Undressing for the first time before a stranger—or lover—is for many people a moment of exquisite anxiety. Each flaw is revealed, subject to another’s judgment. But the acceptance of warts and all can also create, in turn, a form of existential joy. The photographer Diane Arbus (1923–1971) is the master of such complex, revelatory moments: She strips her subjects emotionally, exposing raw and often freakish interiors. Unlike many photographers of the lay-bare school, however, she doesn’t gloat over what she finds. She’s not like Weegee, another American master of the freakish. Weegee’s gotcha! flash is merciless. But Arbus coaxes the animal into the light, murmuring, Oh yes! . . . It’s okay . . . She’s the most tender of artists.
“Diane Arbus Revelations,” which was organized by Sandra S. Phillips and Elizabeth Sussman for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a survey that also contains extensive biographical material. Cameras, books, and notations from her diaries are arranged into three “libraries” that have an almost churchlike air, like a chamber full of relics. This highlights the quasi-religious, sacramental quality of Arbus’s sensibility—as does the informative catalogue. Arbus was a tireless seeker after the mysteries, obsessively writing down passing thoughts in a childlike, spidery hand. In her photography, she hoped that “what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.”
Because Arbus was so seductive a photographer, most of her subjects stare back willingly, no doubt sensing a soul mate. They never appear more naked than when clothed. An elderly woman encrusted in a dress, frosted hair, and glittering jewels appears about to crack. A teenage couple cannot yet fill the uniform—or assume the aspect—of adulthood. Children smuggle secrets to Arbus their own parents don’t know. Even Norman Mailer gives himself up: He’s a cocky bantam rooster sprawled across a chair, hoping to make an impression. Despite her air of outsider eccentricity, Arbus has become a central figure in the modern tradition; she plays a critical part in our culture’s obsession with the marginal and in the ongoing formation of the American dream. Her carnival tent is not raised on the edge of town. Those moody families, staring transvestites, and suburban nudists are also your neighbors. Arbus parted the American curtain. It has yet to close.