Reviews

Listening to the Voice of Diane Arbus

by Alissa Guzman on November 4, 2011

A photograph of Diane Arbus taken by Steven Frank at one of her lectures at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970 (all photos from "Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph," courtesy of Aperture Foundation)

It’s not often that we get to be present for a posthumous lecture given by the deceased being honored. An Evening with Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel, presented at the School of Visual Arts in collaboration with the Aperture Foundation, was just that. Out of the pure darkness of a hushed theater came the crackling sound of Diane Arbus’ voice, saying cheerfully as a slide machine started to whirr, “Let me show you some pictures.” What proceeded was a shy, stumbling, incredibly humorous and deeply meaningful lecture by the infamous and famous artist herself. On the 40 anniversary of the artist’s suicide in the summer of 1971, this presentation is a recording of a lecture Arbus gave about her artwork, interests and motivations as she saw them in 1970.

It was a night of fascinating collisions between old and new technologies, as fuzzy and fading audio was turned into a smart and clever visual presentation. Along with the eerie recording of Arbus’ voice, which vacillates in quality like an old, much used record throughout the presentation, the exact slides she showed in 1970, down to the minutest detail, are displayed. When she stops, frustrated, to point out that “the slide is backwards and out of focus,” we wait, like her audience did then, for the image to be flipped around and focused. The photographs Arbus shows in this lecture are so reproduced today that they have come to define an era’s photographic aesthetic. Seen in the context of this lecture, however, we are taken back to a time when her images were as fresh and playful as her tone of voice. Like a dedicated student rather than the professor that she was, Diane shows us newspaper stories that caught her attention, images of the people she found interesting and personal narratives in print that captured her imagination. These little snippets of everyday life that inspired her photographs now seem monumental, and yet then were casual and coincidental.

Diane Arbus, "Boy with a straw hat waiting to march in a pro-war parade," (1967)

Arbus gave a lecture that shows how little the impetus for a certain kind of art-making has changed over the decades. The way in which she describes her relationship to the camera and the photograph feels so relevant now that her words could have been expressed by a thirty-something artist lecturing today. Taking pictures, she tells us, began as an exercise in doing something “naughty,” forbidden and almost distasteful. Being a photographer might have been her excuse for exploring the taboo fringes of society. Photographing drag queens, midgets, unusual children, twins, odd families, nudists and others, Arbus frankly tells us that her photographs don’t capture, or maybe can’t capture, the full extent of the experience she had with these individuals, couples and families. There is nothing clinical or exploitative about her motivations, and she talks about being more interested in her “interactions” than in the final photographs that resulted from them. In a wistful tone, she briefly tries to describe for us the bizarre encounters that occurred before or after her photographs, disappointed that her images seem to say too little. Photographs are souvenirs, a stand-in for what we experienced and wish to remember, and Arbus’ images are amazing relics. As she described the objects and people that had fallen outside the frame of her camera, I found myself wondering if all photographers find the photograph to be an inadequate representation of their subject. Her words seemed to describe for us the quintessential artistic problem of finding a medium, a material, to properly capture human experience.

Diane Arbus, "Woman with a veil on Fifth Avenue," (1968)

Diane Arbus sounds shy and unsure while speaking, and though her artwork feels anything but hesitant, her audience laughed heartily at her indecision and difficulty with words. She talked a great deal about how hard it can be to follow through with her own projects. She’d make an appointment with someone she met on the street, a scheduled sitting with her newest subject, but found that keeping the appointment could be a great challenge. In reference to her own personal fears, as well as what could be called the timeless ‘artistic struggle’, she states with a touch of signature humor, “sometimes you go to work, and sometimes you go to the movies.” We often have to force ourselves to do a thing we actually want to do, an odd quirk of human nature, and artists know this perhaps better than anyone. Instead of forcing herself to spend time in the studio, or to make a few daily drawings, Arbus found herself forcing interactions, and her work began only after a conversation, friendship, or engagement had been struck.

An Evening with Diane Arbus, is the kind of lecture that has the ability to change someone’s outlook and perspective. Sitting in the dark SVA theater, listening to a crowd laughing and chiding decades ago, as many of the students around me were now doing in secretive whispers, I imagined a young student, full of ideas and naivete hearing the same lecture. A student who doesn’t know yet how to describe what art means or why it’s so moving, but who knows it means something important. I imagined myself as a teenager, sitting in this theater at that age, and I could idealistically picture, with perfect clarity, that moment when the humble words of a woman who died before I was born changed the way I saw life, art, photography and myself. I might be too old for this kind of revelatory experience now, and yet Arbus, speaking to us from a distorted recording 40 years old, really did say some brilliant, if unintentional, things about being herself, an artist and a photographer.

An Evening with Diane Arbus and Marvin Israel took place at the School of Visual Arts Theater (333 23rd street between 8 and 9 Avenues, Chelsea, Manhattan) on October 6. If you missed this event, Aperture Foundation will be doing another presentation sometime in December. Check the events section of their website for the latest updates.

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