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The Sibling Rivalry that Shaped Diane Arbus’s Vision

Arbus_Untitled (7) 1970-71
Diane Arbus, “Untitled (7) 1970–71” (1970–71) © The Estate of Diane Arbus LLC

The camera … may want to know, to develop, to expose, but what it can also do, if pressed, is reveal the flowered vacancy of the invisibilities, the mixed-up motivations, that only a wise author could portray.” — Alexander Nemerov, Silent Dialogues

In Silent Dialogues, art historian Alexander Nemerov, son of former US Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov and nephew of Diane Arbus, traces his father’s evolving attitudes toward photography and his sister’s work in particular. Identifying parallels between the two, Nemerov concludes that Arbus’s art ultimately surpassed that of her poet brother, and justifies the comparison by pointing out that each sought a kind of mystical revelation through their practice. Both, he writes, wanted to discover and reveal the people who “know the utmost we can know,” something beyond the explicitly documentable, close to a spiritual revelation. While this might be the natural pursuit of a certain kind of poet, it was an unprecedented quest for a photographer, for at the time, most of the art world embraced Nemerov’s limited view of the medium.

Prejudiced against photography as “part of a journalistic disenchantment with the world,” bearing “the creepiest relation to past-ness … the freezing of life,” Howard Nemerov found his sister’s images particularly ghastly, alienated as they were from his poetry of “flitting things, of dragonflies and cinnamon moths, of falling leaves and swimming koi.” Revealingly, when Nemerov was asked to show a visitor what became one of his sister’s most iconic works, “Identical Twins, Roselle, N.J. 1966,” he took the print from where it was kept loose in a drawer and held it by one corner “as if it were … a wet rag fished out of the trash.” Alexander Nemerov insinuates that it was ultimately professional rivalry that caused Howard to reevaluate his response to his sister’s work and field.

If H. Nemerov came around to Arbus’s work reluctantly, it was his initial dismissiveness that had informed her work, if only to show her the kind of photographs she did not want to take, and propelled her to “push down on this (medium’s) extraordinary literalness, until it yields something like …. ‘a hallucination that was really there.’” As Arbus sought out the mystics and prophets directly, those who “believe in the imminent end of the world” or can see when “the Messiah comes wandering out of the woods,” H. Nemerov was arriving at the realization that his own oeuvre was closer kin to that of nature poet William Wordsworth than that of the poet of mystics and prophets, William Blake — a disappointing realization, no doubt, for someone of his esoteric ambitions. He began to see that Arbus’s photographs were not “grotesque oddities but, rather … visions of the way we are,” and this revelation jettisoned his own practice into a two-year long writer’s block, while his sister’s reputation grew and photography itself enjoyed burgeoning respect as an art.

While the connections Alexander Nemerov draws between his father’s and sister’s canons are fascinating, it is his tour de force interpretation of Arbus’s School series, and his explication of its significance in demonstrating photography’s potential, that is Silent Dialogues’ revelation. It’s not necessarily an easy read, and his interpretations sometimes seem to stretch into Hineininterpretierung. For instance, in his discussion of “Untitled (62) 1970-71,” he describes the girl pictured, “Hand to head, absorbed in her own world, the girl seems to have forgotten something, or to be holding a thought inside her head before it should escape …” but then somehow lands on: “Hers is not a reverie but a dullness and a blankness. But in that vacancy the world discloses itself.” Ascribing dullness, blankness, and vacancy to the expression on the face of a mentally handicapped child reflects an attitude rather than an insight, and the same sort of attitude as those of previous eras that accepted the colloquial use of the word “retarded,” a word Arbus used in her own writings (see Chronologies, Aperture) and which he still uses in this book. But beyond that, how he finds that “the world discloses itself” in that vacancy is unclear, or at least not a persuasively objective, and therefore communicable, reading. Of “Masked woman in a wheelchair, Pa. 1970,” he says, “Although we know that the old woman is just pretending to be a witch, there is a strange sense that she is a witch.” Nemerov’s ensuing discussion of the image, incorporating Don Quixote as an example of one who (like a photographer) can “will” a fantasy (such as a witch) out of the banal, and likening the photographer’s practice to a kind of necromancy, is elegant, probing, formidably erudite. But his claim nevertheless hinges upon the conviction he starts the discussion with — that the image conveys the “sense” that the woman pictured is a witch. If one does not get that sense from the photograph, then the explication might leave one feeling cowed rather than guided, overpowered into a sort of mental submission to Nemerov’s reading not only of the photograph itself but of what it says about the photographer’s art.

Silent Dialogues_FG_cover 1 (click to enlarge)
Cover of ‘Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov’ by Alexander Nemerov (click to enlarge)

More convincing, or at least more grounded in the images themselves and their elements (and therefore easier to trust) are Nemerov’s discussions of other photographs within the School series. Of the four women in masks holding fairy wands in “Untitled (49) 1970-71,” he says that they “raise those wands, like the witch does her mask, as if in sympathetic mimicry of the photographer’s stare into her camera …. Photography is a beguilement rather than a record, or only a record.” Without the photographer, they were four residents of a home for the mentally handicapped, wandering the grounds of their school in construction paper and glitter glue costumes. As the photographer raises her camera, they ready themselves to “become” what the release of the shutter will fix them as: fairies in a “weirdly light-struck world,” with fallen stars on their fairy slippers. The intimation that the act of photographing can make something come into being, rather than merely record what’s there (which was Howard Nemerov’s narrow view), points to Nemerov’s ultimate assessment of his aunt’s photography, that it was a kind of visual fiction-writing.

Nemerov expands on his idea of Arbus as an author in his discussion of her photograph “Untitled (51) 1970–71” of a group of schoolgirls and women dressed, it seems, for a walk outside, crowded together and stalled for an unknown reason. Nearly every visible face is distinct, and Nemerov remarks,

“The many different expressions … are a tour de force of what the medium can portray … What cannot be portrayed — and yet what the photograph somehow shows — is the space behind the ladies’ eyes, a portrayal that goes beyond the gifts of a ‘psychological’ portraitist and instead depicts a catalogue — or is it encyclopedia? — of written stares: the kind it would take words to portray … no paraphrase, no summary, no description, being necessary because the photograph has already taken on the task of writing itself, that is, of turning the properties of photography to a description so fine that it becomes a kind of writing ….”

Nemerov calls these moments in photography, particularly Arbus’s photography, that articulate the unsaid, the “flowered vacancy of the invisibilities,” and they are his greatest challenge to, or his case for his aunt’s photography challenging, the notion of photography as a literal, mechanical medium. A “wise author” does not merely record what she sees, but illuminates the relations between things and offers not only specificities but ambiguities as well. And Arbus as photographer/author capitalizes on that ambiguity. Perhaps, as uncomfortable as it is to think this way, photographing the mentally handicapped facilitated this, not specifically because of the “out-to-lunchness” or “vacancy” of their stares (in Alexander Nemmerov’s somewhat unkind descriptions) but simply because they operated and expressed themselves on a different plain from hers; they lived as in a world “relieved of the burden … of having to be intelligent for her, of having thereby to mirror her own intelligence.” Alexander Nemerov pits the aggressive creativity of the poet, which constructs a world that does indeed mirror his own intelligence, and is a reflection of his own mind, against Arbus’s willingness to let her subjects “speak” for themselves, as she trusted that “the dumbing down of one’s own eloquence will yield a world away from oneself, not oneself.” If I am correct in my understanding of Silent Dialogues, the author ultimately rates Arbus’s artistic achievement as higher than his father’s because unlike the poet, she was able to reveal a world more distanced from, and therefore less marked by, her own presence and will. While Nemerov labored as an artist, Arbus emerged as something more like a prophet.

The received wisdom on Arbus is that her subjects — the “freaks,” the ugly, the marginalized — were, in her frank, unprettified, and deceptively unmerciful portrayals, the simple “point” of her photographs; indeed, their mere unsentimentalized presence within the frame was remarkable within a historical context that normally hid them from view. Alexander Nemerov, on the other hand, asserts that the treasure of Arbus’s photographs resides rather in their ambiguities, that each image proclaims a reality that is “a product of relations rather than things”: something bigger and richer than a literal portrait forms when one examines the placement of the elements within the photographs in relation to each other. His astute analyses of those relations turns the second half of Silent Dialogues into a lesson in looking. For example, one of the girls in “Untitled (24)” is sitting in the grass with her feet stretched out in front of her, her large shoes forming a set of parentheses, a visual frame for her inner thighs visible under the taut hem of her dress. Nemerov calls it “some ‘phrasing’ of her vagina” — and suddenly it’s hard to see it as anything but. In “Untitled (3),” he says that the angle of the death mask the woman is wearing gives her a “more insinuating, … less searching” look. Reading the author’s description of this person in a sheet and dime store mask, it is easy to imagine that the angle of that mask could indeed make all the difference between the ordinary subject appearing as an expressionless totem, and an animated, “insinuating” effigy.

Even if one does not accept the sometimes metaphysical import Nemerov ascribes to the images, the intensity of his examination of them may well guide one not only to look harder at Arbus’s already widely and profoundly scrutinized canon, but at all images. What Nemerov calls “the fanatical quality of attention in poet and photographer,” he himself has in spades, as well as a rich mystical imagination. It’s unlikely that anyone who reads this book will put it down less critical, less observant, or less attentive to the possible, at turns fanciful and profound, relations between things.

Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus & Howard Nemerov by Alexander Nemerov is available from Fraenkel Gallery Publications

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