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Diane Arbus’s 1960s

Auguries of Experience

Frederick Gross

Publication Year: 2012

In any decade the work of only a very few artists offers a template for understanding the culture and ideas of their time. Photographer Diane Arbus is one of these rare artists, and in this book Frederick Gross returns Arbus’s work to the moment in which it was produced and first viewed to reveal its broader significance for analyzing and mapping the culture of the 1960s. While providing a unique view of the social, literary, and artistic context within which Arbus worked, he also, perhaps for the first time anywhere, measures the true breadth and complexity of her achievement.

Gross considers Arbus less in terms of her often mythologized biography—a “Sylvia Plath with a camera”—but rather looks at how her work resonates with significant photographic portraiture, art, social currents, theoretical positions, and literature of her times, from Robert Frank and Richard Avedon to Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. He shows how her incandescent photographs seem to literalize old notions of photography as trapping a layer of the subject’s soul within the frame of a picture. For Arbus, “auguries”—as in “Auguries of Innocence,” her 1963 photographic spread in Harper’s Bazaar—conveyed the idea that whoever was present in her photograph could attain legendary status.

By shifting critical attention from the myths of Arbus’s biography to the mythmaking of her art, this book gives us a new, informed appreciation of one of the twentieth century’s most important photographers and a better understanding of the world in which she worked.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. 1-7


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p. vii-vii

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Preface: “Sylvia Plath with a Camera”

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pp. ix-xiv

Born in 1968, I am a child of the sixties, and the sixties’ visual culture—particularly photographs—shaped who I have become. As an adolescent in the late 1970s, I was fascinated by a coffee-table book at my grandparents’ home in Buffalo, New York: The Best of “Life,” a compendium of photographs that shocked and amazed ...

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Introduction: Between Intention and Effect

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pp. 1-29

The late 1950s witnessed a fundamental rupture in the photographic representation of Americans. Disenchanted with the universalist vision of humanity proposed by Edward Steichen’s widely popular The Family of Man exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, photographers such as Diane Arbus and Robert Frank ...

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1. Documentary Photography and the Positivist Social Gallery

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pp. 31-62

From its inception, photographic social-panorama portraiture was invested with positivist content that, despite aesthetic shifts, remained intact until the 1960s. Engaging in an extended flashback, this chapter traces the threads of positivist, typological discourse from the sixties back to the early twentieth century to see how deeply ingrained ...

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2. Portraits, Pastiche, and Magazine Work

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pp. 63-96

This chapter situates three interrelated aspects of Diane Arbus’s work within a broader cultural and critical condition, prevalent in the 1960s, in which some of the underlying sociological assumptions inherent in historically significant photographic portrait galleries (covered in chapter 1) were thrown into question. This critical ...

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3. The Body in the 1960s

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pp. 97-131

A photograph of Arbus by one of her pupils, Eva Rubenstein, taken in 1971, strongly suggests Arbus’s interest in the human body as a kind of metaphoric assemblage (Revelations, 220). The photograph, taken in her Westbeth apartment (at the intersection of West and Bethune Streets in Greenwich Village), reveals a portion of Arbus’s “collage ...

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4. Madness, Disability, and the “Untitled” Series

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pp. 133-156

Agood bit of Arbus’s last work, now known as her “Untitled” series, dealt with images of the mentally “retarded.” In a letter to Allan Arbus on November 28, 1969, she indicated the significance of these works, writing, “FINALLY what I have been searching for” (Revelations, 203). But what was she searching for? Why was Arbus ...

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5. The Social Panorama in Context

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pp. 157-204

From the time of Balzac’s Comédie humaine through Alfred Döblin’s Berlin, Alexanderplatz to James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the literary social panorama and photography have been thematically intertwined. Both areas have attempted to produce a cross-section of individual types representative of a particular social moment. Arbus’s ...

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Revelations Darkness and Illumination

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pp. 205-211

As I looked at the never-before-seen photographs, objects, books, cameras, and ephemera included in the Revelations exhibition, which I visited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2004–5, I was struck by a sense of recognition, perhaps somewhat related to the feeling an ...

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pp. 213-214

My Arbus project began as a doctoral dissertation at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York titled “Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups: Diane Arbus’s Social Panorama.” I recognize the help and scholarly insight of Geoffrey Batchen, Romy Golan, Carol Armstrong, Anna Chave, Stanley Aronowitz, and Alan Trachtenberg. Alexander ...


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pp. 215-235


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pp. 237-264

E-ISBN-13: 9780816680078
E-ISBN-10: 0816680078
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816670123

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2012