I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

A Face in the Crowd: A Review of “Masters of Photography – Diane Arbus"


by Ryk McIntyre
Dec. 12, 2015

The documentary “Going Where I’ve Never Been” is the story of Diane Arbus, the photographer known for her stark portraits of the exterior, and interior, Freak in America. Self-described as “a collector of the deviant and marginal people,” her pictures are, by turns, disturbing and revelatory. And, from the very beginning of the documentary, where her daughter Doon introduces us to the mother she knew and grew up with, and eventually lost to suicide, you can tell this will be a hard ride. This is also, to some extent, Doon’s story as she gazes into an abyss that gazed back with a thousand faces - the same abyss she lost her mother to, day by day and, finally, forever.

Born Diane Nemerov in 1923 to a family that owned Russek’s Department Store, located on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Diane Arbus was raised in wealth and comfort. Sent to the best schools, insulated against the realities of Great Depression-era America, Diane describes her childhood always having an air of unreality. Marrying her childhood sweetheart, Don Arbus, the two studied photography and eventually went into business together doing shoots for advertisements, magazines, etc.

Around the time of her divorce from her husband in 1963, Diane started to do her own photography projects that would eventually lead to the work she is most famous for. Perhaps because of her entitled and protected youth, she seemed to seek out, as subjects, the poor, the deformed, the socially marginalized. And though her photos can be shocking and brutal, there is always the human heart that comes through, in all its endless permutations and mutations.

Photographer Lisette Model, whom Arbus studied with, describes her work as being so new, so revolutionary at the time, that people were not ready for it. The normal world’s eyes had not been trained enough to see how new, how awesome, Arbus’ vision, and ability to capture it, really was. Much like how the ears of the very first audience for Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" could not understand, could not comprehend, what they were experiencing, because it was so different from their normal frame of reference.

Diane also taught over the years at a number of  prestigious schools, like Parsons School of Design, Cooper Union and RISD. as well as being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her work, twice.

Diane Arbus seemed to struggle throughout her life with the alienation she felt from the world. And yet, as she stared directly, through her camera, at what most of the world would look away from, she gave a sense of normalcy, of dignity, and functioning-in-their-world-ness to her subjects, which was as brave as it was human. Whether it is a photograph of transvestites, strippers, gays and lesbians, the physically disabled, or mentally retarded – even some terrifyingly “normal” people – there is an “us” in everyone of them. This is what Diane’s camera picked up.

Much of the narrative voice-over, in Diane’s own words, describes her struggle with the camera, photography, and life itself. The movie starts off with her daughter Doon, describing a mother who was often far-away in the same room, a mother lost, first, to photography, and later, to suicide. 

Long plagued with depressive episodes, made worse by hepatitis, Dian Arbus took her own life in 1971. Her eyes had seen through the camera lens, through the representational print of the photograph, clear  to the humanity of her subjects, whomever they happened to be. The high, the lowly, the regulars and the undesirables; they were all recorded, without comment or judgement, and with grace and respect. But unable to endure what she saw in her own life, Diane finally put down her camera and closed her eyes.

 

Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals.  He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.