duo garishly beaming for the camera, insulated from the world in their bourgeois happiness. One of Arbus' canonical images is of a Jew. "A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y" is the photograph of Eddie Carmel, who was 8 feet tall and weighed 495 pounds. Carmel was Arbus' photographic subject for 10 years, but this photograph alone manages to encapsulate the horror of Carmel's difference. In it, Carmel's parents look up at him as if they are distant from their progeny and afraid and bewildered of his size. With his cane, his hunch, the sheepish hand in the pocket, Carmel, too, seems unsure of how he got that way and what the purpose of his size really is.
Arbus' fascination with the oddities of society fulfilled her artistic drive, but it did little to quell her inner emotional turmoil. Toward the end of her life, Arbus became very depressed. In 1971, at the age of 48, she slit her wrists. She left behind a plethora of images that, even 30 years after her death, still maintain that elusive quality that she infused them with.
"Diane Arbus, Revelations" opens on Feb. 29 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To purchase tickets, call (877) 522-6255 or visit www.lacma.org .